The Brother Bulger
Out of power and finally out of the spotlight, Billy Bulger finds himself confronting the question of how he’ll be remembered by the state he once dominated. But it’s a tricky thing, repairing a legacy when you’re not supposed to care what people think.
Billy Bulger sits on a shaded bench on the Common, facing the State House, drinking a cup of Dunkin’s coffee. He’s dressed neatly as always, in a navy suit and red tie, though his black oxford shoes are peeling and badly worn. He’s talking about his old nemesis Mitt Romney, and the campaign Romney waged to expunge him from his job as UMass president. Only, he can hardly finish a thought, because a mounted park ranger keeps charging his horse up the hill behind us, howling at the top of his lungs. Up and back, up and back: “Getupgetupgetupgetup!” Bulger is getting perturbed, and also appears to be getting perturbed about being perturbed.
“If I did that everyone would know I’m losing my grip,” he says. “They throw the net over people for less than that.” He pauses as the ranger rides back down the hill. “But he’s happy.” Pause. “Probably boredom.” Pause. “He’s not coming here, I hope.”
But he is. The ranger hauls the beast up the hill again, swings it around to the front of the bench, and gives us a nod. Unlike the two dozen others who have stopped to say hello—including a thickly accented duck boat driver who misidentifies Bulger as “former speaker of the House”—the ranger doesn’t seem to recognize him. “How we doin’?” he says. Bulger greets him politely, then leans over to me and says out of the corner of his mouth, “Wyatt Earp.” The ranger heads back down the hill, and Bulger steers the conversation back over to his accomplishments at UMass, the money he raised, the—
“It’s a cowboy movie!” He gathers himself. “So Bill Connell [the late Boston businessman and prominent philanthropist]—he went to BC, we were buddies— got up from lunch one day, he says, ‘I’ll give you 500K— “Getupgetupgetupgetup!”
“You mean to tell me the country’s not falling apart?” Pause. “He’s doing no harm.”
While walking around outside, Bulger often appears tense, on guard, like a man expecting at any given moment to be attacked by birds. But get him in the halls he once dominated, and he is full of confidence. As we take a spin through the State House earlier in the day, he is crisp in his speech and movement, holding forth on the history of the building, hobnobbing with some of the countless court officers he hired over the years. He visits the Senate chamber, where he spent 26 years, a record 18 as president, then his grand old office, currently occupied by Senate President Therese Murray. He stops to chat with a couple of Murray’s aides, offering them a few words of advice on keeping constituents happy. Like many others I meet that day, the aides look from Bulger to the notebook in my hand and back with either incomprehension or muted alarm. “He’s a journalist,” Bulger explains, “which makes me very wary. Men of unsleeping malevolence.” Before the tour is over, he’ll call me a man of unsleeping malevolence four times. (During subsequent outings, this will be augmented by “little jerk” and “pissant.”)
Bulger walks into the governor’s waiting room, telling curious Patrick staffers who wander out to see him, “Don’t worry about the curtains. You’re doing fine.” Bulger had some similar problems back in 1988, when he caught hell for spending $160,000 of state money to restore his old office to its historical grandeur, making Patrick’s $10,000 damask drapes look like a trip to Family Dollar. On the wall to the left hangs the notoriously bad portrait of Governor Bill Weld, clad in jeans and a denim shirt and standing in the woods with an armadillo. It stands out in full absurdist contrast against the other, more decorous portraits of former governors, wearing suits and affecting gravitas.
“He’s irresponsible,” Bulger says of his old friend and ally (and choice whipping boy at the annual Southie St. Patrick’s Day Breakfast). When a Patrick staffer mentions he’s heard Weld’s backyard is full of armadillos, Bulger says, “He loves them because they’re so dumb.” Minutes later, Lieutenant Governor Tim Murray walks in with a clutch of aides. After a little small talk, he asks Bulger if he misses it all.
“At times,” Bulger says, and the phrase hangs there in the air for a moment, before everyone snaps back into motion and returns to the business of running the state.
On the way out of the State House, we encounter a pair of severely lost and disoriented tourists. They’re Québecois, a walking explosion of bright colors, windbreakers, hats, and shattered English, and they have no idea who Bulger is. They’re looking for the bathroom. Bulger directs them, joking, “We’ve had people in here for 11 or 12 years, running around like this,” but they don’t know what he’s talking about and immediately get lost again. Next time we see them, they ask, “You have bathroom, water drinkable?”
“We have one of the cleanest harbors in the world, because of the president,” volunteers a nearby court officer. He does it forcefully, dutifully, as if stepping in to deflect a frontal assault. The tourists stand there, blinking.
“Thanks for the commercial there,” Bulger says, a little embarrassed.
“Okay.” A clipped “okay” is how Bulger terminates mildly uncomfortable exchanges—of which, to this day, he seems to have no shortage.
In the elevator he turns to me and says, “I was part of that harbor cleanup.”
I FIRST MET BILLY BULGER THREE YEARS AGO. He had donated a lunch with him to a local middle school auction, and the winning bidder (my sister) had given it to me as a gift. We went to Marliave’s, a classic Old Boston joint on Bosworth Street downtown that’s since been demolished to make way for a tower of gleaming luxury condos. He invited me to lunch a few times after that, mostly to talk about books, politics, and whether or not journalism is, as Bulger wrote in a 1986 self-published pamphlet, “the new terrorism.” An inveterate hater of the Globe and the Herald, he also harbors more than a little ill will toward this particular publication for running a 2002 piece by one of his blood foes, Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz, which branded him the “real godfather of Boston’s notorious Winter Hill mob.”
Yet despite my professional affiliation, during one of our sit-downs earlier this year Bulger agreed to let me follow him around for an in-depth profile, something he hasn’t done since the New Yorker published a fawning piece on him in the early ’90s. This is a comparatively quiet time for him. He’s retired from both full-time work and, it would seem, scandal—inasmuch as such a thing is possible for him. He’s taking a break from teaching his popular political science class at Boston College, and in April the U.S. Attorney’s Office, after a lengthy investigation, declined to seek crimi
nal charges against him for allegedly obstructing the effort to capture his brother Whitey, the mass-murdering mob boss and FBI informant who’s been on the lam for the past 13 years. (Before our third sit-down, Bulger took a part-time job consulting for Carney Hospital, and returned to work at Suffolk University, where he also lectures.) He is further out of the public eye than he’s been since he first won election to the Massachusetts House in 1960, at a point in a public figure’s life when the legacy begins uncoupling itself from the man, and the man, for the first time, is able to regard it from a little distance, and decide, however painful, whether he likes what he sees.
During his tenure, Bulger was a remarkably enigmatic politician, known as at once a cruel autocrat and a thoughtful consensus-builder, a tireless defender of the urban poor and a staunch social conservative who opposed gay rights, a townie who jigged his way down Broadway and a classicist who fought hard to support the public library system. Hanging out with him now, you get a sense of how unsettled his image remains. Some people pause to greet him with the utmost decorum, saying, “Hello, Mister President” (which is what he prefers—it’s what comes up under the “from” tag when he e-mails you). Some yell out, “Hey ya, Billy!” (which he doesn’t mind, though he doesn’t like it as much as Bill, the name friends call him). All perform near-comic double-takes when he walks past, like they’ve just seen a ghost. One man tells him, “Good to see you alive.”
“Did he say, ‘Good to see you alive’?” Bulger asks. “I wonder what he’s thinking.”
GIVEN THE RANCOR HE’S INSPIRED OVER THE YEARS, you might expect some of the people who run into Bulger to give him hell. Bostonians, after all, are no strangers to the practice of hurling abuse out of car windows at each other. But Bulger insists most people he encounters on the street are respectful to him, and that hostile run-ins are “very rare.” He offers an example. “I’m going to Mass General Hospital the other day,” he says. “The guy doesn’t know I’m with my wife. These are his exact words: ‘How ya doin’, good luck, and fuck Howie Carr.’”
Howie Carr: for years Bulger’s bane, his tormentor, his new terrorist. The name comes up often with Bulger, and when it does, he doesn’t speak it so much as cough it up; occasionally, he swaps in “the savage,” or, better, “that excrescence.” The dynamic between Bulger and the popular Herald columnist and talk show host is what Moby Dick would be like if the whale were as obsessed with Ahab as Ahab is with the whale. (“I see in him outrageous strength,” Ahab says of his nemesis, “with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate.”)
In addition to writing The Brothers Bulger, an absolutely scathing though largely uncorroborated account of the reigns of Billy and Whitey that contends the two worked in concert to build and fortify their respective empires, Carr never wastes a chance to flog the man he relishes calling the “Corrupt Midget,” even if it means dropping anti-Bulger non sequiturs as a kind of shorthand for corruption or nepotism. (In a June column, for example, he trashed someone for being “the first cousin of Billy Bulger’s predecessor as Senate president.”) The climax of the feud came in 2003, during Bulger’s disastrous testimony before the House Committee on Government Reform, which was investigating his ties to his brother, along with other allegations of miscellaneous skullduggery. Carr positioned himself directly behind Bulger, so that his head appeared right over Bulger’s shoulder on TV, and spent the entire testimony rolling his eyes and making choking faces for the cameras. Watching that performance, you got the sense that Carr’s already got half of his savage Billy Bulger obituary written, and is just waiting for the “CM” to kick off so he can do what Hunter S. Thompson did to Nixon, and H. L. Mencken did to William Jennings Bryan—namely, kill his ghost before it gets too far from his body. Carr even included a joke along those lines in the index of his book. Under “Bulger, William Michael ‘Billy’ Sr.,” there’s an entry, “demise of,” that points to passages on Bulger bombing at the 1991 St. Patrick’s Day Breakfast and his 2003 appearance before the House committee.
What really makes the fracas interesting is how similar the two men are. Both come from humble beginnings, attained a top-shelf education, and rose to the local apex of their respective fields. Both are immensely intelligent, though given to cheap showmanship—Bulger with his rote Irishness and Carr with his tired fat jokes and gay-baiting. Both have long, long memories and possess unmatched knowledge of the inner workings of Beacon Hill. Both wrote books about Billy Bulger that were praised nationally and panned locally, and both can be very kind and charitable to people, but are reputed to be painfully sensitive to criticism and prone to pettiness and vindictiveness. They could be brothers themselves.
At one point, I ask Bulger if he’s read Carr’s book. “I couldn’t bring myself to look at it,” he says. “I can’t even listen to him. He’s just so evil. All kinds of things—he just makes it up.”
After our State House tour and the episode with the mounted ranger, Bulger goes off to lunch with friends at Locke-Ober. We agree to meet up later for a trip to Castle Island. I wait on a bench on the edge of the Common, and at the appointed hour he comes walking down Tremont, wearing sunglasses and a scally cap and singing the hoary Irish chestnut “Rising of the Moon.” Bulger’s voice is extraordinarily elastic. Normally ultraprecise and articulate in speech, he’ll drop r’s when recounting something a constituent said, or affect a slight singsong brogue when telling funny stories. (“I still remember my mother, she said, ‘When did you become so Irish?’” he says. “I said, ‘Mum, it’s just shtick—it helps with the campaigns.’”) Sometimes Bulger will fill an entire room with his words, and sometimes he’ll speak so quietly you can barely hear him. We both stand there as he finishes the entire song.
“’Tis the rising of the moon
’Tis the rising of the moon
And hurrah, me boys, for freedom
’Tis the rising of the moon!”
Then we descend into the Common parking garage to get into his car, a black Grand Marquis.
On the passenger seat sit a couple of folders. The one on top is for the William M. Bulger Excellence in State Leadership Award, established in 1996 by the State Legislative Leaders Foundation. “They have an award they give out every year, and it’s named after that most humble man,” Bulger jokes. “Get that look of admiration off your face.” The other folder contains copies of some of Carr’s columns and transcripts of his radio show. The documents were assembled in 1990, Bulger says, “to prepare a suit against this nut.” He never went through with it, dissuaded by the expense and the extreme difficulty of a public figure’s winning a libel suit in the United States—a fact he’s railed against for years.
Bulger believes the animosity he inspires in Carr comes from his refusal to play the
game with the columnist. “I’ve never spoken to him in my life,” he says. “I refuse to speak to him, and it drives him to distraction. He’s got all kinds of people who come in through the back door, doing business with him, telling him things about people that might embarrass someone, and that’s fine, that’s a way of doing business. I don’t like it, and I won’t be a part of it.”
“Obviously, his memory has not improved since the Congressional hearings,” quips Carr. “Of course I’ve spoken to him.” (Carr tells a story from his TV reporting days, when he was covering a party for a book of State House recipes. “I went down with my camera crew and asked him, ‘What’s your favorite recipe in the book, Mister President?’ Surrounded by his rumpswabs, he thought a moment and replied, ‘Roast reporter.’ ‘Really?’ I replied. ‘I would have thought it would be strawberry shortcake.’”)
Halfway to Southie, while stopped at a red light by South Station, Bulger rolls down the window and yells to a grizzled Herald hawker by the roadside. “Hey, Mister Bulger!” the guy calls back. “I’m broke out here. It’s horrible out here.”
“You’re a good man. Okay, kid.”
“Us Eastie guys,” the guy yells as we pull away, “we’re all right, too, you know!”
“Poor kid,” Bulger says to me. “I give him a hard time all the time. I say, ‘What kind of misinformation are you giving the public?’ You couldn’t joke with a reporter like that. They take themselves too seriously.”
While in the Senate, Bulger continually baited the press. Though he now tells his Suffolk and BC students, “I wouldn’t recommend it,” he maintains that for him, it was the “price of independence.” It also had a strategic value, as his constituents already resented the Globe for its staunch pro-busing stance in the ’70s. “You can use it in a demagogic fashion,” he says. Another benefit of his sour relationship with the press, perhaps intentional, perhaps not, was that it let him easily dismiss anything written about him—right or wrong—as the product of media bias. And this could be done with relative impunity.
But as the feud with Carr illustrates, the price of independence might have been higher than he imagined. At this point, the image of Bulger many Bostonians hold is the one that’s most readily available, Carr’s: Billy the tinpot tyrant, the sanctimonious fraud. This puts Bulger in an awkward position. He often says he’s proud that he never kowtowed to the media, and he clearly enjoyed goading reporters (in 1993, in response to a query about term limits, he referenced the Roman essayist Juvenal, and then asked if the reporter wanted the quote in Latin or English). Yet he’s nonetheless angry at the treatment this approach ultimately got him.
“It’s not rational, perhaps,” he says. “But what happens every now and again, I say, ‘Every one of these sons of bitches in the press, they all know what a lying son of a gun [Carr] is, and not one word.’ There’s a huge amount of misinformation being spewed out, and these guys that are supposed to be the newspaper of record….” He trails off. “It doesn’t make sense for me to get angry at all, but I do.”
WE ARRIVE AT CASTLE ISLAND, A BULGERITE REDOUBT if there ever was one, and stake out a bench overlooking the water. Bulger launches into a well-worn John Boyle O’Reilly poem, “In Bohemia,” a bit of doggerel about a land where “only there are the values true / And the laurels gathered in all men’s view.” “Curley used to wear all that stuff out,” Bulger says, referring to James Michael Curley, the legendarily orotund Boston mayor, Massachusetts governor, and occasional inmate. Recycling is something Bulger himself is routinely criticized for, and when I point that out, he rolls out another recycled line. “Oh, I do, I do, all the time. It’s terrible. I tell the same jokes. If they were looking for something new, I’d say, ‘Hey, does Frank Sinatra change the lyrics? No. So stop your squawkin’.’ Because Carr accuses me of that, doesn’t he?” Pause. “What does he have on me? Anything real?”
I tell him the gist of The Brothers Bulger: that he worked behind the scenes to help keep law enforcement off his brother’s back, and in return Whitey intimidated his political enemies, such as Bill Keating, the state senator who spearheaded the failed mid-’90s “insurrection” against Bulger for the Senate presidency, and Harold Brown, the developer who alleged he bribed Bulger’s law partner Thomas Finnerty—who then turned around and loaned $240,000 to Bulger—in the 75 State Street scandal in 1986 but later withdrew the charge.
“Oh, we’re a team, we’re a team,” Bulger says.
There are distinct takes on Bulger’s silence on Whitey. His supporters believe that they’re two totally separate people; their lives may have overlapped at points, but that was just Southie, a small town where everyone knew one another. His foes believe his silence is deliberate, that he’s hiding something. Somewhere in the middle are those who believe that Billy didn’t actively collude with his brother, but still benefited from people thinking he might have, as a way of preempting any potential challengers. “They’re free to speculate,” says Bulger. “Of all the things I should be feeling guilty about is that I had so little to do with—I could have tried to influence him. But you know, you couldn’t get a conversation going.” He adds, “All sorts of people did recognize that I was living my own life, and I could only be responsible for what I did, I can’t be responsible for someone else, an adult. I can’t.”
Even if all the allegations are false, as he maintains, Bulger’s reluctance to talk about his brother with the press has effectively forfeited control of the narrative, and by extension, his legacy: Anytime someone mentions Billy from now on, Whitey’s name is sure to follow. “There’s nothing I can do about it,” he says.
Bulger’s not the only one to suffer for what Whitey did, of course. So did his whole family, including his younger brother Jackie, a former clerk magistrate in the juvenile court who went to prison for protecting Whitey and later lost his state pension because of it. Entire swaths of Southie were ravaged by the crime Whitey brought into the neighborhood, as well. “Yeah,” Bulger says, “but you can’t look across the planet very far without seeing all sorts of people who are confronted by hardships and suffering that’s not of their own making. So what do you do? You bear with it. You bear up under it. That’s all you can do. And they always are trying to do something to condemn him. I’m not doing it. I’m just not doing it.”
So is Whitey not worthy of condemnation?
“Of course,” says Bulger. “But that’s not the question. That’s a different question. You have to be smarter than that, than to say that because I will not engage in condemnation that I don’t think it’s worthy of condemnation. I’m not going to satisfy the mob. I’m not saying anything about it, other than it’s another person.”
owledges that his reticence regarding his brother is “a source of anger and frustration” for people. I suggest that’s true not just for his critics and law enforcement officials, but also for his supporters. When people discuss the Bulgers, one question that often comes up is, What would it be like if I had a brother who was a mass murderer?
“But they don’t, do they?” Bulger says.
What if people just want to know how he feels about it?
“They can figure it out. I would be opening up a topic that I could never stop talking about.”
Bulger sighs. He looks completely spent. After a moment, he steers the conversation back to safer waters, recalling the time he upbraided Alan Dershowitz and lawyer Harvey Silverglate before the Governor’s Council back in 1990. Bulger’s longtime aide Paul Mahoney was up for a judgeship, and Dershowitz had attempted to block it on the grounds that the mild-mannered Mahoney was a “thug” and a Bulger “henchman.” At the council hearing, Bulger thrashed the pair, calling them “very manipulative and exceedingly crafty,” “true connivers,” and “murderers of reputations.” Dershowitz responded by denouncing Bulger for using anti-Semitic code words.
“I said, ‘This is a very crafty, crafty man,’” Bulger says. “I know the word, I’m deliberate about it. If we’re ‘thugs…’. But the fun of bracing him—you think that’s pretty mean of me?” As he says this, he winks a lightning-fast wink. It’s remarkable: The only part of his face that moves at all is his eyelid. It’s done for the same reason anyone winks, to convey wryness and warmth, but executed in such a way that, if pressed, he could easily deny it later.
Bulger’s enjoying himself now, but there’s still a hint of wistfulness about him. “I think of most of it as being pretty far behind, increasingly,” he says. “But I’m fortunate, because I’ve enjoyed it all. I think of someone like Carl Thayer [his mentor at BC]. He said, ‘Don’t ever get caught up in who approves or disapproves. It’s enough that you know.’ He used to have this expression—it’s so pious—but he wrote, ‘God knows the heart.’ I like that, even though I’m not sure God’s paying much attention.”
Later, Bulger stops to entertain a dozen older townie supporters hanging out on a couple of benches. “What is this, a work-release program?” They lap it up—“You betcha, Bill!”—and it clearly reinvigorates him. A woman with a black bouffant and a pink Sox T-shirt stops him to say how the St. Patrick’s Day Breakfast, a once riotous affair now descended well into its baroque period, just isn’t the same without him.
“They’re not doing a good job like you did a good job,” she says, patting his arm.
“That’s a very common complaint,” Bulger says.
He’s feeling good, “kiddish,” as we walk back to the car. “Sometimes I think about running again,” he says. “Just to get everybody’s ass. But I don’t know if that’s wise.”
EVEN IN RETIREMENT, BULGER MAINTAINS a robust schedule. He still gets up early every morning to take his walk around Castle Island, and goes to church every Sunday at St. Bridget’s. He spends a lot of time with his family, which now includes 30 grandchildren (“I have my own precinct,” he says), and keeps a busy social calendar, lunching with friends and local politicians and turning up at events like the annual Profiles in Courage dinner and August’s state legislators conference, where he drew big laughs introducing the winner of the Bulger leadership award, and was later seen furtively wiping away tears after historian David McCullough’s stirring keynote on the importance of education. He gives the occasional eulogy—like the one delivered at the funeral of a hard-luck court officer he hired—and has turned up as a guest on The Literati Scene, the cable-access show helmed by legendary Beacon Hill socialites Smoki Bacon and Dick Concannon.
Known as “the Beam” while he was growing up in the Southie projects, for his habit of reading by desk lamp in his room late into the night, Bulger remains a big reader. At various points we discuss Cullen Murphy’s Are We Rome?, Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (a guilty pleasure), The Last Hurrah, Shakespeare’s Coriolanus (“I like the nastiness of it”), an essay on understanding politics in the journal First Things (which he had fully annotated before giving it to me), and Christopher Hitchens’s vicious takedown of Mother Teresa, another guilty pleasure that Bulger likes for Hitchens’s audacity and writing style. “I haven’t been skewered by him,” he says. “He doesn’t know I exist. But I think the screwing would be more tolerable.” All this is set against the work of his hero Samuel Johnson, which functions as a sort of literary and philosophical background music. Bulger’s e-mail address even references Imlac, the wise old teacher who leads a naive, pampered prince into the world in Johnson’s Rasselas. (“Inconsistencies,” says Imlac to Rasselas, “cannot be right, but imputed to man, they may both be true.”)
One morning, Bulger and I arrange to have breakfast at Mul’s Diner, an old greasy spoon on West Broadway in Southie. Across the street is the 6 House, a martini bar that used to be Triple O’s, the Whitey Bulger haunt that played host to some unspeakably gruesome spectacles in its day, and would appear in the news again soon after our visit, when a man is stabbed to death inside and the specter of Whitey is raised yet again. All around are massive luxury condo complexes in varying stages of completion. Amid the stream of young professionals walking to the Broadway T station, a wan, emaciated drunk toddles over to me and strikes up a conversation. It’s five of 9, and he’s just killing time before the packie up the street opens. His name is Rocky. After a summary of his recent woman problems, he tells me he used to box in Brockton.
“Hey, City of Champions,” I say. “Rocky Marciano.”
“I beat him,” Rocky says, his eyes narrowing.
“You beat Rocky Marciano?”
He nods and smilingly shows me his fist, then heads off. When Bulger shows up a few minutes later, I tell him about the guy’s boast.
“Great,” Bulger says. “He should write for Boston fucking magazine.” He takes a seat in a booth. “I swear a lot lately for effect,” he says, with a slight shake of the head. “I justify it, though.”
Mul’s is a favored breakfast spot for politicians and media, and while Bulger eats his breakfast—Egg Beaters, sliced tomatoes, and a piece of toast—Police Commissioner Ed Davis, Globe metro columnist Kevin Cullen, fashion designer Joseph Abboud, and Virginia Senator Jim Webb all come by to say hello. Bulger greets each one warmly, and warns a fidgety Webb about the folly of seeking esteem through the press.
We get to talking about Southie, first about his role in the 1970s busing crisis. It’s a topic he brings up frequently. Bulger’s outspoken opposition to busing married him to the base that would support him for the entirety of h
is Senate reign, but because of the perceived racist overtones, it also made seeking higher office impossible. In fact, you could argue that the two things that had the most lastingly bad impact on Southie in the latter half of the 20th century were busing, which Billy fought tooth and claw, and Whitey, who flooded the neighborhood with drugs and guns. Of course, this was before gentrification all but wiped the slate clean.
Bulger tells a story about taking the Summer Street bus home not long ago with his wife of 47 years, Mary, and not knowing a single person. “Life has moved on,” he says. “Things are always in a constant state of change. We know it from Heraclitus, you can’t step in the same stream twice, right?” While he says this, he writes his favorite quote from Solon—“I grow old, ever learning new things”—in Greek on a napkin and slides it across the table to me. Several of his nine children have moved away, Bulger says, done the shuffle to the South Shore and, in one case, Chicago, but he’s content to stay. “I like it,” he says. “It’s live and let live. They say, ‘Hi, how ya doin’,’ go on their way. Also I think they have a healthy skepticism about things.”
Bulger has been working on an introduction to a forthcoming James Michael Curley biography. He says he also has plans to write a “continuation” of his 1996 memoir, While the Music Lasts. The book was praised by the likes of economist and JFK adviser John Kenneth Galbraith, though critics lambasted Bulger for either being delusional or fabricating whole scenes to settle old scores. (“I did it for the money,” Bulger says. “Our friend Johnson said only a blockhead writes for anything but money.”) The follow-up, he says, will deal largely with what he learned during “the season of Romney,” which began when the governor, hoping to score points as a reformer, drew a bead on Bulger after Bulger’s faltering testimony before the House committee. It was the first power struggle in decades where Bulger came out on the losing end.
Bulger’s tenure at UMass is widely seen as a success, though when he came into it he had so much baggage that even the New York Times felt the need to run an editorial warning “Boss Bulger” not to turn the school into a patronage mill. He did bring in a lot of old associates while he was there, and famously moved the president’s office to an opulent $1-million-a-year downtown space that’s since been vacated by the university, but by and large he did very well in his eight years in charge. Over the course of his tenure, SAT scores of accepted students rose an average of 36 points across the five UMass campuses, with the biggest jumps at predominantly working-class Boston, Lowell, and Dartmouth. The school’s endowment went from $40 million to $150 million, and revenues from licensing UMass research increased from $754,000 to $20 million. Bulger also helped launch UMass’s online distance-learning program, a national leader. More importantly, say people who worked with him, he brought stability to an often fractious system and bridged the gap between the blue-collar, business, and academic worlds. Says UMass Amherst professor Ralph Whitehead, “The image I have of Bulger is of him talking to one of the guys on the yard crew while five or six campus bureaucrats are waiting for him to follow them.”
“I had a lot going on,” Bulger says of his years at the university, “a lot of people helping me. I thought we were making progress, jump-starting the institution—we did all kinds of things. But I also know that my brother’s thing is juicy.”
Bulger says he never met Romney face to face, a claim disputed by the current presidential candidate’s camp. “I inquired about seeing Romney with one of the people who work for him, but he said, ‘He’s a businessman, he says you’re an exploitable commodity, he’ll never let up because you are useful.’” Whatever the case, Bulger remains startled by how hard Romney came at him, at one point even threatening to appoint Dershowitz to the UMass board. “He comes to town and he can steamroll over everybody. And I’m an easy mark,” Bulger says. “I wasn’t expecting that. I’ve worked with rich people before, but they knew me. And almost anyone that I knew, I was okay with.”
When Bulger was finally rousted from his post in August 2003, he negotiated a $960,000 severance package, which amounted to 80 percent of what he had left in his contract. That came on top of the staggering state pension he was already in line to receive, thanks to his $309,000 annual salary at the university. Still, Bulger fought for three years to get a paltry $29,000 housing allowance categorized as part of his income and added to the pile. In 2006 the state Supreme Judicial Court at last ruled in his favor, and his pension rose to just over $197,000 a year. Bulger partisans agree with him that the push was a matter of principle, after his shabby treatment at the hands of Romney. His foes claim that the motivation was not so high-minded—he was just plundering the joint and stealing the china on his way out. “Why does a dog lick its balls?” quips one longtime observer. “Because it can.”
Looking back on it, Bulger’s decision was a curious one: Here’s a politician who, in the words of Marc Landy, a political scientist who taught with him at BC, possesses “the most remarkable combination of shrewdness and theoretical understanding I’ve ever run across.” He was just coming off a stint at UMass that had bolstered his reputation, a boost that wasn’t diminished when he left, considering how many people thought Romney had bullied him. And then he gives that up for what he knew would be perceived as petty avarice. Bulger remains convinced it was the right thing to do. “At the time, we discussed it and said, ‘We’re going to get killed for this.’ But I said, ‘I’m not going to walk away. They’re not going to say anything good about me anyway.’” Certain that the housing allowance fell under his overall compensation, and that it belonged to him and his family, he wasn’t going to forfeit it just because he had a target on his back. Even if as little as $100 was at stake, he would have done it, just “to stand up to that little twerp at the Treasury,” Tim Cahill, who fought him bitterly on the increase, and who also chaired the board that rescinded Jackie Bulger’s pension. “I felt as though they must think that I’m so hurt, that I’m just going off,” Bulger says. “I wanted to show that I was unafraid of them. And asserting myself in that way was good. I like that.”
Suddenly, Bulger lights up. “Oh, Jesus, there’s Michael Barnicle!” he exclaims, looking over my shoulder, and it is. Over walks Barnicle, the former Globe columnist, radio host, and occasional sub for Hardball’s Chris Matthews on MSNBC, looking a little grubby in an oversize, worn-out T-shirt. Before he was forced to resign from his job at the Globe amid allegations of plagiarism and fabricating sources, Barnicle was derided as an apologist for the Bulger brothers, perhaps the last person in town who still bought the myth of Whitey as a latter-day Robin Hood delivering turkeys to the poor and helping old ladies cross the street. Late last year, he turned up as a member of an investment group weighing an irony-laden purchase of his former paper.
Bulger makes a big show for the room. “Will you put him out of here?” he calls to the laughing waitresses. “Would you please
get him out? Do we have anybody here who can get him out? This place is going to hell. This used to be a nice restaurant! I guess I’m going to have to go back to the Four Seasons!” Big laughs. He turns to Barnicle and asks how he is.
“I’m doin’ well,” Barnicle says. “Same old, same old. Just get up every day and get back in the batter’s box.”
“You’re doing very well,” Bulger tells him. “I like your spirit. It’s real.”
“Well, I like yours, too.”
“Bet your life.”
Barnicle points out another Globe reporter sitting over in the corner. Bulger nods, then says, “Can you do me a favor? Tell him to get out.”
“Wait’ll we buy it,” Barnicle roars, as he walks away. “We’re gonna buy it!”
TWO WEEKS LATER, ON A BRUTALLY hot afternoon, Bulger and I sit in Locke-Ober, its atmosphere thick with fading grandeur. A lot has changed since the first time he visited the restaurant, in 1962, when a 29-year-old Ted Kennedy brought him here to try to win Bulger’s backing for his run for JFK’s Senate seat. (Bulger ordered the most expensive thing on the menu, wolfed it down, and passed on Kennedy’s invitation.) Bulger confesses that he’s been uncomfortable talking about himself so much; he’d be embarrassed, he says, if people thought the reason he agreed to these interviews was to attack bygone enemies or puff himself up. Besides, he says, he’s not sure anyone even cares about what he might have to say.
But of course that’s an absurd claim. His story’s too good, too big, whether it’s his version or Carr’s. Moreover, for all his frequent exhortations on the evils of seeking out esteem, he still clearly wants to be esteemed. At the State House, Bulger was said to privately circulate copies of the highly favorable New Yorker story, as well as a glowing 60 Minutes segment, and those who worked with him say he could recite lines from negative stories published a decade earlier. He’s steadily amassed a slew of honors over the years, serving on the boards of the Boston Public Library, the symphony, Mass General, the MFA, McLean Hospital, the Children’s Museum, and so on. In addition to the award in his name given out by the State Legislative Leaders Foundation, he also received BC Law’s 50th Anniversary Award for a career that “reflects great honor” on the institution. A former legislative colleague says, “I think he’s an insecure person, always trying to work at allaying those personal fears by getting praise and acclaim. He loves it. And he works at it.” When the Boston Phoenix praised his tenure at UMass in an editorial earlier this year, Bulger e-mailed it to me the day it came out. At 4:13 in the morning.
Bulger is the last of the Boston Irish street politicians, a brilliant face-to-face campaigner. That suited him well while in office: When your territory is compact and contained, like Southie or the State House, those skills are all you need to transmit your message or maintain your clout. While still in the Senate, he once said that “the people who despise me the most don’t know me,” and that seems true. He can be famously charming, so much so that rumor has it the reason Romney never sat down with Bulger is because Romney’s people—several of whom had seen how quickly Bulger got Bill Weld on his side after Weld ran his successful, bitterly anti-Bulger gubernatorial campaign in 1990—took pains to make sure that Bulger and Romney weren’t allowed in the same room alone together. People speak of his charisma like it’s a tractor beam. But charm alone can’t rehabilitate a reputation, or anyway not this one. He’d need to use the press for that, which he’s not supposed to do because he’s turned not using the press into a matter of inviolable principle. “That’s the danger,” Bulger says. “Everyone wants to be….” He pauses. “But you’ve got to suppress that. You have to eliminate it. Otherwise, you do stupid things to secure it.”
“I think he genuinely abides by this extremely austere standard that says the kind of credit that you give you yourself is not worth having,” says UMass’s Whitehead. “I don’t think that Bill Bulger is in any way indifferent to his legacy, but he isn’t accustomed by temperament to do some of the things that you probably have to do in the 21st century in order to lock it down.” As a result, Bulger’s left frustratingly unable to shape how he’ll be remembered, even in the chapters that don’t concern Whitey. For everyone like BC’s Marc Landy, who calls him a “national treasure,” there are those like the longtime political insider who lays much of Beacon Hill’s enduring dysfunction at Bulger’s feet, arguing “the terrible, unspoken reality in 2007—created, I believe, by Bill Bulger’s reign of 18 years—is that if a nuclear bomb hit the building and only two members survived the bombing, the Senate president and the speaker, it would make absolutely no difference to the running of state government.” Bulger himself appears torn. One day he seems to regret slamming former Mayor Ray Flynn in his book; weeks later he’s unapologetic about it. One day he’s recounting with considerable relish his tangle with Dershowitz before the Governor’s Council; weeks later he’s lamenting that “it’s all so childish, and I hate it for that.”
During an earlier lunch, Bulger recommended I read Francis Bacon’s essay “Of Great Place.” In it, Bacon writes that for public figures “the standing is slippery, and the regress is either a downfall, or at least an eclipse, which is a melancholy thing.” But with him it’s been different: He’s suffered both a downfall and an eclipse, without either being definitive enough to stop people from bringing him up every three days—something that will surely intensify, again, when the Florida trial of John Connolly, the corrupt FBI agent who handled Whitey, begins in the months ahead. “Strange, yeah,” he says now. “I always—you know General MacArthur? ‘Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.’ I always thought that would be what would happen. In fact, by the way, I was resigned to that. But that’s not the case. I’m surprised the world is looking back, still.”
The dining room at Locke-Ober, empty when we arrived, has started to fill up. Former Attorney General Bob Quinn comes in and takes his seat, wearing a blue blazer and looking very old. As he finishes his lunch, Bulger is in a good mood.
“My travails have been public,” he says, “so people think that defines me. Which it doesn’t. I feel very—I don’t like the word, because it’s too pious-sounding—blessed, enormously, in all sorts of things.” But still, after everything that’s happened over all these years, with the world looking back, as always, does that not affect him? Does he really not care about what they see, or even what they think they see?
“No, no,” Bulger says, shaking his head. “The world will little note, nor long remember. I’ll vanish.” By the way he just casually tosses it out there, you get the sense that he almost believes it himself.