In the bold, modernistic building that has housed City Hall since the beginning of the Kevin White Era, the elevators count out the floors this way: 1, 2, 3, Mayor, 6, 7, 8, 9.

Two floors?

Kevin H. White, 53, has never bothered to camouflage it: His unabashed belief--the one constant in a bumpy, brooding, sometimes brilliant, often enigmatic and always entertaining tenure--that he was simply too big for the job.

History--and the voters in his unsuccessful run for governor--never gave him the chance to prove it. This is a misfortune that will always "haunt" him, he said a few days before announcing to a startled city Thursday that he wouldn't seek a record fifth term.

Few Bostonians begrudged him his conceit; quite the contrary, most seem to admire it.

There is a saying among the Irish here: "We like to marry up and vote up." White's political appeal was always that he was one of them but gussied himself up in a Brooks Brothers suit and a Yankee mien.

Consider the orchestration of the retirement announcement. What suspense! What entertainment! What drama! What manipulation!

Consider the plight of Peter Lucas, the veteran political columnist for the Boston Herald. Lucas is as close to White as any working reporter in town, a relationship strengthened by the mayor's bitter feud with the Herald's bigger and wealthier rival, The Boston Globe, whose editorial page turned on White last year.

So, when the Herald printed its now famous "White Will Run" banner headline over a Peter Lucas "exclusive" on the morning of the mayor's hotly anticipated anouncement, to many it had the ring of truth.

Lucas was even interviewed on the 6 o'clock news on one of the local television stations Thursday night, jauntily predicting that White would "not only run, but win."

Minutes later, the paid commercial spot, which White had spent four days secreted away in a ritzy New York hotel writing, rewriting and taping, came on the air. Peter Lucas, and much of Boston, had been duped!

The Herald, indignant, struck back this morning by revealing the source for its "exclusive": Kevin H. White.

Lucas's first-person reconstruction of a telephone conversation he had with the mayor the night before the announcement read in the Herald as follows:

" 'Will I be wrong tomorrow if I say you are running? ' I asked.

" 'You are not wrong,' the mayor said.

" 'I'm going out on a limb,' I repeated.

" 'You and Bob Page the Herald's publisher are going to be happy. We'll screw the Globe,' he said."

White gave another interview to Lucas after the announcement and said of the misunderstanding: "I reserve the right to change my mind."

In many ways, this curious end-game episode was classic Kevin White: manipulative, clever and enigmatic.

Many observers wondered, if he was going to dupe a reporter to hype his story, why didn't he pick on one at the arch-enemy Globe, which emerged unscathed with a carefully worded pre-announcement story that tilted toward a prediction that he would retire.

Even White's closest aides say they do not know. Even the closest observers have long been baffled by White, with his charm, his rapier wit, his obvious intellectual depth and breath--and his black Irish moodiness.

"He has an overriding need to control all people and all events, and ultimately that is why he never went further as a politician," said one associate.

It was not for want of trying. In 1970, White ran for governor and lost. In 1972, Ted Kennedy blocked his bid to be George McGovern's running-mate.

Then the school busing crisis racked Boston, tarnished White's image as a liberal who could make a big city work, and took him out of the national picture for good.

So White was stuck in a rut: mayor. He consoled himself by building a political machine, refurbishing the Parkman House into an opulent official mayoral mansion and taking a junket to China just at a time the city was on the edge of bankruptcy.

But he never bothered to hide his disappointment.

This week he told a television interviewer that there will be people who will say of him:

"Whatever happened to Kevin White? Why didn't he go farther? You know, uhh, how come he was, he was just a mayor? There were so many things he could have done and didn't . . . . That bothers me more than anything else. It isn't what you did, it's what you failed to do that history haunts you for."