A Hidden Political Legend

P OLITICS has its own hidden legends--like Boston's Bill Sutton, a short, gray-haired man of 75 with a wrinkled face

POLITICS has its own hidden legends--like Boston's Bill Sutton, a short, gray-haired man of 75 with a wrinkled face and a youthful smile. Sutton traces his history back to an old style of Boston politics that has lost its place in the high-powered, media-conscious world of the 1980s.

Dressed in a tweed jacket and a scally cap, Sutton reminisces in a Harvard Square cafe about the candidates and power-brokers he has known in his 50-odd years of politicking.

Appropriately, he starts at the beginning, in 1932 and the State Senate campaign of John Cotter. Cotter--and Sutton--lost that first campaign, but Sutton still has fond memories of the man he followed in politics; he describes Cotter as "a gas meter reader, who sold cars--a neighborhood kid with an exceptionally fine personality--one of the most most honest people I've ever been associated with in politics."

Sutton talks with an ancient, charming political lexicon, recalling the days when people voted for someone "because he was good to me." He is part of a generation that gravitated towards politics because of the Depression. "FDR forced politics upon us," he says. "He gave us jobs working for the government. The city was a good paymaster. You were guaranteed at least a pair of shoes, a suit, a shirt and tie and maybe three meals a day for your family."

Sutton was brought into Jack Kennedy's first Congressional campaign by a man named Joe Kane, a respectable forerunner to such high-powered and manipulative political consultants as John Sasso and Roger Ailes. But, as Sutton says, "If he were a consultant today, he would have been highly regarded." The warmth in his voice meant to indicate that "regard" conveys more than respect not only for the Kane's skill, but also for his character.

Sutton went to Washington with Kennedy and stayed there with him until Kennedy moved to the Senate in 1952, meeting Richard Nixon and Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the process. After returning to Massachusetts, he went to work for state Treasurer Robert Crane until Sutton's retirement in 1983.

But Sutton has remained an avid observer of Boston politics and has lamented the changing style of politics. "I think they try to make it neighborhood to neighborhood, but he neighborhoods have changed. The tenement districts of Charlestown, East Boston and South Boston are now condominiums. How can it be the same if there's people moving in where your father or mother paid $12 a month rent for a cold water flat and sent their kids to local school?"

For someone who had a front-row seat to history and knew inimately some of the political luminaries of his age, Sutton retains a refreshing modesty. "How would I like to be remembered in politics?" he asks himself. "As a voter. Just as a voter--and someone who tried to help when they needed it."