Not every Massachusetts dynasty is great.
Jul 24, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 42 • By EDWARD ACHORN
The Brothers Bulger
In Massachusetts, politics and crime go together like baked beans and molasses. But even by the standards of Bay State cuisine, the Bulger brothers--Billy and Whitey, each working his own side of the kitchen--achieved extraordinary success in corrupting Boston, the state, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. And therein lies a sordid tale.
Howie Carr, a bad-boy talk radio host and columnist for the Boston Herald, tells it with verve and blunt humor, if not scholarly finesse, in The Brothers Bulger. And with its garish cover, gum-snapping prose, laid-back editing, and absence of footnotes, the book has the tone of a paperback mobster novel to be enjoyed alongside frying bodies on a sun-baked beach.
Most of it seems to be a patch job from previous reporting (by Carr and others). But it is fun to read. And Carr performs a genuine public service in gathering and revealing what he knows about the brothers Bulger. Some of the evidence is circumstantial, and the author obviously intends to cast his subjects in the worst possible light. Still, the facts he piles up high suggest the Bulgers richly deserve the scorn and contempt most readers will feel.
Who are the Bulger (the "g" is pronounced like a "j") brothers? Billy, the younger of the two, was once the Democratic president of the Massachusetts Senate, and thus arguably the state's most powerful politician. Later, with the help of then-Governor William Weld, a Republican--who recently abandoned his badly listing campaign for governor of New York--Billy was handed the presidency of the University of Massachusetts. The current governor, Mitt Romney, a Republican now running for president, managed to pry him from that sinecure after Bulger's remarkably craven performance at a 2003 congressional hearing.
Congress was looking into his relationship with his big brother, James "Whitey" Bulger, a (reputed) vicious killer and mobster who rose to the distinction of becoming the FBI's No. 2 most wanted criminal behind Osama bin Laden. While still a senator, Billy went to an arranged location in 1995 to take a call from his fugitive brother, apparently to avoid electronic eavesdropping. Billy said that accepting the call from the gangster without bothering to inform the FBI was "in no way inconsistent with my devotion to my own responsibilities, my public responsibilities." That sums up how seriously Billy took his public responsibilities.
I covered the Massachusetts Statehouse a bit during the early 1990s when Billy Bulger was Senate president. At times, that meant standing on the marble floor in the hallway outside his ornate office--I was never invited in--and waiting for Mr. Bulger to emerge with some prepared witticism and an air of obvious irritation at being asked anything.
It was interesting to observe how the wit had flown during the hearing of the House Committee on Government Reform, when Rep. Dan Burton of Indiana asked Billy a simple question under oath: What did Bulger think his brother Whitey did for a living? "I had the feeling that he was uh in the business of gaming and and uh . . . Whatever. It was vague to me but I didn't think, uh--for a long while he had some jobs but uh ultimately uh it was clear that he was not uh um being um uh you know he wasn't doing what I'd like him to do."
He was in the business, authorities said, of money laundering, drugs, racketeering, and murder. That Billy Bulger, a cold, shrewd, and calculating man, was blissfully unaware of any of this defies belief. Billy's South Boston home was located just yards away from the house of Whitey's mobster associate Stevie Flemmi. The Feds called it a "clubhouse" for Whitey's Winter Hill Gang. It was there, Carr observes, that Whitey strangled Stevie's 26-year-old girlfriend, Debra Davis. And it was there that Whitey and Stevie huddled on Sundays with FBI agents, whom they bribed with cash, jewelry, and wine.
Carr tells the tale of the Bulger brothers' involvement in advancing the FBI career of South Boston boy John "Zip" Connolly, now residing in federal prison. Through Connolly, Whitey became an informant for the FBI, helping it go after the Italian Mafia. Whitey enjoyed the government's protection while his mob competition in Boston was erased.
Connolly, meanwhile, worked on the senator's campaigns, and Billy Bulger urged his fellow Southie pol Ray Flynn, mayor of Boston, to hire the corrupt agent as police commissioner. (Flynn wisely declined.)
"He's a special, special person," Connolly said of Billy. "He taught me the value of public service." Connolly ultimately began making so much money on the side--more than $200,000 from the mob, Carr asserts--that he let his government paychecks pile up, uncashed. The feds charged that he tipped off Whitey to an impending indictment in 1994, allowing the mobster to flee authorities and live off the fortune he amassed through crime--about $40 million, Carr estimates.
The author keeps the anecdotes flying. He recounts a story told by the late Boston Globe sportswriter Will McDonough, who grew up in Southie with the Bulgers. One day, when Will and Billy, then about 13 years old, were walking home from the beach, Whitey pulled up in a Cadillac convertible that neither of them had ever seen. They climbed in, and as they drove along, Billy spotted a kid his age pedaling a bicycle with an ice-cream chest attached to the handlebars.
"I never liked that kid," Billy said. Whitey followed the boy, and bumped the back of his bike with his fender, while the terrified boy tried to get away, racing toward Broadway. Billy told his brother he simply said he didn't like the kid; he didn't say to kill him.
"We're not going to kill him," Whitey answered. "When he gets to Broadway and barrels out into the street, the bus'll kill him." That passed for charming banter in the Bulger circle.
Why didn't the press more vigorously pursue the Bulgers? When Paul Corsetti, a Vietnam veteran and police reporter for the Boston Herald, began looking into a gangland murder, and Whitey's involvement in it, he ran into a stranger in a bar.
"I'm Jimmy Bulger and I kill people," the stranger told Corsetti. Then Bulger pulled out a piece of paper and began reciting to the reporter: Corsetti's address in Medford; the make, model, and license number of his car, and that of his wife; and such information about Corsetti's preschool daughter as where she was dropped off at day care each morning, and when. According to Carr, Corsetti began wearing a .38-caliber revolver to work--and it was five years before the Boston media looked seriously at Whitey again.
Many people who were more powerful than any mobster joined in promoting Billy Bulger. Religious leaders and politicians, including John Kerry and Edward Kennedy, flocked to Billy's annual St. Patrick's Day breakfasts, where the good old boys traded jokes about political bullying. The Bush family developed a fondness for Billy after he helped deep-six the 1988 presidential campaign of Michael Dukakis, Billy's fellow (but far more liberal) Democrat, with advice to the Bush campaign to look into the putrid condition of Boston Harbor. After winning the White House, George H.W. Bush gratefully phoned in quips on St. Patrick's Day, helping underscore Billy's clout. And in 2002, President George W. Bush's Justice Department stonewalled Congress on FBI documents that might have embarrassed Billy.
The ultimate effect of it all might be depressing, in that Whitey escaped to enjoy his millions on the run, and continues to do so more than a decade later, while Billy left the University of Massachusetts with a settlement that cost taxpayers $960,000, plus a steady pension check from Massachusetts--which, after taxes, came to $11,312.29 a month. Except that, thanks in part to The Brothers Bulger, Billy and Whitey will not escape the judgment of history, and such productions as Billy's self-serving autobiography, While The Music Lasts, will be seen for the claptrap it is. Continued exposure of the Bay State's often tribal and corrupt politics should alert perceptive critics to pertinent questions about Massachusetts politicians who rise from the muck.
As Whitey's gangster associate Kevin Weeks once testified, when asked how the power, reach, and connections of the brothers Bulger could have been covered up, or ignored, in America: "We weren't in America. We were in Boston."
Edward Achorn is deputy editor of the editorial pages at the Providence Journal.