One of America's feistier whipping boys - Boston politics - has mended its ways over the years, presumably for the best. Gone, for the most part, is the brashness with which the city was once run. The colorful politicians - whose oratory, if not sagacity, was long a familiar part of the scene - are substantially missing.
Since the almost legendary James Michael Curley left the mayoral chair (not by choice) in January 1950, the city has not had a chief executive with a flair and style unmistakably his own.
This is not to suggest, however, that those who have held the municipal reins during the past 34 years have been less than effective. Indeed, since the Curley era, starting with his immediate successor John B. Hynes, the image of Boston government has lost a good deal of its tarnish - particularly in such areas as the awarding of contracts and business practices.
Though hardly a William Jennings Bryan in flair for the dramatic, John F. Collins guided the city through eight scandal-free years - 1960 to 1967. In the process he presided over what was one of the nation's most far-reaching urban renewal programs.
Considerably more colorful than the mayor was his redevelopment administrator , Edward J. Logue. Logue's quiet, self-confident demeanor rankled certain of the more flamboyant members of the city council. Sarcasm-laced exchanges between the Collins-appointee and some of the more frosty-tongued municipal lawmakers frequently dominated the local TV news.
Despite such heated confrontations, the Collins administration almost always corralled the needed council votes for its renewal proposals.
Perhaps even more in the municipal driver's seat was Kevin H. White, whose increasingly controversial 16-year regime ended early last January.
The White regime similarly overcame sometimes bitter opposition from the council members, weathering often less- than-brief tirades from the always colorful Frederick C. Langone and dodging verbal potshots from Albert L. (Dapper) O'Neil.
While it remains to be seen how successful incumbent Mayor Raymond L. Flynn may be in gaining council support for his programs, his populist approach to steering the city could be an asset.
Except for Mr. O'Neil, who can be expected to continue to speak his piece and let the chips fall where they may, most of the current team of city lawmakers appear to be less prone to joust with the mayor.
This could change, since Boston politics is at least as variable as its weather. Yet there is nothing to suggest a return to the boisterousness of the past. Although shrill, sometimes thunderous, and occasionally salty orations seem unlikely to become an endangered species at city hall, slowly but surely over the last three and a half decades a new breed of politician has taken over.
With few exceptions - most notably, perhaps, Mr. O'Neil - those winning municipal offices are more sophisticated and generally less contentious than many of their predecessors.
The transition began in 1951 when the a 22-seat council, elected from the city's wards, was replaced with a nine-seat body chosen citywide. Most of the survival-bent incumbent councillors were swept from office by a tidal wave of newcomers to city government. Deposed were such masters of histrionics as the late Julius Ansel, a one-time Curley aide.
Municipal reformers were an important force in the 1951 election. Two years earlier many of them had helped push through the charter change regarding the size of the council, at the same time sending Mayor Curley into political retirement in favor of city clerk Mr. Hynes.
While it is hard to ascertain just how much wheeling and dealing has gone on at city hall since the Curley days, there is nothing to suggest that the exchange of favors for key city-council votes has become an unused mayoral tool. And, at times, that time-honored political practice has undoubtedly proven more effective than persuasion with no strings attached.
Few, if any, of Boston's politicians over the past 35 years have been as candid about such matters as the late city councillor James S. Coffey. He once bragged to a reporter about using his position as leverage to help place constituents on the municipal payroll!
Despite a shift in style and approach toward the more subdued, some things have not changed all that much in Boston. It seems sometimes that almost everybody elected is related, at least by marriage, to those who have held the same or similar offices. William J. Foley Jr., one of the council's more colorful debaters from 1952 to 1971, is the son of a former longtime Suffolk County district attorney. Former councillor Barry T. Hynes was the son of former Mayor Hynes. Former Mayor White's father, grandfather, and father-in-law all had been city councillors.
At least two members of the current l3-seat council - district councillors Bruce Bolling and Mora Hennigan - have or had fathers in elective office. Miss Hennigan's dad was in the state Legislature, held county office, and was on the school committee. Mr. Bolling's father is a state senator and his brother is a state representative.
The importance of a familiar-sounding name, even in the absence of family relationship, was underscored by the 1955 city council election of a political unknown, Patrick F. McDonough - not to be confused with Patrick J. (Sonny) McDonough, then a veteran member of the state executive council. Muddling things further, Patrick McDonough and his brother John McDonough later held municipal office simul-tanously, the latter serving on the school committee.