New Park on Greenway Evokes Thoughts of the Pride of Everett: George Keverian

Friday, August 24, 2012

In the beautiful, new Armenian Heritage Park on the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway in Boston, a large, abstract, twelve-sided, geometric sculpture rests atop a raised reflecting pool of constantly moving water.

This represents something new and different in the public art of Boston. 

Twice a year, the artist who created the sculpture will take it apart and reassemble it in a different shape, an act meant to symbolize the changes that all immigrants, not just those from Armenia, undergo when they start their lives anew in America. 

The inscription below the sculpture declares its intent to “honor the one-and-a-half million victims of the Armenian genocide of 1915-23” and to stand “in remembrance of all genocides that have followed,” while celebrating “the diversity of the communities that have reformed in the safety of these shores.”

I wanted to attend the dedication of the Armenian Heritage Park, held on a rainy Tuesday morning, May 22, 2012, but at the last minute was unable to do so.  Not until today did I finally get a chance to spend some time there.

It wasn’t long before my thoughts turned to one of the most prominent and illustrious Armenian-Americans in the history of Massachusetts: George Keverian of Everett, who served in the legislature for 25 years and was the Speaker of the House from 1985 to 1991.

Like the sculpture in that park, there were many sides to George Keverian.

There was the side that was the classic politician: friendly, likeable, quick on his feet and funny.  Very funny.  When Keverian was before an audience with a microphone in his hand, there were times he seemed more like a stand-up comedian than a politician.  There were times he was better than a professional comic.

In 1988, he went on the presidential campaign trail in Iowa for his friend, Michael Dukakis, and became a veritable star of the national media the day he responded to a reporter seeking an insider’s view on the “real Dukakis.”

“What’s the funniest thing you’ve ever seen Mike Dukakis do?” the reporter asked.

“He’s doing it right now,” said Keverian

The devilish side of Keverian’s wit could also get him into trouble.  When the audience was roaring and he was having a really good time, he could veer into ribald territory.

There was that wicked moment when Keverian was doing his routine at the annual Friendly Sons of St. Patrick dinner in Everett.  A waitress clearing tables near the podium found herself momentarily stalled before him, carrying a big stack of plates and silverware.  Keverian gave her an impish stare and said, “Hi, Honey, how’s your sex life?”

Laughter exploded.  Then the waitress shot back, “Better than yours!”

There was the side of Keverian, the high school valedictorian/Harvard side, that was a very intellectual, that relished solving problems.  This was the Keverian his colleagues turned to in the Seventies when they had a task that would have shattered Solomon: redrawing the lines of every district to accommodate the voter-mandated shrinkage of the House from 240 to 160 members.  It required of Keverian months of mind-numbing deliberation, work and re-work; but the new legislative map he produced was pretty much the one that was finally adopted.  Most remarkably, he emerged from the grueling process with his popularity in the chamber intact. 

There was the side of him that was extraordinarily clever and driven.  This was Majority Leader Keverian, who toppled his former ally and mentor, Tom McGee, to become the House Speaker in January, 1985. 

And this was the Keverian who moved some unpalatable tax bills through the House during the recession of the late-1980s -- measures needed to stabilize the state’s finances and preserve a long list of essential programs.  Interviewed by the Boston Globe upon Keverian’s death in March, 2009, Phil Johnston, the former Dukakis cabinet secretary and chairman of the Democratic State Committee, recounted the time and the man as follows:

“As the state’s Secretary of Human Services during that period, I was involved in helping the Speaker to achieve what many thought impossible: to round up the votes in the House to enact three major tax increases in order to save Massachusetts from financial collapse.  I marveled at Speaker Keverian’s skill in persuading very reluctant legislators to vote his way; his powers of persuasion rested entirely on the trust, respect and affection the members had for him.  Keverian was a great human being; he was also an effective leader of the Massachusetts House.  Those of us who care about human services, education, and other basic services provided by the state will always owe him a great debt of gratitude.”

There was also the side of Keverian that was sad and periodically gnawed by regrets, a part of him that no accomplishment, no degree of popularity, and no outpouring of affection or affirmation could seemingly ameliorate.

Years ago, a former state representative told me of a somber encounter he had with Keverian in early-1984.  By then, Keverian was on the outs with Speaker McGee and was focused intently on building the coalition that would help him win the next Speaker election, due to take place the following January.  The rep, a gentleman who had served several terms in the House, went to Keverian’s office to tell him he would not be running for re-election in the fall, that he wanted to pursue a career in business, and would not therefore be around in January to vote for him for Speaker.

“I thought George would be upset with me.  I thought he might even try to lay a little guilt on me,” said the former rep.  “You know, ‘How could you leave at a time like this?’ That kind of thing.”

Instead, Keverian reacted calmly and with brotherly consideration for the junior colleague before him.

“That’s OK,” Keverian assured him.  “I’m glad for you.  You have options.  I’ve been here too long.  I don’t have options like that.  The only thing I can do now is run for Speaker.”

It was hard for me to believe that someone could look at the prospect of becoming Speaker of the House and not see it as a totally positive outcome of his life’s work.  So I asked the former rep, “Are you sure he just wasn’t being nice to you, that he just didn’t want you to feel bad?”

“No,” the former rep said.  “That was the real George I saw that day.  I think he had a lot of regrets about how the House was divided by the Speaker fight.  I think he thought a lot about how his life might have turned out if he’d made some different choices in his younger days.”

It’s an old story, no? 

Being top dog doesn’t automatically make you happier than anyone else in the pack.

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