Listening to a politician become a journalist. Ex-Boston mayor White tries to answer a question he had for 16 years

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He finished the soup, but only picked at the chicken. Kevin Hagan White, once again, was too busy talking. This particular lunchtime, however, the former mayor of Boston wasn't talking about his 16 controversial years at the helm of one of America's most politics-ridden cities -- a stint that ended in 1984 after he decided not to run for a fifth term. He was talking instead about his new career as Professor White of Boston University and about the graduate course he teaches -- not in political science or in the School of Management (where he had offers), but in journalism.

``I think the reason I went to the journalism school,'' he says, ``was because it was the only thing that once my career was over I hadn't got an answer to, and that was the relationship between the press and government.''

One is tempted to say, ``Welcome to the club.'' And welcome to an interesting trend, in which newsmakers are increasingly turning to journalism. Look, for example, at the national political conventions in 1984, which found (among other notables) former presidential candidate George McGovern reporting for ABC Television, former California governor Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. working for the San Francisco Chronicle and NBC News, and former Texas governor John B. Connally commenting for Cable News Network .

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It also found Kevin White reporting for the Voice of America. And what it all points to is something that journalists and politicians have long suspected: that there are remarkable similarities between their two professions. Whether that's good or bad, one thing is clear: In an age when the roles of the news media and the government often seem either to merge (as with President Reagan's Saturday morning radio broadcasts) or to fly apart (as the far-right critics of the media assert), there is a growing need to sort out the proper ground for each of these institutions to occupy.

In his own way, White is doing just that. Whatever you think of his political reputation -- and, as a reporter covering his last years in office, I had plenty of conversations with Bostonians who ranked him all the way from utterly sleazy to absolutely masterly -- he brings several qualifications to the sorting-out task.

First, he himself has run the full gamut of relationships with the press: ``all the phases,'' he says, ``of intimacy and friendship and camaraderie and tension and hostility, and then deep bitterness.'' More than one observer attributes his decision not to run again in large part to what he himself calls his ``punishment'' at the hands of the Boston press corps.

Second, he is possessed of a nimble wit and a burning curiosity -- and of a self-analytical mind so bent on watching its own performance that he will interrupt a sentence in mid-course to ask, ``Am I wasting your time here?'' or to comment, ``That isn't a good analogy -- I lost it there.'' While the substance of communication interests him, the process wholly fascinates him.

But third, and most important, is something that emerges gradually during two hours of conversation. Here, clearly, is a man in the process of shifting from politician to journalist. It's not just that he's now teaching journalism: With his background, he could do that without thinking of himself as a journalist. Nor is it just that he loved covering the conventions.

No, it's more than that. His answers are those of a man thinking more about how to communicate what he does than what he ought to do -- which, in a way, explains a lot about his years as mayor. Noting that ``politicians instinctively don't like to close options,'' he still maintains a campaign fund of some $200,000, which he must surrender to the state if he does not intend to seek office again. Which, it appears, he probably won't do.

``My own sense of myself,'' he says, twirling his gold ring around the handle of a silver fork, ``tells me that it's a wise man that knows when to shut something, close something, end something.'' Then would he like to get into a media career? He launches off into a stratosphere of explanation, circles widely, and finally lands with ``Yes, I would find it a sheer delight.''

Why? ``Fundamentally,'' he says, ``what made government a delight for me was that I had a curious mind. I could poke my nose anywhere, people had to respond.'' The common denominator between the press and the politicians, he adds, is that both are ``by nature . . . enormously curious individuals, and I think they are very idealistic -- very idealistic.''

At the 1984 Republican convention, he continues, ``I was walking around, sniffing -- nobody knew me with the exception of some reporters, and they left me alone. That's what I like best -- and I can't walk in Boston alone without being recognized.''

But if that's where his heart is, then why the antagonism that so often arose between him and the press? His answer, pure autobiography, also casts a sharp illumination on contemporary life. Politicians, he says, ``are forging coalitions to achieve something . . . and they expect the press to be another audience that gets into that coalition of support.

``The failure of the press, once educated, not to assume a part in that phalanx is frustrating to a politician -- in fact, he almost considers the press traitorous. And yet he fails to understand that the press is reporting what appears to be. It isn't that they don't care -- in fact, the press more often than not is seduced, is personal, is chauvinistic, is patriotic, does want to come to the fore.

``Their role is to report -- even if they're wrong. [Theirs] is the perception of reality that the public sees.''

Robert Frost once wrote as his own epitaph that ``I had a lover's quarrel with the world.'' One can understand a lot about Kevin White's Boston -- and, by extension, about American politics in general -- by noting that he had a lover's quarrel with the press.

A Monday column

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