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Ex-Boston mayor fighting account of his drinking

It used to be that this was the kind of town where all good pols were expected to take a few drinks, maybe even more than a few, with the boys. From here on in, though, all good pols will most likely be looking over their shoulders as they bend their elbows.

This month Boston has witnessed the cautionary tale of the homecoming of Ray Flynn, most recent U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, longtime populist mayor here and, by the account of an article in the Boston Globe that appeared just five days after his return from Rome, a sub-par performer as a diplomat and long a problem drinker.

Flynn, who is all but officially running for governor of Massachusetts next year, vehemently denies virtually every point in the Globe's Oct. 3 article. He accuses the newspaper of savaging him because, he says, it opposes his bid for governor and has contempt for his "class, religion and ethnic background." (Read: blue collar, Catholic and Irish.)

"You see, people at the top of the Boston Globe don't understand or respect working-class families," he said in a statement. "And they really don't approve of someone like me who has refused to abandon my working-class "lifestyle.' "

The Globe, owned by the New York Times Co. but independent in its news operation, stands by its account. Its news executives say Flynn's accusing the paper of ethnic and religious bias is absurd, when it has many Irish Catholics on its staff, right on up to its editor, Matthew Storin, and has endorsed Flynn in the past.

The impetus for focusing on Flynn's drinking habits, they say, was an editor's encounter with the former mayor on a North End street in August. Flynn was unsteady, they say, and his speech was slurred.

"He is a public figure who has indicated that he will run for the highest office in the state," Storin said. "And we have a responsibility to inform our readers about both his public behavior and his performance record in a public post, and the piece did both."

The public post was the ambassadorship at the Vatican, where Flynn spent four stormy years in which he was twice reprimanded by the State Department, once for speaking out forcefully on domestic U.S. politics and again for having an embassy employee handle his family's finances.

The Globe article quoted State Department sources, diplomats and former aides who criticized Flynn's performance, implying that he had been negligent and decidedly undiplomatic.

Flynn, 58, and his allies take issue with the low marks given his work as an envoy. They assert that while his man-of-the-people ways may not have fit well into white-glove diplomatic circles, he performed valuable work as liaison between the White House and the Vatican, and helped international humanitarian causes.

Whatever the truth about Flynn's diplomatic career, one thing is undisputed: Although the Globe's reporting focused both on his drinking and on complaints about his performance in Rome, it did not _ could not, Storin says _ establish any direct link between the two. But it explicitly raised the question of whether his drinking would diminish the prospects for a successful tenure should he ever be elected governor. Therein lies the nub of most of the substantive criticism the paper has incurred.

The article said that Flynn appeared drunk in public twice during a visit back to Boston in August and that earlier, when he was mayor, he occasionally needed to be helped home from Boston taverns by aides.

Flynn has never denied that he loves to spend evenings in pubs with the hoi polloi, and indeed many editors and reporters themselves have been known to enjoy drinking with him over the years. But he also runs at least 7 miles a day and two marathons a year, and denies both that he is more than a social drinker and that drinking ever affected his work.

So the journalistic debate surrounding his stormy homecoming is this, to quote a brief article the Globe ran with its lengthier one: "When does a politician's drinking become a legitimate news story?"

Without an established link between Flynn's drinking and his job performance at the Vatican, the article should not have mixed the two, said Lou DiNatale, senior fellow at the McCormack Institute, a public policy center at the Boston campus of the University of Massachusetts.

"That his drinking was an issue, okay," DiNatale said. "But the idea that Ray's performance in the job, which was quirky, peculiar and designed to drive his own political agenda _ that has much more to do with Ray Flynn's political personality than with Ray Flynn's personal drinking habits."

The Globe, however, says attitudes toward drinking have changed to the point where the rules too have changed.

After receiving more than 200 phone calls about the report, most of them accusing the Globe of a hatchet job, Jack Thomas, the paper's ombudsman, wrote in an article it published last week, "At a time when the public struggles with the damaging effects of alcohol . . . any newspaper that ignores a pattern of public drunkenness by a candidate has ethics made of eggshells."

Probably no one, however, is angrier than Flynn, who was already dealing with some tough recent times.

Two of his associates were sent to jail, a bookkeeper for embezzling from a Flynn campaign fund and a former City Hall adviser to Flynn for other corruption. The former mayor is also said to be broke and looking for political redemption (and a possible job offer) by making a respectable showing in the governor's race.

Despite the fuss, a poll done in the week after the Globe published its account found that among Democratic primary voters, he was running respectably in the governor's race: he had 17 percent of the vote, good enough for a statistical tie for second place.