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R: PHX, S: FEATURES, D: 11/19/1998, B: >, A: >,

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An intriguing talk-radio tale about truth, history, and revenge

Don't Quote Me by Dan Kennedy

To anyone who's under 40 and/or hasn't spent a significant chunk of life in Boston, liberal activist Jim Braude's claim that his ex-friend Domenic Bozzotto impersonated a Vietnam veteran on a radio talk show 26 years ago must have seemed like the quintessential non-story. It would be easy to form the impression that (to recycle an old Henry Kissinger quip), in Boston politics, the infighting is so fierce because the stakes are so low.

But for natives of a certain age or interests, this wonderfully Gothic feud -- extending from the antiwar movement of the 1970s to the virulent talk-radio wars of '80s to the crossroads at which the left finds itself in the '90s -- calls to mind William Faulkner's observation that "the past is never dead; it's not even past."

Braude's exposé appeared in the Boston Sunday Globe's Focus section on November 8. In his piece, Braude recalls that sometime in the late 1980s he heard radio-talk-show host Jerry Williams play a tape of the famous 1972 call he'd received from an anguished Vietnam veteran -- and that Braude instantly recognized the voice as belonging to Bozzotto, then the fiery head of the Hotel Workers Union. He reports that later, at a dinner at Bozzotto's home, Bozzotto -- who never served in Vietnam -- admitted to both Braude and his wife, labor organizer Kris Rondeau, that he had indeed made the call, which gained national attention after presidential candidate George McGovern played a tape of it at a campaign rally. "Our conversation ended abruptly, and it never came up again," Braude wrote.

Until now.

There's no way of knowing for sure whether Braude has the goods on Bozzotto, who did not respond to a request for comment from the Phoenix, but who told the Globe that he did not make the call. Barbara Anderson, codirector of Citizens for Limited Taxation and Government and a friend of both men, cautions that even Bozzotto's alleged admission to Braude can't necessarily be taken at face value. "I think that Domenic would be entirely capable of making that original call, but he's also entirely capable of pulling Jim's leg at the dinner table," she says. "So I don't know which one is entirely accurate."

The smart money, though, is on Braude. Although he has an ax to grind, the case he makes is convincing. Globe Focus section editor Chris Chinlund says she ran the piece because Braude has "good instincts" and because he is "a person of honesty." Assuming that Braude got it right, his piece raises a number of fascinating questions -- about truth, about the importance of correcting the historical record, and about Boston's two favorite pastimes, politics and revenge.

Getting even

Braude and Bozzotto split in 1990, when Bozzotto -- widely admired in progressive circles for championing the low-income women who compose much of the Hotel Workers Union's membership -- endorsed Question 3, a deep tax-cutting ballot measure being promoted by Barbara Anderson. Also that year, Bozzotto endorsed the gubernatorial campaign of Republican Bill Weld; and he eventually wound up with a $75,000-a-year job at the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority.

"This is a very complicated man who was a talented revolutionary and an enormous inspiration -- and who, at some point, I think, became very, very discouraged about making change," says WHDH-TV (Channel 7) reporter Katy Abel, who profiled Bozzotto for Boston magazine in 1987. But to Braude, who fought tax cuts as head of the Tax Equity Alliance for Massachusetts (TEAM), Bozzotto's ideological switch was apostasy.

They say revenge is a dish that's best served cold, and what Braude came up with on November 8 was mighty cold indeed: this week Bozzotto must answer to criminal charges that he made hundreds of harassing phone calls to one Andrew McLeod, who had the temerity to announce he would run against Bozzotto's handpicked successor, Janice Loux, for the presidency of the Hotel Workers Union. Bozzotto has denied those charges. But Braude's contention that Bozzotto's career as a phone prankster began at least a quarter-century ago can't help contributing to the impression that Bozzotto is guilty as charged in the McLeod case.

In a sneering column on November 11, the Globe's Eileen McNamara blasted Braude as an opportunist and wrote: "The guilt or innocence of Domenic Bozzotto is far less intriguing than the motives of Jim Braude, if one is looking for a window on the political culture of Massachusetts, where the political is often very, very personal."

McNamara's got a point, but her contempt for Braude is disproportionate. If he can shed some light on a small but important moment in media history, then I'm all for it. Braude himself claims he merely wants to set the record straight, and he points out that Bozzotto's alleged 1972 phone call not only was perfectly legal, but was also a rather brilliant piece of guerrilla theater. "I think it's a great story," Braude says. "I was not trying to write some morality play." To boil this down to a Braude-versus-Bozzotto battle is too narrow, because although Braude is helped and Bozzotto is hurt, the bottom line is that the public benefits: we now have a deeper understanding of an incident that people still talk about. Besides, Braude's piece gives Bozzotto his due and is far more nuanced than McNamara's hit.

Still, even though Braude claims -- and, in fact, appears to have convinced himself -- that his motives are pure, it's hard to believe he's not taking some small pleasure in knowing he's added to Bozzotto's current woes.

Braude says he first considered writing about the 1972 call last year -- long before Bozzotto had been charged with phone harassment -- for his now-defunct magazine, Otherwise. But he didn't, and to point out that Braude's piece finally appeared at the very moment when it could do Bozzotto the most damage is merely to state the obvious.

Truth in packaging

Democratic political consultant Michael Goldman says the so-called veteran who called Jerry Williams on that night 26 years ago confirmed "every liberal's worst nightmare about what was going on over there" -- the napalm drops, the bodies "fused together like pieces of metal" (in the caller's words), the atrocities committed against a civilian population. "It was an incredibly dramatic moment," says Goldman, who heard the call while driving home to Malden from his part-time job at Sears. "I remember literally crying."

In fact, that jolt of reality was what gave that call its power. Thus, you can't help but feel some sense of betrayal to learn all these years later that the caller was apparently just an unusually imaginative opponent of the war. Predictably, conservatives and veterans' groups have voiced anger. But so, to some extent, does John VanScoyoc, who produces New England Cable News's NewsNight. VanScoyoc says he was so moved by the call 26 years ago that he persuaded the editor at the small suburban paper where he worked to publish a transcript. "I remember it vividly, and it's important to correct the record," he says. "It's important to our profession, it's important to history, and it's important to Vietnam vets that we not let that stand. I don't care how many years it's been."

VanScoyoc's right about setting the record straight. But was what Bozzotto apparently did wrong? Not in my book. Bozzotto wasn't -- and isn't -- a journalist. He's an advocate, and he's spent his life advancing his agenda by any means necessary. If he faked a call to a radio talk show (which exists in a kind of netherworld between fact and entertainment anyway), well, what of it? The alleged stunt was in service to the movement to end our involvement in an immoral war.

Braude thinks that what Bozzotto did was no different morally from someone faking a pro-war call. "A fraud, no matter how well-intentioned, is a fraud," Braude intones. But I can't agree. The Vietnam years were a dark and frightening era in this country's history; the ethical mindset of 1998 can in no way be retroactively applied to 1972. More to the point, we were right and they were wrong -- tragically so. If it's inconsistent of me to applaud Bozzotto's alleged fabrication while being outraged at the Donald Segretti stunt that drove Edmund Muskie out of the presidential race that year -- or, for that matter, while being outraged at journalists who break their public trust -- then so be it.

Christopher Lydon, host of The Connection, on WBUR (90.9 FM), who wrote about the phone call in the course of covering the McGovern campaign for the New York Times, calls it "a little masterstroke of performance art." The fact that it was done to help stop the war makes all the difference.

History lessons

Aside from changing our understanding of that 1972 call, Braude's piece says much about three men who were significant, prominent players in the political culture of the 1980s: Braude, Bozzotto, and Jerry Williams. Ten years ago, the three were household names. Today, they're known mainly to political and media junkies.

Williams helped invent talk radio at Boston's old WMEX in the 1950s and '60s. By 1972 he was the undisputed king, hosting the nighttime show on WBZ (AM 1030), then as now a station whose after-sundown reach extends throughout the eastern half of the United States. A longtime liberal who frequently hosted Malcolm X, by the 1980s he had morphed into an anti-tax populist. His show, which had moved to WRKO (AM 680), gave a platform to Barbara Anderson, and his strident advocacy had much to do with the 1980 passage of Proposition 21/2, which cut property taxes dramatically. Williams later inveighed against seat-belt laws, drunk-driving checkpoints, and a proposed prison in the tiny town of New Braintree; and he became a bitter critic of then-governor and presidential candidate Michael Dukakis.

What many of Williams's newfound conservative friends didn't realize, though, was that he had never abandoned his commitment to social justice. He eviscerated callers who dumped on African-Americans and welfare mothers, for instance. And he occasionally replayed the famous 1972 tape, not just as a striking piece of talk-radio history, but as proof that, whatever his critics said about him, he was a true liberal. Now in his 70s, Williams was recently forced into retirement by his youth-obsessed employers at WRKO. He says he hopes to resurface soon but that he can't discuss the particulars.

Braude claims that Williams once told him he knew the '72 caller was a fraud; in a 1973 Phoenix profile, Williams made an ambiguous remark that suggested he knew who the caller really was. But Williams says now that he never knew. He complains -- sounding as incredulous as he must have 26 year ago -- that WBZ's then-management, spooked by the controversy, never let him replay the tape on the air. And, like Chris Lydon, he suggests that the caller's message was far more important than whether his credentials as a veteran were real or made-up. "I have never known who it was," Williams says. "What he said was more important than whether he was Joe from Framingham or Domenic from East Boston."

With Williams in (temporary?) retirement and Bozzotto ensconced in the state bureaucracy, it is Braude -- still only 49 -- who's at loose ends. Braude's high point at TEAM came in 1990, with the defeat of Question 3. But if that was Barbara Anderson's comeuppance, his own came four years later, when a ballot measure he sponsored to adopt a graduated income tax in Massachusetts was defeated by a wide margin.

Braude left TEAM shortly thereafter. And though he's bright, energetic, and forceful, he remains seriously underemployed. His magazine failed. He works as a political consultant, but both the congressional candidate he signed on with (John O'Connor) and the ballot question he strategized for (Question 4, which would have repealed electric-power deregulation) were smoked on Election Day. He cohosts a weekend panel show on New England Cable News -- and though he's pretty good, the chances of that growing into something more lucrative are unlikely. These days, he's talking about getting together with a couple of partners and starting -- yes -- a radio talk show.

"I don't think Braude has found his next project, and that's a shame, because he's got a lot to offer," says a former associate. "But he's a hard guy to work with. He was always a very unforgiving ally. You were either with him or against him." This observer adds that that mindset explains how Braude can be friends with Anderson, always his ideological opposite, yet turn so bitterly on an ex-fellow lefty such as Bozzotto.

Braude himself admits he hasn't exactly flourished since leaving TEAM. "It's not only hard to describe what I do next," he says ruefully. "It's hard to describe what I do now."