STYLE VERSUS SUBSTANCE: Boston, Kevin White, and the Politics of Illusion by George V. Higgins

STYLE VERSUS SUBSTANCE: Boston, Kevin White, and the Politics of Illusion

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Two things are going for this book: curiosity about the failed career of Boston's 16-year mayor Kevin White--hero of the city's revitalization, damper of black-white conflict--and interest in author Higgins' political novels (A City on a Hill, A Choice of Enemies). But it will take a tenacious reader, who knows the terrain, to get at what Higgins is getting at here: there is no chronological or thematic framework, no consecutive account of what happened in Boston, 1967-83. The point, ultimately, is an '80s variant on the title phrase: ""the media got Kevin""--unfairly, Higgins thinks, on the corruption issue--""just as the media had made Kevin."" In Higgins' circuitous, piecemeal presentation, White got elected and reelected by running against a ""sitting duck"" and a ""lady bigot"" (John F. Collins, Louise Day Hicks); by accepting credit for ""negative events, no racial riots"" and focusing on downtown rejuvenation--""thus availing himself of undertakings by [his predecessors] and aligning himself simultaneously with those parties of influence who had the most to offer Boston and asked the least from it in return."" (En route, there's an ethnopolitical review of Boston neighborhoods, an occasional instructive vignette of White-in-action.) It wasn't really within White's power, however, to stern the outflow of Boston's middle class (only partially replaced, in Higgins' accounting, by the moneyed and childless). Yet media concentration on politics bars ""frank admission that the occupant of the mayor's office in fact enjoys very little genuine ability to improve substantially the lives of most of his constituents"" (and leads to false claims of credit for ""accidental betterment""). Also implicated are the gulfs between the intellectually trained, receptive to experimentation, and the working person, looking for immediate results, and between the national and local scope for experiment. In modeling himself after FDR and JFK, White ""was setting himself up for trouble."" Detail on the trouble follows, larded with insights from Higgins' lawyerly connection with some of the events and his role as a columnist. But the lack of order and cohesion restricts the likely readership--whatever the merits of Higgins' case for political realism, factuality, and indeed for White: ""He did not manage what he had promised, but then nobody could, and in the attempt to deliver he achieved more than he might actually have dared to guarantee.

Pub Date: Oct. 25th, 1984
Publisher: Macmillan