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Editorial | From the archives: July 14, 1982

The future of Kevin White

Editor’s note: This editorial first appeared in The Boston Globe on Wednesday, July 14, 1982.

Ten years ago this week, at the Democratic National Convention, he was the most important person in American politics - for about four hours. Kevin H. White, the mayor of Boston, was the first choice of Sen. George McGovern for the Democratic vice presidential nomination.

After weighing the pluses and minuses of other candidates, Gary Hart, the McGovern campaign manager, focused on White as the consensus choice. He was a young, articulate Catholic from the Northeast, a fervent opponent of the war in Vietnam, fresh and politically “clean,” free of any taint of corruption or scandal.

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The South Dakota senator called White at Cape Cod and offered him the nomination. McGovern retracted the offer a few hours later after consulting with John Kenneth Galbraith and others in the proudly “nonpolitical” Massachusetts delegation to Miami Beach. Their objection to White was that he was a politician. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy was also consulted; his mumbled objections probably focused on the fact that Kevin White was too good a politician.

White was briefly a darling of the gods, but his candidacy was torpedoed; McGovern chose Sen. Thomas Eagleton of Missouri and the rest is tragi-comic political history. In Boston, the reaction was at first incredulous, then more thoughtful, agreeing with White that McGovern’s active consideration was “a heck of a tribute to the city.”

In 1972, Kevin White was known for his innovation, his openness to new ideas, his presence in the neighborhoods, his insistence on choosing intelligent, dedicated and honest people.

In 1982, as he enters the third decade of his political career, Kevin White is no longer known for these traits. For this reason, The Boston Globe urges him not to run next year for a fifth term.

The mayor is an intelligent, often introspective, man with a sense of history. He can best spend the remainder of his term in office affirming his historic mark upon this city. He can spend the next 18 months trying to unite the city, leading it through fiscal, political and racial troubles ahead.

If White seeks to manipulate the city’s political processes to guarantee

himself a fifth term in City Hall, he will divide the city and will drain it of the hope, energy and imagination that Boston requires in the 1980s.

The Globe, which has endorsed White four times, believes that a city of great vitality is never completed. Boston’s growth is a healthy, ongoing process to which Kevin White has contributed greatly. Just as he was able to build upon the accomplishments of his predecessors, John Collins and John Hynes, so the next mayor will inherit a strong legacy.

Since 1967, when he was first elected mayor, an entire generation of political leadership has grown up in the city. Of the half-dozen candidates preparing to run next year, three received their start in politics working for Kevin White. That alone shows how strongly the mayor has influenced the city.

He has also provided an object lesson on the deterioration of political skills. The Kevin White of 1982, in contrast to the gleam in George McGovern’s eye in 1972, proves Lord Acton’s saying that “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely.” Of the half-dozen candidates now running, any of them would be preferable to Kevin White in 1983.

White has survived less because of political and more because of theatrical skills. He has become the Marlon Brando of politics. His brush with Potomac fever a decade ago was his “On the Waterfront.” The performance was as poignant as Brando telling Rod Steiger, “I coulda been a contendah. I coulda been somebody.”

As Brando gradually began to play himself in character roles, so did White - the aloof Godfather, the “loner in love with his city.” But the critics aren’t cheering and the audience is dwindling.

In 1972, some of Kevin White’s people worked for him diligently and left the city payroll for distinguished public careers. Now, a new set of Kevin White’s people include two who have left the city payroll to go to jail. One of them, a ward coordinator, had a criminal record when White hired him as an “administrative assistant” on the city payroll.”

In 1981, facing reduced revenues, White did not dismantle his political machine. He did not lay off his political ward coordinators and precinct captains, whose sole allegiance is to him and not to the city. Instead, he trifled with the security of the city, treating police officers and firefighters as yo-yos, laying them off and rehiring them as a political “symbol” of Boston’s fiscal distress. This was not a gesture of “love with his city.”

This “symbol” created anxiety for hundreds of thousands of Bostonians and reduced Kevin White’s own credibility to the vanishing point. A new mayor can restore the city’s credibility on Beacon Hill and in Washington merely by being inaugurated.

No political leader wants to become a lame duck sooner than necessary. Kevin White is a man of occasionally gifted vision and of singular political talent. He can still lead the city and will be treated more fondly by it if he realizes it’s time to leave gracefully.

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