It's dullsville today in Massachusetts politics, unlike lively times past

Once known for its colorful and powerful politicians, Massachusetts government has lost some of its sizzle. A more restrained breed of public officials has gradually replaced those whose flamboyant oratory and questionable antics once enlivened the State House and Boston City Hall.

There were prominent figures like GOP Gov. Francis W. Sargent, whose folksy demeanor was a contradiction to the reserved Yankee stereotype. Democratic Boston Mayor James Curley was known as much for reading poetry on radio as for his bombastic oratory. Then there was state Attorney General Francis E. Kelly, who responded to a heckler at a 1952 rally by taking a swing at him.

Today's officeholders are a tame lot by comparison, each bent on his or her own pursuits.

Democratic Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, who succeeded Governor Sargent in 1974, rarely indulges in wisecracking. And when he does, the punch lines occasionally fall flat. While Sargent indulged in athletic pursuits such as skiing or sailing, Governor Dukakis is more inclined to curl up with a book or report.

But just because Dukakis isn't the blustery, desk-pounding, knee-slapping type doesn't mean he's not popular or politically strong. In his all-business style, the governor has considerable influence on the direction of the state Democratic Party. Unlike his predecessors, however, he appears to be content to leave the actual leadership of the party to others.

So if there is a Dukakis political machine, as some suggest, it runs as quietly as a BMW.

Former four-term Mayor Kevin H. White, for all his political savvy and strength, fell far short of his predecessor, Mayor Curley, in his flair and way with words. Curley, whose turbulent career included four terms as mayor of Boston and a two-year stint as Massachusetts' governor, had few peers when it came to the dramatic.

The satin-throated mayor, who was largely self-educated, frequently waxed poetic and invariably commanded the ears of friends and foes alike. He was particularly skilled in handling criticism. During a mayoral campaign, when interrupted by a heckler who was criticizing municipal services, he shot back: ``I am glad to see you're using your head. It's the little things that count.''

Like Governor Dukakis, most of those now holding high-visibility offices in Massachusetts are largely low-key, focusing more on issues than on tone or mannerisms. US Sens. Edward M. Kennedy and John F. Kerry, Boston Mayor Raymond L. Flynn, and Attorney General Francis X. Bellotti fit that mold to varying degrees.

Still, there remain a few characters who bring a little levity to the Bay State political scene.

There's State Senate president William M. Bulger (D) of Boston, a master of quips, whose remarks tend to brighten otherwise drab legislative proceedings. This ability to produce smiles, almost at will, appears to be a particular asset in shifting attention from his strong reign. House Speaker George Keverian (D) of Everett is also quite successful at amusing his colleagues.

But although very witty and bright, neither of these leaders could be considered eloquent.

Few of their colleagues, meanwhile, are inclined to to do or say anything that even borders on the histrionic. As a result, legislative debate -- what little there is of it -- tends to be pretty bland, no matter how frivolous or inconsequential the subject.

Times have certainly changed from that summer day in the early '70s when then-state Sen. Joseph D. Ward (D) of Fitchburg, one of his chamber's more accomplished debaters, rose to question a measure to designate the Morgan horse as the state's official horse.

``I once saw a horse and was very impressed,'' he responded wryly when the bill's rural Republican sponsor questioned the urban legislator's knowledge of the contribution horses had made to the state.

Oratory, with or without tongue-in-cheek humor, has become increasingly sparse over the past two decades, during which Democratic control in the Senate and House tightened, lessening debate.

At Boston City Hall, where the Curley era is now just a memory, the City Council sessions are pretty much cut and dried, with few colorful outbursts except those of sharp-tongued veteran Councilor Albert L. O'Neil.

Not easily forgotten, however, are the late William J. Foley Jr., one of the chamber's most articulate and often-dissenting voices for nearly two decades; verbal flame-thrower Katherine Craven; and the often-shrill Frederick C. Langone.

One day the latter -- grilling a balky mayoral aide about how police manpower was deployed -- screamed in an outburst of frustration and poor spelling: `I want to know who -- H-W-O! H-W-O! -- decides.''

George B. Merry has covered the Massachusetts political scene for more than three decades.

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