Opinion Columns & Blogs

Mark Shields: ‘He Could Have Been a Contender ...’

At the 1972 Democratic convention that nominated Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota for president, McGovern’s choice of a running mate was postponed until the convention’s last day. At the urging of his campaign manager, Gary Hart, McGovern called the charismatic mayor of Boston, Kevin White, to ask him whether he would accept an invitation, if it were offered, to join the ticket. White said he would, and McGovern promised to get back to him shortly.

Then, according to Pierre Salinger, who was in the suite with McGovern at the time, McGovern called Sen. Ted Kennedy, his first choice, who had already turned him down, to inform Kennedy of his conversation with White. According to Salinger, McGovern reported that Kennedy, after learning of the likelihood of White’s selection, asked McGovern for a half-hour while he, Kennedy, reconsidered running for VP.

Almost immediately, former ambassador J. Kenneth Galbraith and U.S. Rep. Father Robert F. Drinan, both McGovern delegates, got through to McGovern to warn the nominee that the choice of White, an early supporter of Sen. Edmund Muskie, would produce a revolt -- and possibly a walkout -- of the Massachusetts McGovern delegation. After this, Kennedy called back McGovern to say he could not run. Salinger recalled McGovern reporting, “I don’t think if we go ahead with White we’ll have Sen. Kennedy campaigning for the ticket with any enthusiasm.”

Barely a week after that 1972 convention, I had dinner alone with White in Boston, where, with some emotion, I told him of how his golden opportunity for the vice presidential nomination had been deliberately undermined by his fellow Massachusetts Democrats, especially by Kennedy. With the characteristic candor and analytical shrewdness I so admired in him, White said of Kennedy’s sabotage, “I would have done the same thing to him if I’d had the chance.”

Even with White, McGovern still would have lost badly that year to Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew. But think about it: Nixon would resign in less than two years, not even a year after the corrupt Agnew was forced to resign. McGovern was never going to be nominated again. In that cast of characters, Kevin White -- a Democrat who never forgot the Irish-Catholic neighborhoods from which he came but whose restless intellect and natural charm won him the confidence of liberals, academics and the community at large and who, in four City Hall terms, truly did transform Boston into a world-class city -- would have become the favorite of the national press and a national contender.

Being mayor of a big city is frankly the best possible preparation for being president. A senator is just one of 100 and therefore not personally responsible for what the Senate does or, more likely, does not do. The mayor is judged by tougher standards. Are the streets safe? Was the trash in the alley picked up? Did you fix the potholes?

Senators raise issues and make tough speeches. Mayors raise taxes and make tough decisions. Mayors also make appointments to positions of real responsibility, any one of whom, by a single offense, can threaten the mayor’s career. When a Senate staffer was arrested in Washington trying to buy heroin, the lawbreaker’s boss, the senator who hired him, received sympathy calls. If the heroin-purchaser’s employer had been a mayor, the calls would have been for the mayor’s resignation.

For 16 years, White ran a big city. He recruited to public service hundreds of talented people, and then he motivated and monitored them. He made a few dumb moves and a lot more smart ones. He was accountable. He made a large, positive difference.

And when Kevin White died this week, 29 years after he left office, an entire city mourned and expressed its gratitude to this splendid leader who, because we prefer full-time presidential candidates who do not have day jobs with real responsibilities, was never once on the short list of White House possibilities. It makes no sense.