September 22, 1980 12:00 PM

Every big city has its traditions, the immutable rituals that give it character. New Orleans, of course, has the Mardi Gras. Washington, D.C. has its cherry blossoms. Boston has Kevin H. White. The outspoken, often outrageous White, 50, who is now in his fourth four-year term as mayor of Boston, is the self-proclaimed dean of big-city mayors—and is suspected of harboring ambitions for a run at the presidency in 1984. He has, within the past few weeks, refused a veiled invitation to run for the vice-presidency this fall (with John Anderson), fought a hostile city council that tried to cut his salary, and announced details of his plan to fly in 35 mayors—from as far away as Istanbul and Hong Kong—for Boston’s lavish 350th birthday party this month. The uproar over that expense, and the cost of a film festival, banquets and parties connected with the extravaganza, will doubtless intensify if, as expected, White announces a tax increase this week. “Boston is a world-class city,” he insists. “We have to do things like this to keep it that way.”

At least one prominent politician has no complaints about White’s grandiose visions. Last month, when Jimmy Carter visited Boston, he greeted White effusively at Logan Airport. “God bless you, Kevin,” the President gushed. “God bless you. God bless you.” Why the benediction in triplicate? Perhaps because White had received Rep. Anderson at his summer home on Cape Cod a few days earlier—and had politely sent the Independent candidate away. More important, White had sat out last spring’s presidential primary campaign, refusing to endorse Boston’s other favorite son, Teddy Kennedy. White and Kennedy have long been political antagonists, but the mayor’s reticence was more pragmatic than personal. For the last three years, with Carter’s help, Boston has received more federal funds per capita than any other major northeastern city. “As the federal funding period draws to a close and discretionary funds for Boston become available,” the mayor dryly observes, “my enthusiasm for the President increases.”

That enthusiasm is not unreserved, however. In the mid-1970s White worked with the then obscure Georgia governor on the national committee to revitalize the Democratic party. Friends say the two men did not hit it off. “That committee was supposed to be a national vehicle for Kevin,” says Boston Herald American political columnist Peter Lucas. “Kevin got bored with the job, but Carter stuck with it and used it as a springboard. Kevin has always resented that.” Although White intends to campaign for the President, his endorsement is framed in lukewarm praise. “Jefferson believed that the ultimate sin is to take the power the public gave you and not use it for the public good,” White observes. “I don’t think Carter is guilty of the sin of not wanting to use his power. His problem is how to use it. Still, he’s a lot closer to the mark than Reagan.”

Ironically, the presidential candidate about whom White speaks most warmly is the one whose overtures he rejected—John Anderson. “The Anderson candidacy reflects a real feeling in this country that the Democratic party must recognize. There’s restlessness. Carter was right when he said the public felt a malaise—but they didn’t want him to make a speech about it. They wanted him to do something.” White’s stated reason for not supporting Anderson was: “I’m a loyal Democrat. The Democratic party is the best vehicle for change in the U.S.” Intimates believe White has himself in mind for the vehicle’s driver’s seat.

White doesn’t deny he has thought about it. Once before, in 1972, he came close to becoming a vice-presidential candidate. Then, at the last minute, George McGovern passed him over in favor of Thomas Eagleton. That brush with national office, White admits, left him pondering how he would handle the presidency. “What I do here is not that different from what Carter does,” he says. “It’s executive power—and in Boston, short of foreign affairs, it’s about as sophisticated as it can get.” Perhaps taking heed of Carter’s successful four-year march to the presidency, White may be prepared to start early. “We’re going to need a sense of forceful new leadership,” he says. “You can’t get that with Scoop Jackson or Muskie, and I don’t think that Teddy’s candidacy or Jerry Brown’s will re-emerge with the same energy as this year.” For the record, though, White says he isn’t a candidate. “I don’t need the applause,” he says. “I like it here.”

If White does decide to run, the nation will find itself confronted with one of the few originals in American politics. “He’s amazing,” says columnist Lucas. “Arrogant at times, humble at times, up, down. He’s a tremendous personality—and a terrific ego.” Friends point out that Anderson courted White, not vice versa, and that White agreed to meet Carter at the airport only after being assured that he could ride with the President—”not,” says the mayor, “in some car with 15 politicians crammed into it like circus clowns.” White’s lifestyle is decidedly Olympian and has emerged as a local political issue. “Kevin Deluxe, the Mayor of America,” elements in the press have mockingly dubbed him, and White seems to strive to live up to the title. He always travels first class, uses a city-owned Beacon Hill mansion, Parkman House, as a sort of combination office, personal retreat and banquet hall, and has fought bitterly to have the financially strapped city provide him with a limousine. “The man is like Julius Caesar,” explodes city councilman Frederick Langone. “If he wants something, he just spends the public money for it.” Replies White: “I have to keep up the dignity of office. It reflects on the city.”

Not even his enemies deny that in his 13 years in office White has changed the face of the city. Symbolic of the transformation is Faneuil Hall Marketplace, a complex of 19th-century Greek revival buildings located directly beneath his City Hall window. Once a municipal eyesore, the marketplace is now a stunning bazaar of small shops, restaurants and museums that attracts more than a million visitors a month. “In the 19th century, cities grew because of their natural resources,” White observes. “But now, Boston’s only chance is to be a haven for talent and creativity—and the only thing that will attract them is our environment.”

One of the hallmarks of White’s administration has been the plethora of public diversions. Mime troupes, rock groups, woodwind ensembles and string quartets perform in city neighborhoods, parks and even subway stations. This spring, to mark Boston’s birthday, White rounded up a flotilla of tall ships—and the aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy—and presented them in Boston harbor last May. Millions came to view the fleet, and the event was marred only when a police boat carrying dignitaries, including White’s wife, Kathryn, threatened to sink during a nautical review. Not everyone was enchanted by the spectacle, of course. Complains his archrival, Langone: “White has that imperial attitude of ‘give them what they want.’ He’s spending us right into the river.” Replies White, “The tax rate has only gone up an average of $6 a year since 1974, and I take the heat for it—not Freddie Langone.”

It is an indicator of how much Boston has changed recently that the burning political issues this year are taxes, government spending and the mayor’s limousine. The inescapable issue of the 1970s—racial tension—seems to have receded from flash-point. This summer a black teenager was shot and killed by a white policeman, and a white youth was killed in a predominantly black neighborhood—but neither incident sparked violent reprisals. “We’ve come a long way in accepting diversity in this city,” White says proudly. “People are not going to wreck their neighborhoods over a white punk even if he’s shot by a black, and the blacks are not going to go crazy over a punk, either. They know it’s not the Scottsboro boys.” In his inaugural address this year, White promised to make the elimination of racism a high priority, and set up a commission to work on the problem. Critics have charged, however, that White refused to speak out on the race issue during Boston’s busing crisis, and some say that he is tackling the issue now only to make himself more palatable as a national candidate. “You don’t abolish a problem as big and as national as racism by setting up a commission,” scoffs Lucas. “You do that to make yourself look good to the liberals.”

The son of a Boston Democratic politician, White graduated from Williams College in 1952, and three years later from Boston College Law School. After a year as a lawyer for Standard Oil of California, he joined the Boston district attorney’s office, and in 1960 was elected to the first of four terms as Massachusetts’ secretary of state. Boston’s mayor since 1968, he is an intensely private man, who often works alone in Parkman House, accompanied only by his dog, Adlai Stevenson. (Kathryn White, mother of his five children, refuses to allow the 10-week-old golden retriever into the family’s Beacon Hill home; her husband’s last two retrievers, Andrew Jackson and Thomas Jefferson, played havoc with her Oriental rugs.) A loner politically as well as temperamentally, he has conducted a running battle with the city council, which this year forced him to go without his salary for two months when he overspent his office budget. Later, when the council refused to raise his pay from the $40,000 he has been receiving since 1968 to $90,000, White withdrew the request—and retaliated by handing out enormous raises to several subordinates. The vice-mayor of the city now earns $65,000, more than Secretary of State Edmund Muskie. White is threatening to return to private law practice for the first time in 24 years to earn extra cash—and embarrass the council. “He’s like the little boy who says, ‘If I’m not going to be at bat, I’m taking my bat and ball and going home,’ ” complains Langone. “He takes it as an affront if you disagree with him.”

Ironically, White earns glowing praise from some of his severest critics. “I rate him high as a mayor,” says columnist Lucas, whose attacks on White have attained the stature of ritual flagellation. “This is a good city, and he deserved to be re-elected. He’s a tremendously interesting character.” For better or worse, White’s character and the city’s have become almost indistinguishable in the public eye. “We did a survey this spring,” White says, “and the frightening thing we found was that the public believes that if Kevin White wants something, it will be done, and if something isn’t done, Kevin White doesn’t want it. They think mass transit and the schools are the two biggest problems going. We explained that the mayor has nothing to do with either of those agencies, and they said, ‘We understand that, but if Kevin wants it, he can do it.’ It’s incredible—being perceived as having absolute power.”

Incredible, perhaps, but also provocative. With his kind of public following, White can hardly avoid the stirrings of higher ambition. “Kevin looks at who’s running for President today,” observes a Boston insider. “They’re second-raters. He is not a second-rater.” White makes no secret of the fact that those are his sentiments exactly. The only question now may be when, not whether, the Mayor of America will announce his intention to make fact of his fancy.

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