The Globe vs. Ray Flynn
by Dan Kennedy
Thanksgiving day, 1985. It's 10 a.m. Mayor Ray Flynn, in one of his favorite
photo-ops, is dancing with some homeless people at the Pine Street Inn. And he
is, according to a then-Globe reporter assigned to cover the event,
"drunk as a lord."
Appalled, the reporter told an editor what had transpired and asked why no one
was writing about Flynn's drinking. The answer: half the reporters and editors
drank with the mayor. "This story is about 12 years too late," the reporter
says of last Friday's piece. "The Globe really contributed to the
conspiracy of silence."
According to several former and current Globe staffers, the chief
conspirator was the late Kirk Scharfenberg, a close friend and drinking buddy
of Flynn's who ascended from city editor, to metro editor, to deputy managing
editor, to editorial-page editor during Flynn's mayoralty. Scharfenberg also
became friends with Flynn's top political operative, Ray Dooley, a veteran of
progressive organizing efforts. Sources say Scharfenberg fought to keep
negative Flynn pieces out of the paper. One well-placed source says he even
enthusiastically backed the transfer of a reporter to the prestigious
Washington beat so the two of them would no longer have to lock horns over
coverage of City Hall. Then, too, Scharfenberg, Flynn, and Dooley shared a
genuine commitment to urban liberalism; at best, that idealism animated the
Globe during the 1980s.
The friendship between Flynn and Scharfenberg, who died of cancer in 1992 at
the age of 48, was an unlikely one. Scharfenberg was a classic liberal, sharp
and well-read; Flynn, as a state representative and city councilor from South
Boston, until that time was known mainly for his opposition to court-ordered
school desegregation and for the so-called Doyle-Flynn amendment, a notorious
piece of anti-abortion legislation. Ray Flynn the progressive populist had yet
to be born.
Flynn recalls Scharfenberg's approaching him at a hearing over a proposal to
create a home for unwed mothers on the Jamaicaway. Flynn believes Scharfenberg
sensed that their shared interest in poverty issues might be a way for them to
bridge what seemed, on the face of it, to be an insurmountable gap. After the
hearing, they adjourned to Doyle's for a few beers -- the first of many such
"I admired him greatly, and he became a very close friend of mine," Flynn
says. "He was very supportive of me. I never really had any kind of
relationship with anyone at the Boston Globe other than Kirk
Not that Scharfenberg was alone in protecting Flynn. Indeed, no one was
prepared to blow the whistle, especially since Flynn always seemed able to
handle his booze. Herald political editor Joe Sciacca recalls a night
when he, fellow staffer Joe Battenfeld, and the mayor closed down a bar across
from City Hall. Sciacca and Battenfeld couldn't make it home, and were
painfully hung over the next day. Flynn was at a 7 a.m. event, raring to go.
"Trying to keep up with Ray Flynn in terms of alcohol consumption is a
mistake," Sciacca says.
Globe columnist Marty Nolan remembers writing a piece in 1991 on a day
in the life of the mayor. Flynn ended the day with several beers at Doyle's,
and then left at 11 p.m. -- to go running through Franklin Park. (Flynn
continues to run at least 10 miles a day, and competes in two marathons a
year.) "I was in awe of his capacity," Nolan says.
Slowly, though, the Flynn sheen wore off. There were early signs. The late
Globe society columnist John Robinson alluded to his drinking in 1983.
So did Howie Carr, in a 1984 Boston magazine profile and in subsequent
Herald columns. Globe-staffer-turned-novelist Charlie Kenney, in
Globe Magazine profiles of Flynn in 1985 and 1989, raised the issue
gingerly, referring in the latter piece to "what is described as Flynn's
propensity for dropping by neighborhood taverns."
Meanwhile, Flynn's performance in office was deteriorating. Arguably an
outstanding mayor in his first two terms, he displayed indifference and boredom
during his third. He fought for the right to appoint the school committee, then
shocked supporters by loading it up with cronies. The police department, run by
his childhood friend Mickey Roache (now a popular city councilor), was beset by
corruption and incompetence. Thus, when Bill Clinton tapped Flynn for the
ambassadorship to the Vatican in 1993, the appointment was met by many in the
city with genuine excitement for Flynn, combined with relief that he was
Flynn's triumph, though, quickly turned to tragedy and farce. A former aide,
Douglas deRusha, was convicted of embezzling more than $200,000 from Flynn's
campaign and was sent to prison. A trusted associate, Joe Fisher, went to
prison for corruption. Attorney General Scott Harshbarger -- now the
frontrunner for the office Flynn intends to seek -- investigated Flynn, a probe
that ended inconclusively. Flynn was also hit by accusations that he was too
political and raw to be an ambassador (he was reprimanded twice by the State
Department for speaking out of turn). And his son Ray Jr. was battling
substance abuse problems.
Flynn considered running for governor in 1994, but decided against it in the
face of rapidly dropping poll numbers. A headline in the Sunday Globe
Focus section that spring read: ONCE MASSACHUSETTS' MOST POPULAR POLITICIAN,
RAY FLYNN IS NOW ITS FAVORITE POLITICAL JOKE.
Meanwhile, in Flynn's absence, the culture of the Globe was undergoing
a metamorphosis. Under Matt Storin, who was named editor of the Globe in
1993, just as Flynn was leaving, the paper has become tougher and more
evenhanded in covering politics than it was back when it was sometimes
criticized as a house organ for the Kennedys -- or for Ray Flynn. "I think it's
a much more aggressive paper," says Globe alumnus Michael Frisby, now
White House correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. "The old ties and
the old ways of doing things don't make it anymore."
This change has taken place in a larger media context in which any
notion of a zone of privacy has utterly disappeared. Thus, US Representative
Joe Kennedy pulled out of the governor's race at least in part because of
never-ending media questions about his brother Michael's problems. The
Globe and its competitors badger acting governor Paul Cellucci about his
personal debt despite lacking any evidence that it's relevant to the way he
conducts state business.
It was into this new, unfamiliar media- scape that Flynn naively staggered
two months ago.
Dan Kennedy can be reached at email@example.com.