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Memo to John Kerry: Be bold. Plus, what goes around comes around. Just ask Billy Bulger.


THIS WEEK, Senator John Kerry took a major step toward making official his presumed bid for the presidency in 2004. He announced the creation of an exploratory committee to raise money for a presidential run. And as Seth Gitell reports this week (see "Kerry Tends to the Home Fires," This Just In), the senator is taking care of business at home with Democratic activists. As Kerry embarks on what is sure to be the political run of his life, the Phoenix has some advice for him: be bold.

The Democratic Party is as listless today as it was during the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan was president. The GOP played the Democrats for fools during the Homeland Security debate (see "War Games," Editorial, November 29). The midterm elections exposed the party as a home for simpering cowards unable to offer a much-needed critique of the president’s war on terrorism. The party hasn’t had much of anything to say about President George W. Bush’s disastrously irresponsible, isolationist approach to foreign affairs during his first year in office. It hasn’t slammed him for failing to capitalize on many citizens’ desire to do something in the wake of 9/11 to make the country more secure. It’s failed to offer a coherent critique of Bush’s economic plan beyond whining that his tax cut equals welfare for the rich.

To date, Kerry has been one of the few leading Democrats to ask broad and probing questions. Now is the time to get specific. And Joe Klein’s profile of the senator in last week’s New Yorker suggests that Kerry has the imagination to pull it all together. "The administration mistakes tough rhetoric for tough policy," Kerry tells Klein. "They may gain short-term domestic advantage as a result, but they are damaging the long-term security of the country." He blasts Bush’s isolationist approach to foreign policy in his first year in office. "One hundred and sixty nations spent 10 years working to get to a certain place, and the United States just stands up and dismisses it out of hand," Kerry says of the Bush administration’s rejection of the Kyoto anti-global-warming treaty. "That makes us friends in the world?" And he accuses Bush of having made a crucial mistake after 9/11 by not urging the country to become less dependent on oil. One month after the attacks, when Bush was calling for Osama bin Laden’s face to be put on a "most wanted" poster, Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran, was calling for a nationwide energy-conservation plan that would mandate the creation of more-fuel-efficient cars and a massive commitment to developing renewable sources of energy.

On Tuesday, Kerry gave a major economic address in Cleveland, in which he declared that the Bush administration had turned "fiscal responsibility on its ear." He noted that "lifetime savings have been wiped out by greed, bad judgment, criminal activity, and the natural course of economic cycles." Kerry should take it several steps further by paraphrasing Ronald Reagan. In his run for his party’s nomination, the senator should ask voters, "Are you better off today than you were when Bush was elected? Is your retirement safe? Has your 401(k) grown? Will your children be able to afford college?"

In the year before the attacks, Kerry was one of a cadre of Democrats willing to criticize the Bush administration. Since the attacks, very few have been willing to do it at all. But if there is a loyal opposition in this country, it needs a voice. In running for president, Kerry can play that role. But he must be bold. If he wants to make a difference, Kerry has to be different from the other tired souls who pass for the hearts and minds of the Democratic Party.

HENRY KISSINGER is back in a big way. President Bush has named Kissinger to chair a commission that will investigate what, if anything, the government could have done to prevent the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Kissinger is, to put it mildly, a perverse choice for the job. He is viewed by many as a war criminal for his actions in Cambodia, Chile, East Timor, and elsewhere. As a result, Kissinger doesn’t leave the country without first conferring with his attorneys. That’s because a number of legal authorities elsewhere in the world would like to call him to account for his actions. To date, the slippery Kissinger, who still has friends in very high places, has been lucky enough to dodge such efforts. But his time will come.

Just ask William Bulger. The former Beacon Hill Senate president and current head of the public-university system in Massachusetts has been subpoenaed by a congressional committee investigating FBI corruption in its handling of mob informants. Bulger has been subpoenaed because he refused the committee’s first request that he answer some of its questions. But now, if Bulger skips the hearing, to be held Thursday and Friday, he could be held in contempt of Congress, possibly fined, and (however unlikely) even jailed. If Congress takes this unusual route, the sentence could be appealed all the way to the US Supreme Court — an outcome none of the involved parties wants to see.

The committee wants Billy Bulger to reveal what he knows about his brother Whitey’s relationship with law-enforcement officials. And it wants to know if Billy knows where Whitey is. On Tuesday, it was reported from grand-jury testimony (which was illegally and unethically leaked to the Boston Globe), that in a previous grand-jury hearing, Billy Bulger admitted to having advised his brother not to turn himself in to the FBI after he went into hiding to evade arrest in 1995. Have they been in touch since? Though on Tuesday Bulger said they haven’t, we’d like these and other questions answered under oath and in the light of day.

But the big question everyone wants answered is this: how involved was Billy Bulger with his brother’s criminal enterprise? During former FBI agent John Connolly’s trial, testimony revealed that Billy Bulger asked Connolly to keep his brother "out of trouble." Should the statement be taken at face value? Maybe. But it may just as likely have had a deeper meaning. As Alan Dershowitz wrote in Boston magazine last July, it’s entirely likely that Billy Bulger was the one calling the shots and that he made a deal with Connolly to keep Whitey out of jail. "I believed Godfather Billy made his homeboy Connolly an offer he couldn’t refuse: cash, career opportunities, and other considerations in exchange for protecting his bad brother Whitey from the real cops," Dershowitz wrote.

It’s plausible. And now we might get some answers. Most of Billy Bulger’s powerful apologists are either dead or disgraced: Joe Moakley, Cardinal Law, Mike Barnicle. While few would not sympathize with the personal torments of having a brother as odious as Whitey, if Billy Bulger’s hands are clean, then this is the time for him to say so clearly. But, if Bulger takes the Fifth Amendment during the hearings, as some believe he will, what will incoming Governor Mitt Romney think? How would it look to have the president of the state-university system first thumbing his nose at a congressional committee and then refusing to answer questions for fear he might incriminate himself with information about his murderous brother’s activities? Bulger, of course, has the same right as any citizen to invoke his constitutional protections. But if he stonewalls the congressional investigators, the political fallout will be ugly.

There is a lesson in all this for Henry Kissinger. Just as it has taken years for local powerhouse Bulger to be forced to answer legitimate questions about the nature his relationship with his arch-criminal brother, so too may Kissinger — despite his recent high-profile appointment — someday be called to account for actions that cut a swath of death, misery, and political instability across the world.

What do you think? Send an e-mail to letters@phx.com

Issue Date: December 5 - 12, 2002
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