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Character Study

Most histories of the highway fights of the 1970s stress how unusual it was for a Republican governor to go from supporting roads to supporting public transportation. I don’t want to take anything away from the drama of that moment, but I know a little secret. Well, actually, two.

First, my father was never that much of a Republican, certainly not by today’s dreary standards. Second, his heart was never really into supporting the highways. Sure, he was head of the pro-highway state Department of Public Works (DPW) in the 1960s. But he had spent most of his career working on environmental issues, first as director of the state’s Division of Marine Fisheries, then as head of the Department of Natural Resources.

In fact, my father had a lot in common with the highway opponents. He had started as an activist himself, writing so many letters to then-governor Christian Herter about overfishing that the governor finally told him to go run the division himself. So he understood that activists often know a lot more about particular issues and are often far more passionate about them than those within the governmental apparatus.

And the times, they were a-changin’. All kinds of people were jumping into the fray. At a famous meeting in the Wursthaus in Harvard Square, Daniel Patrick Moynihan was opining that it wouldn’t really be so bad for the good citizens of Cambridge if the Inner Belt highway forced them out to the leafy suburbs. John Kenneth Galbraith draped his lanky arm over Moynihan’s shoulder and told him, “Only a moral imbecile would articulate such a point of view.”

I was in college in 1970 and much more immersed in studying monkeys and plankton than thinking about highways, but some of my friends convinced me to join them at a demonstration in front of the State House. My father always said it was seeing me carrying a placard in the front row that made him decide he could no longer support the Inner Belt. He made a dramatic TV appearance soon after, saying he had made a mistake supporting the proposed highways and from that moment on was going to change the state’s transportation policy.

But it was more complicated than that. My father was about the least ideological person I have ever known. He made a point of surrounding himself with people from every political stripe whose primary interest was in solving problems, not winning debates. He was always willing to try a new approach and didn’t really care whose side it came from.

As my father had risen through the ranks of government, he had collected an inner circle of similarly open-minded advisers from every sphere. They included people from his days in the Department of Natural Resources as well as those from the DPW. By early 1970s, they had grown disillusioned with both the thinking and the politics behind the Inner Belt. Some of them suggested he just drop the Inner Belt and go on his way. But I think his real leadership came in offering a new vision for how transportation could work in Massachusetts and then persuading both the public and policymakers at home and in Washington, DC, to make it happen.

So my father announced a moratorium on the Inner Belt and then ordered a study that outright rejected all the highways planned within Route 128 and proposed expanding the MBTA’s Red, Orange, and Green lines of the MBTA in 1973. That was the beginning of the state’s changing its focus away from building more highways to supporting the funding and construction of public transportation. It eventually led to Boston’s Big Dig and our ever-graceful Zakim Bridge.

Afterwards, my father hired many of the activists, including my friends who had opposed him on the Inner Belt. Henry Lee became his Secretary of Energy, and Andy Klein worked with Al Kramer as trusted members of my father’s inner circle. That is the way that government can work in a thriving, ever-changing democracy.