Remembering Kevin White

‘A blunt, brash, loveable progressive rogue’

The death of former Boston Mayor Kevin White comes as no surprise to those who knew that he was in failing health for many years. Yet the news still comes as a shock, because Kevin White was a vibrant, vital presence in our lives for so many years. He was a complex public figure, mercurial, dynamic, candid in speech, visionary in thought, something of a rogue but a progressive reformer nonetheless. 

So many images come to mind. Who can forget the dashing figure of Mayor White, resplendent in dark suit, blue shirt, and yellow tie, escorting Queen Elizabeth around the city during the 1975 bicentennial warm-ups here in Boston? Who can forget his fight for the soul of the city against Louise Day Hicks, or his brutal, no-holds barred campaign for political survival against the young Joseph Timilty?

Boston has not seen election battles like that since, and likely won’t again.  The days of the hard fought campaign fought ward-by-ward, precinct-by-precinct, and nourished by a rich mix of patronage and personal grudges, may be a thing of the past as we move toward a more egalitarian form of multiracial, multiethnic politics – a politics that will increasingly be driven by the pervasive use and manipulation of intelligent communications technology.

I met Kevin White on numerous occasions, but I believe I met him first in 1971 at BC Law School, where he came to speak during his re-election campaign against Mrs. Hicks. White had just come off a failed bid for the governorship, losing to Frank Sargent by a significant margin. Now he was running for re-election against his old South Boston adversary, and he had the swagger of a man certain to win.  When a student asked White, with some scorn in his voice, why he refused to keep the same pledge in his campaign for mayor that he had made when running for governor – a pledge to refrain from using campaign billboards – White pointed to the student and quickly shot back:  “Because Sargent beat me!” The crowd applauded his bold display of candor.  That was the essence of Kevin White in those years – a blunt, brash, loveable progressive rogue.

Kevin White’s legacy will be multi-faceted.  His election as mayor, while not a departure from the then existing norms of Irish Catholic electoral dominance in Boston, marked a movement toward a more progressive politics in the city.  His inclusive brand of liberalism was a significant departure from the past.  Moreover, while John Hynes, John Collins and Ed Logue rightfully share responsibility for setting the stage for the resurgent “New Boston,” it was White who presided over the transformation of the downtown, and gave credence to the optimism that permeated the city in those days. He also had the unique ability to hold the fractured city together through the turbulent years of anti-war angst and cultural unrest, and the even more turbulent years of school busing.  No, things were not perfect during the busing crisis, but White did a remarkable job maintaining a sense of civic cohesion given the poor hand of cards he had been dealt.

Perhaps his greatest legacy is the roster of men and women who worked for him, the people who grew to become superstars of public service and civic engagement: Barney Frank, Fred Salvucci, Ira Jackson, Peter Meade, Herb Gleason, Micho Spring, so many others.  It is a long and distinguished list, and what it says about the man is that he had the strength, confidence and courage to know that an effective leader needs an equally effective staff, and that the key to success is to surround yourself with strong, talented people.

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This brief reminiscence, as well as others that are sure to come, can only scratch the surface of Kevin White’s public life and legacy.  It was too complex, in many ways too contradictory, and played on a grand scale. The man in rolled-up shirtsleeves, the loner in love with his city, the almost nominee for vice president. His larger-than-life bronze image strides hurriedly across the plaza in front of Faneuil Hall, his footprints are large and indelible, and we are left trying to capture the essence of the man and what he meant for our city, for our times. 

James Aloisi was secretary of transportation in 2009 and currently works at AECOM Corp.