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The Bulger Mystique | Part 1

Senate president: A mix of family, Southie, power

For the past decade, the State House agenda has been set by an enigmatic loner named William Michael Bulger, the president of the Massachusetts Senate best known for avoiding the press and ruling with an iron hand. The first of a four-part series examines the early life of one of the state’s most powerful yet least known politicians. It is based on scores of interviews, including four sessions with the 54-year-old Bulger, who has been president longer than anyone in the Senate’s 208 -year history.

On the first day of school in 1948, when students spilled out of the Old Harbor tenements in South Boston, Bill Bulger set off in the opposite direction, walking out the back side of the project to Andrew Station where he caught a streetcar to Boston College High School and a decade of serious study.

At age 14, he had made a fateful decision not to follow his friends down Columbia Road to South Boston High School, a place where sports was king, books stayed in lockers overnight, and a blue-collar or city job was often at the end of the line. Instead, he took the trolley across town, driven by an instinct that he belonged in the world of ideas and classical study.

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He would go on to become one of the preeminent politicians of his time, a state representative known for his wit and rhetoric and a Senate president known for hard-nosed leadership. Despite his scholarly background, he has an instinct for raw power and the legislative process that has kept him a force at the State House for more than a decade.

Growing up in South Boston, he was the good son in a family struggling with an unruly firstborn named James. While Bill was enjoying the good fortune of BC High, James’ lucky break was getting a suspended sentence in juvenile court on larceny charges.

Frequently in court and never in high school, James would be nicknamed Whitey and become a legend in his own time. Those who knew him as a teen-ager talk about his vicious fights, wild car chases and youthful exuberance that had a Hollywood flair.

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Whitey was the kid who would drive his car off the street and onto streetcar tracks, bombing through the upper level of the old Broadway station as shocked passengers stared from the crowded platform. With a scally cap on his head and a blonde on the seat next to him, he would wave and honk to the crowd. Then he would be gone.

A mug shot of James J. "Whitey" Bulger taken at the Miami Beach Police Dept. in 1955.

FBI

A mug shot of James J. "Whitey" Bulger taken at the Miami Beach Police Dept. in 1955.

But the youthful hijinks turned into serious crime. In 1956, while his brother Bill was studying Greek language and English literature at Boston College, Whitey, his hair dyed black, was a fugitive from justice, wanted for robbing banks around the country. The spree ended abruptly when the FBI surrounded a nightclub in Revere. Whitey would go to jail when Dwight Eisenhower was president and get out when Lyndon Johnson was firing up the Vietnam War.

Yet the brothers have remained close. Whitey is the godfather of one of Bill’s nine children, and Bill got him a job as a Suffolk County Courthouse custodian after he got out of jail in the mid-1960s.

No one can say why two brothers who share many traits would take such vastly different paths. People shrug with sadness and say simply that Bill went one way, Whitey the other.

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UNLIKE his brother James, who was one of the toughest kids ever to come out of the gangs around infamous Mercer Street, Bill Bulger enjoyed a Norman Rockwell adolescence. There were all-day baseball games in the summer, activities at St. Monica’s parish during the winter, and long hours of study by the third-floor window overlooking Logan Way.

In the summers, a parish priest used to hitch-hike with Bill and his friends to places such as Houghton’s Pond in Milton and Provincetown. Everyone pitched in with the food. It was the kind of wholesome camaraderie that Whitey never had. “He missed that,” Bulger says ruefully.

By the time he was 12, Bill Bulger had a self-effacing leadership style that friends remember today and recognized back then. He was not a holler guy at second base but was elected captain of the baseball team anyway. As he grew older, he was more manager than captain, scheduling games and making out lineup cards.

When he was 14, Bulger overheard a conversation that made it clear to him that never having any homework was not such a good thing. Some of his friends in St. Monica’s religious instruction class were talking about taking exams for Boston Latin and Boston College High School, and Bulger can still remember the sinking feeling in his stomach. “ ‘Gosh, what am I doing sitting here,’ “ he recalls thinking. “ ‘The world is going on somewhere else.’ ”

Bill Bulger’s B.C. High Senior Class picture from 1952.

Globe File Photo

Bill Bulger’s 1952 Boston College High School senior class pictures. His yearbook entry noted that “Smilin’ Bill Bulger . . . always manages to come out with a quip which never fails to bring a laugh from the class and teacher alike.”

But while he picked scholarship over athletics in a sports-mad part of town, he never turned his back on South Boston, a peninsula that was once a cow pasture known as Dorchester Heights. In the beginning, it was separated entirely from downtown Boston and the world-apart mentality persists to this day. It is still a place where loyalty is a lifelong thing and outsiders have to prove themselves slowly over time. When Bulger was overwhelmingly reelected last week, the first thing he did was pay tribute to South Boston loyalty.

While the neighborhood of 30,000 has the highest percentage of long-term residents in Boston, some say the stability has a downside, that the insular pride of generations has put more emphasis on staying at home than in getting ahead. Sports still gets far more attention than education does in South Boston. Of Bill Bulger’s contemporaries who went to the local high school, only 4 percent went on to college.

Bulger grew up in the middle ground between two distinct sections of South Boston: the heavily Irish City Point, with its sea breezes and higher aspirations; and the more ethnically diverse Lower End with its stark box- shaped houses with no porches that sit directly on the edge of roads leading to the small factories along Fort Point Channel.

All the children of Old Harbor lived in a clean, neat housing project surrounded by a park, a subway line, football and baseball fields and basketball courts. They had victory gardens during the war, free ice cream on the Fourth of July, and stairwells that were clubhouses, about 30 kids to a building.

It is there that Bill Bulger became a street-smart classical scholar, a reasonable man you still do not want to tangle with.

But he is also a man who came to straddle two vastly different worlds -- Ward 7 and the Boston Symphony -- and, at times, is comfortable in neither. He seems subtly imprisoned by the emotional and political boundaries of South Boston.

The dichotomy shows itself in oblique ways, such as when he is too erudite for his audience. A retired firefighter who has lived in South Boston all his life tells of going to a political function and hearing Bulger speak of the Roman philosopher, Seneca, a moralist in a decadent time.

”Now Seneca to me, number one, means applesauce,” said the ex- firefighter. “There was an applesauce years ago named Seneca. Upstate New York.”

At other times, Bulger seems uneasy with his background and accomplishments, worrying that his life and times offer nothing special to write about. “Does it make an interesting story?” he asks warily. “This mystique business mystifies me,” he says about himself. “When you’ve made the trip, there’s no there there.”

Yet his unusual background of scholarship and mean streets has produced a paradoxical politician who defies the ready labels of his trade, someone whose positives and negatives reflect the ambivalence of a private man in a public role.

He can be a petty despot, but also a masterful conciliator.

New Senate President  Bill Bulger emerged from the Senate Chambers in 1978.

Globe File Photo

New Senate President Bill Bulger emerged from the Senate Chambers in 1978.

He is a doctrinaire conservative on social issues but a tax-and-spend liberal on anything involving the urban poor.

He is a reserved man who is transformed by a microphone into a stand-up comic.

He is an urban populist who champions the arts and education.

He is as compassionate with elderly constituents as he is vindictive with State House opponents.

He loves crisp debate but presides over a listless chamber that settles issues in hushed huddles at the rostrum.

He feigns indifference to press criticism but never forgets a slight and remembers it by name.

In short, at a time when media consultants seek sharp, simple images for politicians, Bulger is a throwback to the defiant independence of his boyhood hero, former mayor, governor and congressman James Michael Curley, a man whose career was dedicated to never having to explain himself.

What you think of Bill Bulger depends on how well you get to know him.

One longtime legislator, who has held leadership positions, sees Bulger as aloof. “He never gets to know you because he never tries. He’s likable but he has no friends. I’ve concluded he’s a xenophobic from Southie who happens to understand power.”

But George Bachrach, a former senator who unsuccessfully challenged Bulger for the Senate presidency and was then stripped of his committee chairmanship, offers this assessment: “I think Bill Bulger is probably the smartest, most charming, most resourceful leader I’ve known.”

Examining Bulger’s roots and how he wields power is important in understanding Massachusetts politics. It has not really changed much since Bulger got out of the Army in 1955 and took a streetcar to the long gone Hotel Brunswick to hear Curley’s sad, stirring swan song when he lost the mayor’s race for the last time. Curley went down fighting, exhorting his diehard coterie to do the same.

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BILL BULGER is the son of a Depression couple whose strong sense of family and dignity did much to shield their six children from their dire poverty.

Decades after the last Bulger had played a courtyard game called ‘’Relieveo” on a summer night, Old Harbor neighbors still rave about the neat, polite children of James and Jean Bulger. They make a point of including the oldest boy, known as Jimmy inside the project. All the trouble, they say, well, that happened away from home.

The Bulgers were among the first inhabitants of the first public housing project in New England and the second one built in the country. They were among the 1,016 families who would be part of a close-knit community where people helped each other out and everyone was broke the day before payday. People who lived nearby envied those at Old Harbor, at least in the beginning.

The Bulger family had moved from Everett to Dorchester before going to Old Harbor when it opened in 1938, when Bill was 4 years old and the growing family needed a third bedroom. Three brothers would grow up together in one room and three sisters in another.

While the project was a massive playground for the children, you had to be broke to get into it. After a railroad yard accident when he was a young man, James Joseph Bulger had part of his arm amputated and was not able to hold a full-time job afterward. He worked occasionally as a clerk at the Charlestown Navy Yard, doing the late night shift or holiday work. When it was bitter cold, he was sometimes called to be night watchman.

Bill Bulger remembers his parents sitting on the stoop with old Mr. Fallon from across the street, talking about Charlestown, where his mother grew up and his father worked when he could. The talk was of the “neck,” the ‘’point,” the “valley.” “My God,” says Bulger, “the place is about a square mile and they’d talk about it like it was an entire country.”

His father’s hard life began in the jammed immigrant tenements of the North End, just as the waterfront neighborhood was shifting from a predominantly Irish enclave into a raucous refuge for those escaping the unemployment and famine of southern Italy in the mid-1880s. He had but one sibling, a sister who became a nun and lived in New York.

After working at railroad and shipyard jobs, the senior Bulger married in his 40s, exchanging vows with a Charlestown woman half his age, a sunny, attractive person known as Jean but baptized Jane McCarthy. Her parents had come from Cork City in Ireland shortly after the turn of the century. Her father was killed in a shipyard accident when she was a young girl, making her no stranger to hard times by the time she met her husband.

No one has a bad word to say about Bill Bulger’s mother. In good weather, she was always outdoors talking to neighbors and she knew the first names of all her children’s friends, which included about half the project. While she was unflaggingly pleasant, she also had a certain shrewdness about her. She could be very direct, and no one fooled her for long. Most people say that while Bill shared his father’s interests, he is really a subdued version of his mother.

But if the father kept to himself and carried his private burdens with taciturn dignity, he was not a man without a point of view. He was a New Deal Democrat and an admirer of James Michael Curley, a contemporary who dominated Boston politics for nearly half a century.

A short man who wore glasses and combed his white hair straight back, he would walk by Columbus Park or Carson Beach, smoking a cigar, a coat hung over the shoulder of his amputated arm, a newspaper folded in his back pocket. If he recognized one of Bill’s friends, he would talk effusively about current events. One of them recalls: “I was 17 years old, worried about playing ball and going to the drive-in. I’d meet him and say ‘Hi, Mr. Bulger’ and he would start talking about politics, philosophy, all this stuff.”

“My father,” says Bill Bulger, “was a big fan of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In his view, unions stopped capitalism from devouring the common people, and FDR adjusted the system to save the working man. He felt very strongly about that.”

Bill Bulger is intensely private about family matters, deflecting most specific questions about his parents, saying he does not even want their memory in the public domain. “It’s an odd feeling I have about my parents. You think about it and get bluesy. I didn’t do enough for them. I was 30 when he died. . . . We didn’t talk the way we could have. When you think back, you feel selfish. I wish there was more to tell, that there were more shared moments. You don’t know it and the moment passes. You think it’s a permanent arrangement, you can catch up whenever you want, and then it’s gone.”

In a slow, measured manner, he recalled how his sister’s husband, a son of South Boston who graduated from West Point in 1949, was killed in Korea two years before Bulger enlisted in the Army, in part, to be eligible for the GI bill so he could finish Boston College. The war was still on when he joined in 1953 and his parents were tight-lipped with worry when they took him and some friends to South Station for the train to Fort Dix, N.J. His father, then nearly 70 years old, followed him down the aisle of the train, surprising his son who thought he had left his parents back on the platform.

“I thought, ‘What’s this?’ You know how kids are. My father, and this was unusual for him, he took my hand and said, ‘Well, God bless you, Bill.’ I remember it because it was quite a bit more than my father was inclined to say. It’s one of those things that stop you, that you remember. You wish you said more yourself.”

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BEFORE Bulger’s life was consumed by commuting to school, homework and working at Karp’s market, he led a carefree life at the project that had everything a kid would need. Since everyone was poor, there was never any stigma attached to being at Old Harbor, at least not until you got out into the world.

On a summer day, he and his best pal, Joe Quirk, used to play baseball from morning to dusk. After supper, the “Pirates” around Logan Way would play ‘’Relieveo” into the night until, one by one, they were summoned home by shouts from open windows. When it was overcast, Bulger and Quirk would sometimes set off for exotic places along downtown Boston’s waterfront or deep into Dorchester in search of matchbook covers for their collection, with glitzy nightclub ads much more valuable than flaps showing Bromo Seltzer bottles.

Before high school, Bill Bulger’s life was an urban version of Huck Finn drifting down the Mississippi River, with one of his greatest coups coming in the early evening when he got Ted Williams’ autograph outside Fenway Park. All his friends had Bobby Doerr and Johnny Pesky, but no one could get near enough to the moody Williams to even ask -- except the cherubic Bulger. Even though Williams had been tossed out of the game that day, he inexplicably stopped his car for the blond-haired kid holding out a penny pad of paper. ‘’Are you a boo-er?” he asked gruffly, reaching up to the car’s visor to get a pen, giving Bulger lifelong status at Old Harbor.

Bulger’s fascination with the churlish, independent slugger continues to this day. He empathizes with having 35,000 people on their feet cheering and hearing the one fan in the crowd who is sneering. “He would hear one booer in the whole park, the poor guy, and it would be the one guy he was trying to get a message to.” After a pause, he concedes finding it difficult to follow his own advice about ignoring critics.

When he was 14, Bill Bulger went from never taking a book home from the Hart School to staggering up Logan Way under a book bag that would dominate his life for the next decade. While friends played stickball outside, the Bulger boy would be up by the third-floor window, hitting the books. He was disciplined without being a monk about it, self-conscious about not becoming known as an egghead. Nonetheless, some kids took to calling him the “beam” because, come dusk, the desk light by the third-floor window snapped on and usually stayed on quite late.

By his sophomore year at BC High, he only had to share his room with his younger brother Jackie. Whitey was now in the Air Force when he was not AWOL in Oklahoma City or in county jail in Great Falls, Mont., as a suspect in a criminal case.

Whitey would muster out of the service shortly before Bill entered Boston College in 1952. In the next few years, Whitey would be acquitted of several minor larceny charges in Boston before going on the road with some accomplices, robbing banks in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Indiana before being convicted in 1956 and going to jail for a decade.

In 1948, at a time Whitey was being charged with assault, Bill was working after school at John and Mary Karp’s meat market, hustling to make the $37.50 he needed each term for tuition. He would entertain the Karps with his stories and songs. “I was always quite bold about singing,” he says.

When Bulger asked John Karp about the price of baloney, the butcher would ask with mock indignation how come Bill could remember the names of all those girls who walked by and the words to all those songs and never the price of meat. “The words never change, Mr. Karp,” he would tell him. “But you can’t keep up with the baloney around here.”

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WHEN HE WAS in his early teens, Bulger remembers the neighborhood’s astonishment when a father left one of the families, how it was a matter of gossip for days, and how the neighbors rallied to the mother left with the children.

The sense of community at Old Harbor, now known as the Mary Ellen McCormack project, was so strong that it was viewed as a place more South Boston than South Boston, a city within a city. Today, as in most public housing in the city, the family unit has totally changed. Nearly 90 percent -- or 877 of 1,006 families in the project -- are headed by a single parent. Drug use, while less common than at other projects, is a persistent problem.

Says Bulger in retrospect: “I’ve often thought we were so rich. If you went to the best boarding school in America, you would find all sorts of youngsters who were, compared to us, quite impoverished. They had parents who cared little, who may have given them the impression they were being warehoused. We all knew that someone cared mightily about us. . . . You could get schmaltzy about it.”

Not that there wasn’t trouble to be found in South Boston. Seven blocks from Logan Way was the heart of darkness, Mercer Street, with its gangs who fought with belt buckles and worse. Whitey Bulger was as tough as any of them. While he was not a bully, it did not take much to cross him. He was a ferocious fighter with fast hands and a hair-trigger temper. Around Old Harbor, he was given a wide berth when he strolled the project, asking younger kids to punch him in his washboard stomach so he could laugh about it.

Despite profound differences, the brothers remain simpatico, sharing an incisive intelligence and drive that have put them at the top of their divergent worlds. In some ways, both turned away from conventional paths in South Boston. Bill focused on classical studies and thought hard about being a priest before choosing law school and then politics; and Whitey eschewed the mundane life of working for the city or on the assembly line at Gillette, in favor of dodging the law.

More is known about Bill’s road to success. He is remembered by classmates at Boston College for his diligence and wit, which served him well as the only English major in Rev. Carl Thayer’s honors course in Greek. The crusty Jesuit, who remains a friend and admirer of Bulger’s, had the small class translate 250 lines a night and he always found Bulger prepared, hopelessly smitten with the language, ideas and speeches of Demosthenes and Pericles, who talked of honor before gold. “And these men were pagans,” Bulger says.

After his freshman year, Bulger decided to go into the Army, primarily for the GI bill educational benefits that could help him through Boston College and into its law school. Father Thayer warned him it would be nearly impossible to pick up the Greek after a two-year hiatus, but Bulger told him he always finished what he started. And so he did.

Bulger joined a small study group at the law school and all but one of them made law review. For three solid years, it was a monastic grind of incessant study. He remembers being amazed to overhear other students talk about what was on the Jack Paar Show the night before. When did they study? he wondered.

As he finished his second year of law school, two major decisions loomed: Should he run for the House of Representatives in the footsteps of Jimmy Condon, an old-school pol for whom Bulger had worked in several campaigns? And when should he and Mary Foley get married?

She had been his only real girlfriend since the day he first saw her on the SS Steel Pier, a cruise ship to Provincetown, when he was a junior at BC High. He remembers seeing her dancing with other girls on the top deck and how her hair was wet. He asked her to his senior prom the following year, and she asked him to the Gate of Heaven prom when he was a freshman at Boston College in 1953. Her mother and father were born in Ireland and ethnic to the core; if something broke in the house, her mother would throw salt all over the place to ward off bad luck. Mrs. Foley slipped Bill a couple of dollars when he picked Mary up for the prom.

It would be a long, intermittent courtship, with study coming first and then a hitch in the Army, but Bulger called her first thing when he got home from Texas and, though she was not home for several calls, her mother from Galway knew her daughter’s heart. “I know she wants to talk to you,” she stressed to Bulger, stopping short of saying “keep trying.”

Bulger calls the period between 1955, when he got out of the Army, through 1960, when he first got elected, the “Big Years.” So much happened -- college, law school, marriage, first election -- and the time seemed so endless, quite unlike the stream of years that has carried him into middle age.

He and Mary Foley got married in July 1960. A few months later, he entered politics, running for the Massachusetts House seat being vacated by another Old Harbor resident, Joseph Moakley, now a congressman filling the shoes of the most famous South Boston politician of them all: John McCormack.

The Bulgers had a child in just about every year of the 1960s, having the ninth in 1974. He washed the kitchen floor once a week, made corned beef hash from scratch once in a while, and walked the babies at night, reading a book over their shoulder at 4 in the morning. “Mary worked harder during the day than I did,” he says.

It was Bulger’s longstanding rapport with the elderly that carried him to his first electoral victory. His easy way with them was the first manifestation of a public persona. Ken Joyce, a law school classmate and professor at the University of Buffalo Law School, says old people loved Bulger because he listened.

Even as a young teenager, says Joyce, he was able to joke with older people and listen to their troubles and extrapolate some wisdom from their experiences. He was the only one who could handle a gruff old Scotsman named Bill McAuliffe who had a horse stable on Devine Way near the project. McAuliffe would rail at the boys for using his barn as a backstop for their stickball games and everyone would take off when he came storming around the corner. But Bulger would stay and say, now Mr. McAuliffe, the barn is not going to fall down and it’s such a little ball. The next moment, Bulger would be inside the barn getting a tour and lecture on saddles and the right way to ride a horse. “Oh,” Bulger says, “I could have gone to the UN in those days.”

But it was the mothers of the project who would pay political dividends when Bulger first ran for office. His campaign was staffed by a handful of astute friends and the mothers of Old Harbor who got to know him well growing up, running up the street with a white altar boy’s surplice flowing over his shoulder as he headed off to St. Monica’s Church for a funeral or a wedding. The mothers stuffed envelopes and spread the word.

Bulger had learned the mechanics of running and the voting pattern of the district by working for the only incumbent left in the district, the redoubtable Jimmy Condon, a mentor of sorts and a nice guy who got elected by taking busloads of kids out to a farm he had in the country. Bill Bulger wanted to be a Jimmy Condon who talked about issues.

His father, then 76 years old, did not think it would be possible, warning him that he would be little more than an errand boy for demanding constituents.

The elder Bulger was also concerned that the election would be a referendum on his oldest son Whitey, who was then in Alcatraz, halfway through a nine- year term for bank robbery. He was worried that there would be a smear campaign and that the neighbors might turn their backs on the Bulgers.

The anxiety heightened when the tail end of a hurricane sent violent rainstorms throughout New England the day before the election, leaving trees and lines down around South Boston. But the disarray cleared into a washed, bright day that brought out a heavy vote.

It was a resounding triumph for Bulger, with Old Harbor leading the way, easily giving Bill Bulger one of the two seats sought by the field of 16 candidates. Bulger got twice as many votes out of the project as anyone and almost topped Condon as the top vote-getter. “That was a very pleasing part of it,” Bulger says. “The people who knew you best were voting most heavily for you.”

They had a small gathering of campaign workers at the headquarters on Preble Street, a corrugated newspaper stand that did little more than keep workers dry on rainy summer nights. His father was at the party, making a rare appearance. He even had a glass of beer outside the house. He took a hearty drink and looked directly at his son with approval.

The neighborhood had spoken.

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