There aren’t clear standards for naming a Boston public building after a former political leader. But there should be obvious reasons why not to make such a designation: To rehabilitate a tarnished reputation; to reward supporters of a deeply divisive figure; to score political points by sticking up for a neighborhood bigwig. All these bad reasons seem to be underlying the proposal by City Council President Bill Linehan to name the South Boston library for his neighbor William M. Bulger, the former Senate president and University of Massachusetts president. It’s a mischievous proposal designed to stir up old loyalties and resentments, and the City Council should reject it out of hand.
William Bulger, now 80, is best known outside his neighborhood as a leading figure in one of Boston’s most sordid dramas, the 16-year flight from justice of Bulger’s brother, gang leader James (Whitey) Bulger, and his eventual apprehension and conviction for 11 murders. William Bulger, whose rise in politics paralleled his brother’s rise in crime, hasn’t been implicated in his brother’s murders. But he caused unaccountable pain for the family members of his brother’s victims by blithely acknowledging that, while in a high-profile public position, he had made contact with his fugitive brother but felt no need to cooperate with the massive manhunt to locate him. “I do have an honest loyalty to my brother,” he testified to a grand jury back in 2001, in Whitey’s sixth year of hiding as a fugitive. “It’s my hope that I’m never helpful to anyone against him.”
In 2003, after William Bulger refused to testify before Congress about his brother’s whereabouts, former Governor Mitt Romney forced him to resign the UMass presidency. Bulger’s unwillingness to criticize his brother provoked predictable arguments about the responsibilities of family members of dangerous criminals, and some of his diehard supporters did not fault him: Family, they believed, trumped any other allegiance. And those same supporters would no doubt bristle at the notion of the city rejecting Linehan’s proposal because of his association with his brother. (He is not his brother’s keeper!) But William Bulger would be a controversial choice for a high honor even if his brother had been the quiet Santa Monica retiree that he pretended to be. During his 18 years as leader of the State Senate, William Bulger exercised iron-fisted control over his fellow lawmakers in a body marked as much by intimidation as deliberation. He was also notoriously tolerant of political patronage, funneling politically connected appointees into the state court system.
In nominating William Bulger, Linehan cited his “illustrious career.” That career, it must be said, included a boisterous love of learning and support for public libraries. William Bulger served as a trustee for the Boston Public Library system for 25 years. He was also instrumental in the founding of a nonprofit foundation that has raised millions of dollars to support the library. In addition, he used his fund-raising prowess and political acumen to elevate the standing of UMass.
But if a belief in education was one of the pervasive influences in Bulger’s life, dating back to his childhood in a South Boston housing project, so too was absolute loyalty to his brother throughout his decades-long crime wave. And so was an approach to politics geared toward rewarding supporters and neighbors with public jobs. It’s a mixed legacy, at best. And while posterity may ultimately view William Bulger more on his legislative achievements than his family or style of politics, he remains deeply controversial today. That’s no reason to condemn him, as he quietly tries to live down the embarrassment of his brother’s trial and conviction last year; but it’s no reason to honor him, either.