February 1, 2012

Kevin White and the Boston He Imagined

Kevin White and the Boston He Imagined

KHW-11Kevin White and Tom Winship were the odd couple that taught my generation ground-up politics and what passed for journalism in 1960s Boston. Kevin, in a backroom of his Secretary of State’s office, was both school-master and high gossip monger for young State House reporters like Bryant Rollins, Tim Leland and me from the Globe, Frank Tivnan of the Herald and out-of-towners like Al Hunt of the Wall Street Journal. Tom was the quirky, hard-driving “reform” editor of the Globe who directed our fire at his targets.

Even then we knew that this dear, dizzy pair were curiously linked — rivals more than pals, co-dependents now inseparable in memory who together defined the times. Both owed everything to a mix (puzzling especially to themselves, I think) of rank nepotism and huge talent. Tom’s father, Laurence Winship, had been the Globe editor before him. Old Joe White of the Boston City Council had conspired with Johnny Powers, the state senate president, to put his untested son Kevin on the all-green (meaning, in those days, all-Irish) Democratic state ticket in 1960, the Kennedy year. We could imagine Kevin and Tom both muttering dismissively that the other was just “his father’s son.” But they both turned out to be energetic originals, bold and brilliant talent-pickers, far the most creative forces the town had seen in either of their jobs. Winship got the truss adds off the Globe’s page one, put heart and sizzle in political endorsements, oppposed the war in Vietnam, hired the young Daumier of editorial cartoonists, Paul Szep, and the nonpareil local, daily columnist George Frazier. White brought drama and flair to City Hall even as he decentralized city government. Through the busing turmoil of the 1970s, White never let the exaggerated racial divide define what the city was about.

With Councillor Tom Atkins and the legend James Brown, negotiating the concert that calmed Boston after the M. L. King Jr. assassination, 1968

With Councillor Tom Atkins and the legend James Brown, negotiating the concert that calmed Boston after the M. L. King Jr. assassination, 1968

Not the least of what White and Winship shared, I came to think, was a secret hang-up that afflicted me too, growing up. It was the puzzle of Boston’s provincial scale. Was it really a smaller version of New York? Or a bigger version of Quincy, or maybe Worcester? Could Tom Winship pretend see himself in the same league as Abe Rosenthal at the Times, or his friend Ben Bradlee at the Post? Was Kevin White, for all his gifts, in the same game as John Lindsay, Ed Koch, Dick Daley? I made a cheeky remark to Bradlee on the radio once that the problem with his paper, in the halcyon days of the Style section, was that it made Washington seem more fun, more human than it really was; and that the Globe’s problem was that it made Boston less interesting than it’s always been. But it seems to me now that Kevin White’s vision of the “world-class city” was a wistful evocation of what this Boston-Cambridge core of New England has in fact become: the best big college town in the country, arguably the intellectual capital of the world — a tolerant and cosmopolitan old address with durable Brahmin and Irish inlaid veneers, an endlessly charged, stimulating place to live. Kevin White’s sort of city, in short, and still today a work of his fervid imagination.

He had glimpses of bigger domains — the governor’s office in 1970, a vice-presidential run with George McGovern in 1972. But in truth he’d grown up in the view — from James Michael Curley, and then from John Collins in the early 60s and his redevelopment chief Ed Logue — that the Mayor’s office in Boston was the perfect stage for an imaginative and halfway imperial politician. (Why did you suppose I ran for the job in 1993?) Overnight and without consulting anyone Mayor White could turn the main drag of his Beacon Hill neighborhood, Charles Street, one-way the other way, to keep truck traffic out. Presidents can’t do that. In his Frank Lloyd White persona, he could second-guess the designs of developers like Mort Zuckerman and architects as eminent as Moshe Safdie and I. M. Pei. He had no legislature to contend with, and no restraint on his own famously idiosyncratic eye for personnel — for ingenues like Barney Frank, Micho Spring and Fred Salvucci, but also for professionals older than he, like Hale Champion, who’d been finance director of California, and Jeep Jones, a street worker in Roxbury who became a deputy mayor. The mayor freed himself to run an improvisational lab school of city politics, a version of jazz world’s University of Art Blakey.

With the same gambler’s panache he had picked a wife for me and ordered me to marry a girl I’d never met, never heard of. “Well maybe you’ll introduce me,” I said. He did, and with Cindy Arkelyan it was love at first sight and for 42 years afterwards. I returned the favor by introducing him to Barney Frank, then a law student, at a moment when Kevin White had just won a runoff slot in the 1967 mayor’s race with only precinct pols in his retinue. Barney showed up for his interview at Kevin’s house, took Joseph Dinneen’s Boston novel Ward Eight off the shelf, then read for three hours waiting for the would-be mayor. Finally Barney left the empty house, with the book. Two days later he returned Ward Eight, met the candidate, took over Kevin White’s public life and founded a big biography of his own.

There are buildings, schools, parks and careers to point to as Kevin White’s monument but I think it was the charm and spectacle, sometimes the effrontery of his performance that he expected us to remember. Himself on stage with James Brown, if you can believe it, looking good, and comfortable in his own pale skin! At the end of one of the long free-range gabs we recorded every year for the Ten O’Clock News on WGBH-TV, he congratulated himself on a heroic talking jag. “Christ-ah-pha,” he said, “that was a helluvan interview!” His press agent George Regan piled on: “A great interview, boss.” Breaking a stunned silence, I said: “But Kevin, it was ragtime!” He paused half a second. “But Christ-ah-pha, it was quality ragtime!”

“Quality ragtime” has stuck in our family phrase book, whenever people run on. So have a lot of other Kevin coinages. “Hey, I’ll talk to ya,” meant that the conversation was flagging, that you (or Kevin, in the old days) were ready to hang up the phone or leave the room. “And I like Eddie McCormack…” was Kevinese that meant you were about to lower the boom on someone. “How aah ya, dahlin’?” we all began to greet men or women alike, “I’m the mayah.” “Mother ‘a gawd!” we’d say in outrage. Of rough diamonds, or characters considered dubious, like Kevin’s friend Bob Crane, the State Treasurer, he and we would say, “there’s quality thay-uh.” He was a commentator like none other on politics elsewhere. He called Jimmy Carter, who was my assignment at the Times in 1975-76, “a three-legged hoss.” I can hear it now. “Christapha! Politicians are like dogs. They smell each other! Jimmy Cahtah is the only politician I ever met who has no scent at all.” He had good general rules, too. “Christapha, politics is not about where you are; it’s about the direction you’re moving in!”

The best conversation we ever recorded was inadvertent — a strange coda to a TV interview in the mayor’s office in 1978. The formal Q and A was over. Bobby Wilson, the WGBH cameraman, was shooting wide-shots and cutaways, but our mikes were still on when I asked Kevin White about Bill Bulger‘s rise toward the presidency of the Massachusetts State Senate in 1978. “You’re the guys that have no guts,” he erupted at me, for the general news silence around Bulger’s gangster brother and FBI informer James, the infamous “Whitey.” “If my brother were a licensed killer, you’d be nothing but nice to me,” he shouted. And then the anecdote that for years I left off the record. “In the ’75 fight,” meaning his run for a third term, “everybody knew the mob was out to get me.” Kevin had come out of the South Boston Tennis Club on the Waterfront one night at 11 o’clock, he said, when he realized in a flash that Whitey Bulger was going to shoot him on the way to his car. He could see it clearly: “Whitey takes me out, and they win all the marbles.” Better, he decided, to stay in the tennis club overnight and drive home in daylight. Call it a fantasy, a waking nightmare, but Kevin White was articulating an unvoiceable dread of Bulgerism that preyed on a whole class of Boston and Massachusetts politicians for almost 30 years. And he was talking straight, even if the assumption was that his story would never be aired.

His fascination with power could sound Nixonian but it was never uninteresting. When I moved back from the New York Times Washington Bureau to lead the Ten O’Clock News on WGBH, he asked me one day: “Who do you think you’re working for over there?” I ran through the masthead of managers, from David O. Ives on down and the institutional trustees until he cut me off. “No, no, who has the power in that place?” I barely knew what he was driving at, but months later it was explained to me that the Lowell Institute (which holds the WGBH license) had been founded in 1836 by Judge John Lowell of the textile barons and the city of the same name, with the strict proviso that executive authority would rest forever with the line of his male heirs — down to the banker Ralph Lowell, at the moment of WGBH’s birth, and his son John. And then one day I got around to asking Kevin White: “Is that what you meant?” Yes, he said, I’d figured it out: that public broadcasting in Boston was a family heirloom. “Christapha,” he added impatiently, “it’s your job to know that kind of thing.”

It was distressing these last three years and more to see Kevin White wandering in the daze of dementia around the flat of Beacon Hill, always with one of his five stalwart kids, or his exquisite wife Kathryn, or a dedicated attendant. But it wasn’t so sad after all. I discovered that if I shouted “Mistah Mayah” as soon as I saw him, the years and the Alzheimers seemed to roll right off him. For a few moments at least he brightened and beamed. “How aah ya?” he’d begin, before drifting off into the wilderness. He didn’t know me, or maybe anyone, “from a cawd o’ wood,” as he would have said years ago. But the last several times I saw him, his last words came from the heart of the man: to me, to all of us, to the world. “I love you,” he said.

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