The Boston Phoenix
October 9 - 16, 1997

[Features]

The Globe vs. Ray Flynn

A controversial front-page story says the former mayor has a drinking problem, that he was a failure at the Vatican. Flynn says it was a cheap shot, driven by class bias. The more interesting question: What took the Globe so long?

by Dan Kennedy

Julie's on the line, and she has a question for former Boston mayor Ray Flynn: Do you remember what you were doing on Palm Sunday?

Poor Raybo. It's Monday morning, and for nearly two hours he's been defending himself on WRKO Radio's Clapprood & Company. It's just the latest in a series of public appearances since last Friday, when the Boston Globe unloaded on him in a front-page "special report" that portrayed his tenure in the Vatican as little more than three-plus years of drinking and screwing off. Now this church lady is trying to rake him over for something he did six months ago.

Julie has a sweet lilt to her voice, but Flynn senses danger. So he filibusters. Says he can't remember. Talks about the solemn grandeur of Holy Week in Rome, about going to Mass at Saint Peter's Basilica. But finally he can hold her off no longer. She pounces.

It seems that Julie had seen Flynn with a few friends at a South Boston pub. At 1 p.m. And what was the Ambassador to the Holy See doing? "Pounding down the beers," Julie says cattily.

This is what it's come to for Raymond Leo Flynn. Thrice elected mayor, nationally renowned in the 1980s for his populist touch and his commitment to racial reconciliation, he departed for Rome in 1993 on a wave of goodwill. He returns broke, his reputation battered by a shaky ambassadorship and prison terms for two of his former aides.

At 58, the old warrior is saddling up to run for governor, apparently for the worst of reasons: having failed to secure a high-paying, high-profile private sector job (he was even snubbed for the athletic director's post at Northeastern University), he can't think of anything better to do.

Even before last Friday, his chances of actually winning the governor's office had been rated as slim. And now he's been whacked out by his old friends at the Boston Globe, a paper that endorsed him twice, that provided him not just with ideological support but also with drinking buddies during those long nights at Doyle's and J.J. Foley's.

The story, by Walter Robinson, Kate Zernike, and David Marcus -- headlined FLYNN AT THE VATICAN: HIS MAYORAL STYLE DIDN'T CUT IT -- was devastating. Much of the post-publication buzz has focused on revelations concerning Flynn's drinking; but about two-thirds of the piece was devoted to establishing that, during his final year as ambassador, he virtually ceased working. Numerous sources were quoted, both by name and anonymously, to the effect that Flynn became increasingly out of touch and isolated, rarely coming to the embassy office and spending vast amounts of time in Rome's Irish pubs.

Although the questions about Flynn's once-inspiring work ethic were surely new, his drinking is the oldest of stories among political and media insiders. The difference is that editors today -- whether at the Globe or any other news organization -- are far less inclined than they were in the past to keep such knowledge to themselves. This shift is especially telling at the Globe, which, until recent years, had a reputation for protecting its favorites, allowing national media to break stories about Senator Ted Kennedy's debauchery or to poke holes in former governor Michael Dukakis's record.

Flynn's reaction has been to deny everything, and to accuse the Globe of coming after him because he's working-class, Irish, and Catholic. It is a ridiculous allegation, of course. Boston has been run by Irish Catholics for most of this century. The editor of the Globe, Matt Storin, is an Irish Catholic with a modest middle-class background. But such class-warfare demogaguery has always been one of Flynn's stocks in trade. He hoists like a shield his concern for "working-class families," a phrase that pops up in his lexicon with the same approximate frequency that it does in Marx's Das Kapital.

A demagogue needs a villain, and Flynn, for the moment, has settled on Globe publisher Ben Taylor, whom the ex-mayor has variously referred to during the past week as a polo-watching, penthouse-dwelling, chablis-sipping, brie-nibbling elitist.

"I don't know what's in Mr. Taylor's mind," Flynn says. "But I'll go out on a limb and say this. A story with that kind of vicious assault never comes up from the bottom. It comes from the top."

Actually, the Flynn story came from neither below nor above, but from within and without. Flynn ran afoul of drastic changes in the Globe's newsroom culture, and in the public's attitude toward drunkenness among its pols. The world changed; Flynn didn't.

Poor Raybo. He never saw it coming.

On to part 2

Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy@phx.com.
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