Former Mayor Kevin Hagan White dies at 82
By Brian C. Mooney, Globe Staff
Kevin Hagan White, a political figure who helped transform Boston into a world-class city during 16 often turbulent years as mayor, died at 7 tonight in his Beacon Hill home, his family said in a statement. He was 82 and was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease about a decade ago.
Mr. White was surrounded by his family, including his wife of 55 years, Kathryn.
“Obviously, it’s a very, very sad day,” the statement said.
A larger-than-life presence of his era, Mr. White had deep roots in the parochial old political culture of the city, but lightning instincts and a roving intellect that propelled him to national stature. Amid society-altering upheavals of the era — the civil rights movement, Vietnam War, and Watergate — he adapted and survived, at times reinventing himself.
From 1968 to 1984, Mr. White was chief executive of a fast-changing metropolis, which had emerged from decades of economic stagnation and insularity with an explosion of growth and construction downtown. But social change tore at the city’s fabric. Racial tension and violence during court-ordered school desegregation in the mid-1970s stained Boston’s image, perhaps indelibly.
Mayor Thomas M. Menino lauded Mr. White.
“Kevin was mayor for 16 years. He helped make the city what it is today,” said Menino tonight.
Menino pointed to the “vitality, the enthusiasm” of the administration Mr. White built while he was mayor.
“He was a giant among mayors,” Menino said. “I lost a good friend. I offered my condolences to Kathryn and the entire family. It’s a sad day for the city. But Kevin left an indelible mark that will never, ever, be replaced.”
Former Mayor Raymond L. Flynn said, “It’s no secret that Kevin and I were rivals for many years. But underneath that sometimes heated rivalry, rooted in different priorities, was a mutual respect. Kevin and I shared a deep love for this complex, fascinating city of Boston.”
Accolades poured in from others around the city.
City Council President Stephen J. Murphy said it is a “tremendout loss.”
“He was a dear friend and he was a great leader for the city,” Murphy said.
Former City Councilor Lawrence S. DiCara, who worked with White at City Hall from 1972 to 1981, said, “It’s a sad day for Boston.”
Thinking of the 10-foot-tall bronze statue of White outside City Hall, DiCara added: “As far as I’m concerned, he deserves a statue that is bigger than life.”
A gifted, instinctual, and mercurial politician, Mr. White had national ambitions that were thwarted at each turn. Two years after losing an ill-advised campaign for governor in 1970, he was George S. McGovern’s vice presidential choice for about two hours before being passed over. The tumult of the school busing crisis snuffed out his plans for a presidential candidacy in 1976.
Under Mr. White, Boston was a laboratory for urban policy experiments early in his administration. Later years in office were more stagnant, however, the result of chronic fiscal problems, a preoccupation with machine politics, and, ultimately, a wide-ranging federal corruption investigation that ensnared several dozen city employees and businessmen. Although he was never charged, the probe was a factor in the decision by a weary Mr. White not to seek a record fifth term.
Perhaps his greatest legacy was the young, idealistic talent Mr. White attracted to City Hall, which became an incubator for dozens of successful careers in politics, government, and business.
After the mayoralty, Mr. White maintained a low public profile, teaching at Boston University until his retirement around the time of his Alzheimer’s diagnosis.
The son and grandson of Boston City Council presidents, Mr. White grew up in Jamaica Plain and West Roxbury, the oldest of four children of Joseph C. and Patricia (Hagan) White.
He received a bachelor’s degree from Williams College, and after graduating from Boston College Law School, split time between private law practice and a prosecutor’s job in the office of Suffolk County District Attorney Garrett H. Byrne.
In a 1954 marriage of political clans, he wed Kathryn Galvin, one of seven daughters of William J. “Mother” Galvin, a former Boston City Council president from Charlestown.
Mr. White’s interest in pursuing a political career had developed by the time he was in high school. “He was captivated by my father’s career,” recalled Terrence H. White, his younger brother, and manager of Kevin’s early campaigns. “My father was a very charismatic guy, gregarious to the nth degree. Politics permeated the household.”
Kevin White made his mark mastering politics in the modern era of television, but his start was the product of old-fashioned, backroom political horse-trading.
In 1960, Mr. White ran for the Democratic nomination for the open position of secretary of state. To win the party’s nomination at what was then a binding convention, Mr. White’s father and father-in-law called in old markers, including a big chit from then-state Senate president John E. Powers, whom the elder White had backed in Powers’s unsuccessful mayoral campaign the previous year.
After two ballots, Kevin White was surging toward victory shortly before midnight at the party’s marathon convention in the old Boston Arena. At that point, Powers, chairing the convention, refused to recognize one of Mr. White’s opponents who was seeking to adjourn the convention to the following day in an effort to forestall the White momentum and regroup delegates, many of whom had left the hall. Fights broke out on the convention floor and police restored order. Mr. White prevailed on the third ballot to become the party’s nominee in November.
During the campaign, Mr. White was such a little-known figure that John F. Kennedy, the favorite-son US senator who was running for president, once introduced him at a rally as “Calvin Witt,” author J. Anthony Lukas wrote in “Common Ground,” his account of school desegregation in Boston, which was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1986. Mr. White beat a rising Republican star, Edward W. Brooke, and went on to win re-election.
Restless to advance, Mr. White in 1967 joined nine others seeking to succeed John F. Collins, who was stepping down as mayor after eight years of stolid efficiency that launched urban renewal projects, providing the template for future growth. In the preliminary, Mr. White qualified for the two-candidate runoff by finishing second behind Louise Day Hicks, the school committeewoman who had emerged as leader of the resistance to integrating the city’s schools.
Breaking tradition, The Boston Globe issued its first candidate endorsement in 72 years by backing Mr. White, who defeated Hicks by 12,552 votes out of nearly 193,000 cast. That signalled the newspaper’s intense new interest in local politics under Thomas Winship, who had become editor two years earlier.
Mr. White drew bright young political talent, eager to use government as an instrument of social change. Then he delegated authority.
“He would give you discretion,” said US Representative Barney Frank, who took a three-year break from a doctoral program at Harvard to work for Mr. White’s first campaign and as a key aide in his early administration. “He was really a breakthrough guy, the city’s first modern mayor, with a foot in the old school, but also the first to have a significant number of blacks and women in positions of real authority.”
Mr. White also began a process of what Boston College historian Thomas O’Connor described as “selling the notion of ‘The New Boston,’ not just to the city and the neighborhoods, but he literally sold it to the world.”
Mr. White quickly began to draw national notice.
In April 1968, as cities were exploding in rage after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Mr. White persuaded WGBH-TV to broadcast a James Brown concert live from the Boston Garden as a way to keep people in their homes. He also secured $60,000 to pay Brown for the loss of ticket revenue. Onstage that night, the Godfather of Soul called the mayor “a swingin’ cat.’’ Unlike many other major cities, Boston remained relatively calm.
In 1970, Mr. White challenged acting Governor Francis W. Sargent, an affable liberal Republican. Mr. White beat three others to win the Democratic nomination, but in the final, Sargent thumped him by about a quarter of a million votes. During the campaign, Mr. White suffered such a serious ulcer that he required surgery to remove more than half his stomach.
Seeking re-election as mayor a year after the gubernatorial fiasco, Mr. White won with nearly 62 percent of the vote.
In 1972, Mr. White came tantalizingly close to the national breakthrough he craved. While the Democratic National Convention in Miami prepared to nominate McGovern for president, Mr. White remained at his retreat at Monument Beach in Bourne. For about two hours, he was Mr. McGovern’s running mate, until Senator Kennedy, who was protective of his primacy in Massachusetts, and others in the Bay State delegation raised objections. Mr. McGovern sheepishly withdrew the offer in a telephone conversation. By the time McGovern had suffered his crushing defeat at the hands of Richard M. Nixon in November, the mayor was moving to clean up corruption in the Boston Police Department, rocked that year when a raid on the home of a bookmaker turned up an alleged payoff list with the names of 58 police officers.
To modernize the force, Mr. White brought in a reformer, Robert J. diGrazia, police superintendent in St. Louis County, Mo.
As he geared up to run for a third term, however, Mr. White faced a much more serious problem, a crisis that consumed him and marked the beginning of the end of political ambition beyond City Hall. On June 21, 1974, US District Court Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr. issued his order to desegrate the city’s schools, starting that fall.
For the rest of his life, Mr. White cast himself a victim of the order. The school department technically fell under the purview of an independent, popularly elected school committee which, for years, sanctioned a separate, unequal, and segregated public education system.
After Mr. White left office in 1984, George K. Regan, his longest-serving spokesman, recalled the fallout.
“He was getting his head kicked in from both sides,” Mr. Regan wrote in the Globe. “He received no credit for his efforts, no matter how hard he tried. It was the most frustrating time of his life. Sometimes when he returned to City Hall late at night, there were tears in his eyes.”
The 1975 re-election campaign against Timilty was the backdraft of the political tinder box created by busing. Compounding Mr. White’s problem were news reports of corrupt fund-raising on his behalf.
With the race tightening, two events conspired, by most accounts, to help Mr. White. First, the Red Sox and Cincinnati Reds dominated the news as they vied in a riveting seven-game, 12-day World Series that was extended three days by rain.
In addition, diGrazia, with his straight-arrow image, was thrust by the White campaign into the race several days before the election. DiGrazia claimed Timilty intended to replace him to please corrupt commanders diGrazia had forced out of the department. Timilty never recovered from the smear.
With that help, Mr. White eked out a slim victory.
In 1979, Mr. White again defeated Mr. Timilty. The race marked the penultimate chapter of one of Boston’s long-running feuds. The archrivals eventually made peace, at Mr. White’s initiation, ending what Timilty in 2005 called “about 20 years of disliking each other intensely.”
Within months of taking the mayoral oath for a third time, Mr. White began the process of becoming a boss in the mold of Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley. Eager to avert another serious challenge, Mr. White ordered the creation of a fine-tuned political organization, with coordinators in the city’s 22 wards and captains in every precinct, then numbering 252. Most were city employees. The upshot, critics said, was the politicization of city services.
By 1978, when Mr. White led the fight for a statewide statewide tax classification referendum to benefit small-property owners, the machine was running full bore. Top operatives at City Hall won pay raises for their political work. In 1981, the White machine was an issue when “The Kevin Seven,” an informal slate of City Council candidates, ran. Only one was elected.
Mr. White’s governance, meanwhile, was producing stylish landmarks that became a more tangible part of his legacy. In 1976, Faneuil Hall Marketplace opened. Suddenly, an eyesore of open stalls and warehouses became a “festival marketplace,” much copied in other US cities. Decades later, it remains a centerpiece of urban vitality.
There were other successes — and failures — but in 1983 as he prepared to leave office, Mr. White stood over a scale model of downtown and proudly kept score for a reporter: 38 new office buildings since 1968, 50 more renovated, and 17 hotels built or planned. The triumphs included Copley Place and the reclamation of the Charlestown Navy Yard and waterfront, from the North End to Rowes Wharf.
A year into his final term, another element of the White legacy began to emerge: corruption at City Hall. Suffolk County and federal prosecutors were already assembling cases against a few mid-level officials when news exploded in March 1981 that city employees were being asked to donate to a birthday party celebration honoring the mayor’s wife. These were not political donations, but gifts, $122,000 in all before Mr. White, engulfed in a furor of outrage and preliminary official inquiries, cancelled the event.
That July, President Ronald Reagan appointed a little-known Republican lawyer, William F. Weld, as US attorney. Expanding an existing probe, Weld and an elite team of prosecutors launched a dragnet-like investigation into seemingly every aspect of Mr. White’s administration and the mayor’s personal finances.
The results — a barrage of indictments, guilty pleas, and convictions — became Weld’s chief credential when he won the first of two terms as governor in 1990. His investigation produced charges of fraudulent disability pensions, bribery, extortion, and perjury that brought down several dozen businessmen and city employees, including a number of key operatives in Mr. White’s political machine.
Mr. White and those close to him maintained he was clean.
As the federal investigation crested, a large and talented field of candidates assembled to challenge the vulnerable incumbent. A year before the election, the Globe, dependably supportive of his past candidacies, advised him not to run again.
Mr. White remained coy about his intentions.
In spring 1983, as the deadline for filing nomination papers approached, the media frenzy was especially intense. Reporters staked out his office and home on the flat of Beacon Hill, and headed to New York City where the mayor, with his chief advisers and media handlers, was videotaping his announcement.
On the morning of May 26, the Boston Herald broke out its largest type for a front-page headline, “White Will Run.” The newspaper’s star columnist, Peter Lucas, who, by prearrangement, interviewed Mr. White by telephone the previous night, wrote the famously wrong three-paragraph story without specifically identifying as his source the mayor he had needled in recent years, and who later admitted he misled him.
That night, Mr. White announced he would not seek another term. “There will be no ‘Last Hurrah’ for this city,” he declared in a five-minute paid political announcement broadcast on three Boston television stations and nine radio stations.
In addition to his wife and brother, Mr. White leaves two sons, Christopher of North Carolina, and Mark; three daughters, Caitlin G. White Strawbridge of Belmont, Elizabeth of Hingham, and Patricia; and seven grandchildren.
Brian C. Mooney can be reached at email@example.com.