Brotherhood

    Many events transpired in my absence last week – President Obama launched a semi sorta military withdrawal from Afghanistan, Republicans and Democrats predictably played chicken with the debt ceiling, Jon Huntsman joined the Republican race (his own campaign website misspelled his first name), Newt “Tiffany” Gingrich lost a few more staffers, a former half-term Alaska governor couldn’t even finish a bus tour – but, truth to tell, I was most transfixed by the twisted tale of Billy and Whitey.By now you’ve probably heard that James “Whitey” Bulger, the Boston crime boss tagged with involvement in 19 murders, was finally captured last week after living on the lam for 16 years. It turned out that Whitey and his moll were ensconced in a Santa Monica apartment, a short stroll from the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Whitey, at age 81, is now back in Boston to face the music.His capture is a big story, at least for those of us who grew up in New England – Whitey’s adventures have spawned many books; he was a perverse role model for the Jack Nicholson character in Martin Scorsese’s film The Departed – but the bigger, more interesting story has a strong political dimension. It’s impossible to talk about Whitey without bringing up his loyal brother Billy. The blood bond is inviolate, tragically so, because Whitey’s sins have irrevocably soiled Billy’s political career and legacy. In the annals of old-boy networks, this saga is unique.The Bulger boys grew up in the South Boston projects before taking different life paths. Whitey dropped out of high school and fought his way to the top of the Irish mob. Billy, on the other hand, mastered Cicero and Shakespeare, graduated Boston College Law School, and ultimately reigned for 18 years as president of the Massachusetts Senate. For much of that time, from 1978 to 1996, Billy was arguably the state’s most powerful Democratic politician, a classic favor-swapping inside player whose nickname was “Mr. President.”The facile plot arc is that one brother went bad, while the other hewed to the straight and narrow. The truth was more complicated (just as it was in Brotherhood, the underrated Bulger-inspired Showtime series about two Providence siblings). Billy was a smart and savvy power broker, and naturally that helped fuel his rise in state Democratic circles, but because he never publicly distanced himself from his infamous brother, a lot of Democrats were afraid to challenge or cross him – fearing perhaps that doing so might trigger the wrath of Whitey.Indeed, there were times when people suspected that Billy was using his esteemed Senate office to protect Whitey. For instance, Whitey worked briefly as a state court janitor until a judge terminated his employment; subsequently, this judge had serious problems getting any pay raises. On another front, back in 1981, a line item in the state budget targeted several state cops who had bugged Whitey’s garage. The item would have forced these cops into early retirement. It didn’t pass. More interestingly, nobody seemed to know how the item got attached to the budget. Billy (who knew every line of every budget) insisted that it wasn’t his idea. Twenty-two years later, a congressional committee asked Billy for further details about this budget item; in response, Billy said, “I categorically can’t recall.”You may be wondering how Billy wound up in front of a congressional hearing in 2003. It’s simple, really. The House Government Reform Committee (which was investigating corrupt FBI agents’ ties to mobsters) wanted to know if Billy knew where his brother was. Whitey had disappeared in 1995, after being tipped off by a corrupt FBI agent that his arrest was imminent. Whitey, at the time of the ’03 House hearing, was on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List along with Osama bin Laden.I covered this House hearing, and marveled at the tragedy of Billy’s blood bond. Billy at the time had cashed in his political chips and got himself appointed to a prestigious job, president of the University of Massachusetts. But he was under heavy pressure to resign – the new governor, Mitt Romney, wanted him to go – because of his stubborn refusal to discuss Whitey. Seven months before this ’03 House hearing, he had clammed up and invoked his Fifth Amendment right to silence. A lot of people in Massachusetts were uncomfortable with Billy’s behavior; as UMass student Michael Rhys told me at the time, “We’re the laughingstock of higher ed. Who else has a president who takes the fifth?”Anyway, Billy finally agreed to testify in Washington, under a grant of immunity from prosecution. I sat behind his diminutive body, and listened to his gentle brogue as he said, “I do not know where my brother is…I have not aided James Bulger in any way while he has been a fugitive. Do I possess information that could lead to my brother’s arrest? The honest answer is no.”But that was hardly the whole story. It turned out that when Whitey went into the wind in 1995, he phoned Billy to say that he was OK. As Billy recalled in his House testimony, he told his older brother that the family cared about him and that maybe Whitey’s travails would “have a happy ending.” But Billy admitted that he didn’t urge Whitey to give himself up. Nor did Billy, an elected public servant, opt to call the cops. Instead, he called his attorney. When the House panelists asked why he had chosen his attorney over the cops, Billy replied, “It was my preference.” He also insisted that speaking with his fugitive brother was “in no way inconsistent” with his public responsibilities. (During an ’01 grand jury appearance, when Billy was asked why he hadn’t urged Whitey to surrender, he had replied, “I didn’t think it would be in his best interest to do so.”)Billy has never seemed willing to acknowledge that his brother was an alleged serial executioner; at the tail end of his long state Senate career, in 1996, he wrote a memoir that essentially depicted Whitey as an innocent victim of innuendo: “Regrettably, he has placed himself in a position where anything goes – planted press stories, absurd rumors, wild exaggerations, the lot.”Shortly after his House testimony in 2003, Billy succumbed to the critics and quit the UMass presidency. Last week, when informed by a reporter that Whitey had been caught in California, he said simply, “No comment.” Hey, what more could he say? His unswerving loyalty to Whitey has irrevocably stained his reputation. There’s no going back to the halcyon days when he reigned supreme in Massachusetts politics; as he softly lamented during his House testimony, “I doubt that that happier time will ever return to me.” Indeed not. He has tragically demonstrated that blood is thicker than brains.

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