The Tyranny of the Meek

Kevin Cullen is all worked up. He is on the phone, telling me about why he got into the business. While attending UMass, he wrote a story for the student newspaper about former ABC newsman Max Robinson, who had given a speech bashing his network. It was a smaller-scale Dan Rather moment, only without the bloated lawsuit and shameful public whining. "I was like, ‘Whoa, this is pissah!’" Cullen says. Some professional reporters were on hand to chronicle Robinson’s tirade, but they glossed over it. Cullen told the tale with unvarnished honesty, receiving national attention as a result. He was hooked.

As this story bleeds into the next, and Cullen talks about his love for Boston and journalism, it becomes apparent why the Globe tapped him to become a metro columnist: He’s funny and sharp and, best of all, actually from here—a guy who likes to curse and laugh and doesn’t apologize for dropping his r’s. When Cullen (a 23-year veteran of the paper) and Abraham (who’s been with the Globe for nine) were installed as columnists a year ago, the choices were heralded internally and externally—and with good reason. The duo has something the Globe is short on: deep reporting experience. Problem is, reporting chops don’t always translate into the passionate, gritty columns that readers love and a city needs.

The old saying in the newspaper business is that you try to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Cullen is big on the f
ormer. Sob stories are his forte, so much so that one snarky Boston magazine staffer (not me) created a Cullen game: one point if the column is a tearjerker; two if it concerns the Red Sox or the North End; three if it involves cancer or Ireland; four for mental handicaps. In April, Cullen penned a 12-pointer about a mentally retarded Red Sox fan with cancer living in the North End. Even the severely dehydrated cried.

Examples of less weepy Cullen columns are harder to come by. He took some tough shots at Hillary Clinton following the Samantha Power "she’s a monster" flap. He bestowed Mitt Romney with the memorable nickname "Mitty Cent" after the pol’s disastrous attempt to win over a group of black kids in Jacksonville, Florida. And in mid-March he walloped the Justice Department for refusing to settle with families "whose loved ones were slain by Bulger’s bullets and the FBI’s complicity." Mostly, though, Cullen’s pen has been too kind. Shame, since pens can double as shanks. (It’s true. Oz once featured a how-to.)

"It’s going to take a little longer to get going on popping off and opinionating," Cullen admits. "I listen to the talk-radio people—there’s the outrage of the day. Well, if you’re outraged every day, then you really fucking aren’t…. Do I need to write a column and say that Tom Menino has been here too long and he needs to go? I don’t know. Right now I don’t feel the need to do that."

There was a time, though, when Cullen didn’t have those reservations. One former colleague says, years ago, news would break and Cullen would cobble together mock columns for his peers. "We would be on the floor laughing our asses off," the ex-Globie remembers. "He was a funny son of a bitch. I’d like to read those columns in a paper. He’s acerbic. And he sees through pomposity."

The question, then: Why isn’t Cullen utilizing that x-ray vision now? "I’m very conscious of not just smacking people left and right," he says. "When Howie [Carr] calls you a hack, it doesn’t mean anything anymore."

McGrory says that Cullen is still developing his voice, and that it often takes a columnist a year or more to do so. And even if Cullen never becomes an ax man, McGrory is fine with that because he didn’t envision Cullen filling that role in the first place. "Is his strength politics and that stuff? No," McGrory says. "He never pretended it would be. His strength is stories from the street, and he’s doing that well."