James “Whitey” Bulger’s violent death in federal prison retriggered terrible memories of his life of savage crime and the corrupt law enforcement system that, for too long, allowed him to carry it out.
As Bulger’s mortal remains are buried somewhere, let’s not bury the willingness of so many in the Massachusetts political establishment to overlook the full extent of his evil. When it came to avoiding Whitey’s sins, his brother, William M. Bulger, personified a moral blindness that could at least be attributed to family loyalty. But what about everyone else? For many, it was simply deference to the power Bill Bulger wielded as president of the Massachusetts Senate for nearly 20 years.
This bowing to Bill — or Billy, as some call him — coupled with cold indifference toward Whitey’s victims, was famously demonstrated by then-Governor William F. Weld at the annual St. Patrick’s Day breakfasts, over which the Senate president merrily presided. In 1992, Weld sang a ditty poking fun at Whitey Bulger’s acquisition of a winning lottery ticket through an elaborate money laundering scheme. In 1995 — two months after Whitey Bulger became a fugitive — Weld sang another ditty, this one to the tune of “Charlie on the MTA.” “Will he ever return? No, he’ll never return,” warbled Weld, a former US attorney, who was certainly plugged in well enough to know Whitey’s full story.
As James Carroll wrote in a Globe column headlined “Winks and nods for the Bulger brothers,” the entanglement of the brothers and the way they “used each other to advance their separate agendas . . . remains a mark on the soul of the Commonwealth.”
For some, fear drove the winks and nods. “Billy used Whitey’s reputation, real or imagined, as a club to threaten and punish. When bogeymen become real, they are real,” said Michael McCormack, a longtime Boston lawyer who served on the Boston City Council from 1981 to 1991. As Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr also recounts, fear of Whitey so gripped Boston Mayor Kevin H. White that he worried Whitey was planning to assassinate him. As White told WGBH Channel 2 reporter Chris Lydon, he also believed fear of Whitey influenced the way Bill Bulger was treated by the press: “The point is, if my brother threatened to kill you, or you thought he would kill you, you would be nothing but nice to me.”
In his 1996 memoir, “While the Music Lasts: My Life in Politics,” Bill Bulger noted that reporters were always asking him to talk about the brother he called Jim. “I never have, except to say that he is my brother and I love him.” He described a transformation from “a blithe spirit to a rebel whose cause I could never discern.” His refusal to acknowledge his brother’s depravity finally came at a price. Under pressure from Governor Mitt Romney, he resigned as president of the University of Massachusetts in 2003, after refusing to cooperate with authorities who were searching for Whitey. When Whitey was finally captured in California in 2011, Bill Bulger, said “thank you” and “no comment” to a Boston Globe reporter who told him about it.
Bill Bulger is now 84. A longtime South Boston politician who stays in touch with him, but does not want to be identified, said he spoke with Bill Bulger on Sunday, for the first time since the news of his brother’s demise. “We’re fine here, we’re fine,” he quoted Bulger as saying. “Thank you for calling.” Whitey’s death obviously represents the death of an era. “It’s hard to imagine we’ll ever have a replication of one brother a Senate president and the other brother the Irish Al Capone,” said McCormack, the former city councilor.
Beyond that, today’s Boston is even less parochial and clannish than it was when Romney finally stood up to Bill Bulger. Today, soaring real estate values are changing the demographics of neighborhoods like South Boston. But the past is not completely eradicated. Last week, racist graffiti was spray-painted at Southie’s Joseph P. Tynan Elementary School.
And there are still people willing to give Bill Bulger a pass for carrying “the cross” of his brother’s crimes. They just don’t want to be named.