NO MODERN LOCAL public figure epitomizes the quaint, colorful image of the Boston pol more than former Senate president and current University of Massachusetts president William Bulger. He speaks with his own brogue. He sprinkles the phrase "wee bit of" throughout his speech. He is depicted on the cover of his 1996 memoir While the Music Lasts: My Life in Politics (Houghton Mifflin) carrying a shillelagh. And just as he knows how to wield an Irish walking stick, he knows how to wield power. (Just ask Norfolk County district attorney Bill Keating, who tried to unseat Bulger in the 1990s; former treasurer Joe Malone; or any of the other local politicos who have tangled with Bulger over the years.)
Bulgerís image was celebrated in a 1992 profile by Morley Safer of CBSís 60 Minutes. President Bill Clinton enhanced it by placing jolly telephone calls to Bulgerís annual St. Patrickís Day breakfast. And Bulger packaged it for posterity with his memoir. In While the Music Lasts, he describes the South Boston of his childhood as "a largely blue-collar area.... Families were stable: a divorce was a whispered horror. We had our share of bars and bookies and sin, but the area, then as now, had the cityís lowest rate of serious crime." Bulgerís words captured one-half of the vaunted myth of South Boston ó that while there were tough guys in Southie, murders and drug-dealing didnít take place there. The other part of the myth, left unspoken in his memoir, was that serious crime didnít take place in South Boston because Bulgerís older brother James, a/k/a "Whitey," the boss of Bostonís Irish mafia, insisted that his boys keep it out of Southie.
Today we know the reality. Southie was indeed peaceful on the surface, but it was far more violent than the myth made it out to be, thanks largely to Whiteyís mob. We still donít know what, if anything, Billy Bulger knew about Whiteyís criminal enterprise or whether he ever benefited from it. Last week, the Congressional Government Reform Committee, which is investigating the FBIís criminal and corrupt relationship with Whitey, held a hearing in Boston and called Billy Bulger as a witness. (FBI agent John Connolly, a Southie native, handled Whitey as a government informant for two decades. Heís now in jail, in part for having tipped Whitey off in 1995 to a pending arrest on grand-jury indictments.) Congressman Dan Burton, a Republican from Indiana, wanted to ask Bulger, who had admitted to a federal grand jury years earlier that he had spoken with his brother after he fled to avoid arrest, what he knew about his brotherís activities.
Merely calling Bulger to account for his knowledge of his brotherís acts, never mind making him do so publicly, would have been unthinkable just five years ago. After all, there was a time not so long ago when he was the most powerful man in Massachusetts politics. Making matters worse, no fewer than three Irish-American Massachusetts Democratic congressmen (one from South Boston!) voted with Burton, a graduate of the Cincinnati Bible Seminary, to force Bulger to testify in public. For Bulger, dressed in a sharp blue suit and crisp white shirt, with his white hair neatly parted to the left, the brief proceedings were indeed a comedown from which heís unlikely to recover.
First, there was the indignity of Burton, clad in a double-breasted suit (the sartorial equivalent of driving a 1970s Lincoln Continental), opening the hearing with the words of British statesman Edmund Burke: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." Then Burton abruptly rejected the request of Bulgerís attorney, Thomas Kiley, to extend the deadline for Bulgerís testimony. Next came Bulgerís request that Kiley be permitted to give a statement on his behalf. Bulger, well known for his quickness of tongue, looked up at Burton and said, "I believe my attorney, if it, if it, uh, if it, uh, is acceptable would like to make a statement." His mouth moved downward and he licked his lower lip after he said this. Burton was unmoved and directed Bulger to speak: "You can confer with your attorney, but we want to hear from you, so could you pull the mike close to you, sir." Bulger responded by asking the congressman to conduct the hearing in private. He referred the committee to Rule (11K)(5), which allows "the committee [to] proceed in closed session" if the proceedings "may tend to defame or ridicule the witness." "Iím asking the committee to do that at this time," Bulger said.
Thatís when Burton called for the vote on whether to hold the hearing in private or not. Burton, along with US Representatives Martin Meehan of Lowell, John Tierney of Salem, and Stephen Lynch of South Boston (the man who replaced Bulger in the state Senate), all voted to keep it public. Bulgerís final humiliation came when he invoked the Fifth Amendment and refused to testify: "On advice of counsel, I am unable to answer any questions today. This position is based among other things on privacy and due-process rights and the right against being compelled to provide evidence that may tend to incriminate oneself, all of which are found in the Bill of Rights."
While momentous for Bulger, Fridayís brief proceedings in Bostonís McCormack Courthouse marked a fundamental shift in the stateís political order. Itís a shift thatís been under way for some time, but now itís obvious for all to see.
GOVERNOR-ELECT Mitt Romney, a Michigan-born Mormon who has spent more time in Salt Lake City in the last five years than he has in Massachusetts and who defeated a Democrat with the lyrical-sounding name of Shannon OíBrien, wasted no time making use of his new platform when he told reporters last Tuesday that Bulger should testify before the congressional committee: "I believe that President Bulger has a responsibility, as all citizens do, to respect Congress by responding to their subpoena." Itís inconceivable that any other governor dating back to Michael Dukakis would have done the same. After all, the most prominent figures to stand up for Bulger in the past have been governors, men whose political reputations were vulnerable to Bulgerís powerful reach. William Weld, for one, arranged for Bulgerís current job, the presidency of the University of Massachusetts. And Michael Dukakis, a reformer who tried to steer clear of Bulger, showed he was under the Senate presidentís thumb when he appointed a former Bulger aide to be a district court judge. The move prompted long-time Phoenix contributor Harvey Silverglate to write that Dukakis had morphed from a "highly principled, stubbornly clean-government type" into a "discredited disciple of the hackocracy."
Actually, there has been one Bulger defender more prominent even than our past governors: Bernard Cardinal Law. Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr termed Law one of the "Bulger bumkissers" in a November 29 piece. Of course, Bulgerís legal wranglings come as hundreds of Catholics, including 58 priests, are calling for Lawís resignation in the face of his inept and possibly criminal handling of the clergy sexual-abuse scandal. So much for Bulgerís falling back on the moral high ground.
But back to Fridayís hearing. Its political magnitude was outmatched only by its drama. At one point, Burton assumed that Lynch, the congressman from Southie, had ducked out to avoid voting on whether to hold the hearing in public. The moment recalled a scene from The Godfather II when a senator with ties to the Corleone family excuses himself from a hearing room just as questioning of crime boss Michael Corleone is about to begin. In a twist on the archetypal relationship between mob bosses and crooked pols, however, Lynch was present and ready to vote with his colleagues. It could not have been easy for Lynch, who established himself as being independent, to say the least, from the Bulger family when he defeated Billy Bulgerís son in the race to replace Bulger in the state Senate. Still, South Boston remains in some ways the tribal, interconnected peninsula it has always been. To say it is a place with an us-versus-them mentality is an understatement; South Boston, after all, is a neighborhood with its own anthem: "Southie Is My Hometown." But after the TV crews left, Lynch summed up his position this way: "The word from the neighborhood has been, ĎBetter you than me.í"
Even more notable than Lynchís vote against what Bulger wanted, though, was the press conference held afterward outside the courtroom. Kiley and the four congressmen addressed reporters as Bulger was whisked downstairs by what appeared to be uniformed court personnel. Kiley delivered a flag-waving oration, punctuated by overheated bombast, to convince reporters to go easy on the UMass president. "From the earliest days of the Republic," Kiley intoned, "we have placed a very high premium on our right to speak as we choose, to worship as we choose, to vote as we choose. Many of these rights, almost all of them are incorporated in the Bill of Rights." As Kiley spoke, Bulgerís most vocal public nemesis, the Heraldís Carr, gleefully scribbled notes into his reporterís notebook ó smiling as the lawyer droned on.
Kiley suggested that Bulgerís taking the Fifth Amendment offered UMass students "a lesson in civics ó this constitutional protection exists to protect the innocent." To be sure, there should be no shame in taking the Fifth Amendment, but itís hard to imagine that this will be a "lesson in civics" for UMass students. Kiley also injected a degree of demagoguery into his statements by invoking certain unnamed "entities [interested in] settling a score, [who] if they cannot have one Bulger, we fear, they will have another." He characterized the efforts to get Bulger to testify as a "witch-hunt." Finally, in what was probably an additional humiliation for Bulger, Kiley asserted that his clientís age and allegedly failing mental capacity made for yet another reason for Bulger to take the Fifth. "The reality for this old man is that as we age memory fails, memories of what occurred seven years ago, the ability to recall them, are not the same as they were at an earlier stage of life," Kiley stated. For anyone who witnessed Bulgerís eloquent eulogy of Congressman Joe Moakley, who died on Memorial Day 2001, that was a bit much to take. In any case, if itís true, Bulgerís ability to serve as UMass president might be impaired then, wouldnít it? (Is the UMass Board of Trustees paying attention?)
Throughout the press conference, all four congressman said that Bulger should have helped the committee discern the truth. Both Burton and Meehan, who said he would try to get the Judiciary Committee on which he sits to give Bulger immunity so he can testify, cited the increased need for a reliable FBI since September 11 as a reason why Bulgerís testimony was so crucial. And Tierney coolly referred to Bulger numerous times merely as "the witness," as in: "Clearly weíre disappointed that today there was no testimony from the witness. The witness may well have had something to say to contribute to the information ó to give us an idea of just how deep the relationship between the FBI and some of the crime organizations in Massachusetts was." Lynch was equally "disappointed" in Bulger. "I think [South Boston] people would want to know more ó they want to see it ended. They want the truth on this as well." And Burton expressed indignation over Bulgerís 1995 call to his brother Whitey, for which Bulger "went to another location so the phone wouldnít be traced. At some point you have to decide what is the right thing to do."