The Magazine

The Anti-Brahmins

Not every Massachusetts dynasty is great.

Jul 24, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 42 • By EDWARD ACHORN
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The Brothers Bulger

How They Terrorized and Corrupted Boston For a Quarter Century

by Howie Carr

Warner, 352 pp., $25.95

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.)