THE FIRST GLIMMER of Bill Bulger the Politician took place one afternoon, in October 1952, in the advanced Greek class of Rev. Carl Thayer at Boston College.
Thayer had students prepare a five-minute speech on any topic in which they would persuade their classmates in the manner of Demosthenes, the Greek orator who, when accused of wrongdoing, offered a fabled defense that rested on the principles of Athenian democracy.
William Michael Bulger, the freshman from South Boston, chose as his topic James Michael Curley. And five minutes became 50.
Curley’s reputation had been sullied by a short stretch in prison after he apparently attempted to use his position for monetary gain. But to Bulger, Curley was a politician wrongly accused, a proud man charged with little more than having a tainted reputation. And so the young man who later, in the midst of busing, would come to view himself, and his neighbors, as the Demosthenic victims of the 1970s, offered a stirring defense of the Demosthenic figure of the 1940s.
When the bell rang, ending class, Bulger’s classmates -- most of whom were the first in their families to attend college and residents of Boston’s working-class neighborhoods where Curley was regarded as a savior -- were on their feet applauding. For Thayer, now in his 70s and retired, the speech was a revelation, the first indication that Bill Bulger “would become a leader of men.”
Bulger’s admiration of Curley, shaped considerably by his father’s fondness for the irrepressible politician, bordered on idolatry as a youngster. If young Bulger’s play around second base was modeled after Bobby Doerr, his ideal of a public servant was Curley. In grade school, when the teacher stepped out of the room, Bulger entertained classmates with impersonations of Curley. In high school, at an age when most of his friends had a copy of Sport magazine tucked in their back pockets, Bulger read “The Purple Shamrock,” Curley’s rose-colored biography.
Bulger saw Curley as a modern-day Demosthenes, persecuted via innuendo and indicted because “he had lent his name to something.”
“I thought Curley was a pretty good person, and he was always being abused,” says Bulger.
Besides being extraordinary orators, the similarities between Bulger and Curley are considerable. Both came from poor families, and as youngsters were industrious, engaging and doggedly studious, seeing education as their only way out. Both were elected to their first public office at age 26, fathered nine children, and became devoted family men. Both possessed ebullient public personalities that belied a streetwise toughness, a dark side that verged on the ruthless when someone crossed them.
The trait, however, that defines both men politically is the independence of action that became the core of their power and self-perception: Never explain yourself.
Ignoring one’s critics -- better yet, turning the tables on one’s critics -- was a tactic made immortal by Demosthenes some 2,200 years before Bulger was born. When a rival accused him of taking bribes, Demosthenes responded with an oration, “On the Crown,” which many scholars regard as the greatest of all speeches. The speech was a masterful piece of rhetoric, in which Demosthenes convinced a jury that it was his accuser, Aeschines, not he, who had betrayed Athens. When the 500 jurors cheered and exonerated Demosthenes, Aeschines was sent into exile.
Bulger acknowledged that Curley was his most significant political role model.
“This more distant model of Demosthenes was less human, but very inspiring. I like the way he persuaded. I don’t think he ever answered his critics in that whole speech. I can remember going over that with a diagram and saying, ‘I don’t think he’s ever answered his critics.’ “
Curley never answered his critics, either, an interviewer suggested.
“Right,” Bulger responded. “And neither do I.”