March 6, 2013

Can we blame the "sole psychopath"?

Bulger Rule in Boston

“It’s exactly as if Al Capone’s brother had become president of the Illinois State Senate, and everybody in Chicago just agreed: we’re not going to notice, and we’re not going to talk about it.”

That was the late John E. Powers line to me, in his bitter old age, about the eerie silence around 30 years of Bulger rule in Boston – the hegemony of vicious James in the underworld and wily William at the Massachusetts State House from the mid-1970s onward. Johnny Powers had been Mr. South Boston in his time, preceding Bill Bulger as state senator from Southie, also as Senate President. And he hadn’t much use for either Bulger.

It’s strange how the impasse holds, how eyes are still averted after all these years – after the confirmation of James “Whitey” Bulger’s license-to-kill from a corrupted FBI; after his decade-plus on the lam (on an FBI tip) and then his recapture two years ago in a Santa Monica apartment; after the retirement and silence that Governor Mitt Romney forced on Bill Bulger, for refusing to tell Congress about his contacts with Whitey on the run, or his mediation with the Federal cops. Even now lot of people want to doubt any criminal connection between the brothers, and two new books will be taken to promote a little more uncertainty.

bill bulger left

From two teams of Boston Globe writers, Whitey: The Life of America’s Most Notorious Mob Boss by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill and Whitey Bulger: America’s Most Wanted Gangster and the Manhunt that Brought Him to Justice by Kevin Cullen and Shelley Murphy are both solid professional jobs by old hands on the beat. Yet both books, in my reading, fog the main point – or “bury the lede,” as newspaper guys say. Those one-man titles are the tip of the giant flaw in the narrative iceberg. The picture in both books of Whitey, the “sole psychopath,” isn’t that interesting after all; the gruesome tooth-yankings before or after the bullet to the brain, the bare-handed strangling of inconvenient girl friends do not bulk up to great weight. And the very idea of a free-range urban terrorist building a solid empire and long reign makes no sense to me in the first place. Free rangers die young. Whitey Bulger, as a sole practitioner, would have been shot on the street or knifed in prison 40 or 50 years ago – like Albert DeSalvo, the Boston Strangler.

The better lede: Whitey Bulger is alive today (in his 80’s, waiting his first trial in almost 60 years) because, as both the new books detail, he’s had political protection all his criminal life: from his saintly Congressman John McCormack (House Speaker in JFK time), also from the sinful FBI since the 1950s and continuously from his brazen brother Bill, who as much as ran the Massachusetts Statehouse in the 70s, 80s and 90s and always took care of his brother, the serial killer, for reasons that aren’t fathomed here. Bostonians have learned to love the “good brother / bad brother” pairing, but would we believe it about two brothers anywhere else, running good and evil – independently – in, say, Indianapolis, or Shanghai? Was Bill Bulger’s relentless lobbying for Whitey driven by love of his big brother? Hero-worship? Fear? Shame? By a “crime family” partnership? No solid new answers here, but surely those are the key questions.

I have the same beef with these books I had with that terrific Oscar winning movie, The Departed. Helluva role for Jack Nicholson as Whitey, the contemptuous crime boss, but it made no sense without some account of his immunity. If a killer has had political cover all his life, and Whitey has, isn’t that the story?

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  • Glen S.

    Excellent thoughts Chris, I think you’ve gotten right to the bottom of the difference between a common thug and a true gangster — the immunity. People rob stores, beat up and intimidate local business owners, and people who get in the way of their own criminal activity but they usually get caught, while some others just seem to slip away. But who has the ultimate immunity? I’d say it’s law enforcement itself, and in an era when it’s taken for granted that all law enforcement, especially federal agencies, routinely violate even the most serious of laws (think of how many “terrorists” have been recruited, trained, and supplied with what they think are weapons, only to be busted by the very people who put them up to the entire job) without any consequences whatsoever even when things get seriously botched. And it’s not only psychos who are out there breaking bones and knocking out teeth, it’s also guys in suits defrauding us of billions of dollars, raiding our local pension funds, poisoning our living environment, and laughing all the way to the bank, which they’re also probably ripping off. I’ll be listening to the radio later, thanks yet again for bringing these thoughts to the airwaves.

  • Brian Treadway

    Would we believe it anywhere else — maybe the Vatican, circa 1500?

  • Alice Brown

    OK, Chris, it’s so wonderful to have someone with your depth back at 89.7. It’s not enough to tackle heavy subjects, but when you can only give them superficial treatment it’s disgusting to listen to as Braude and the lisping woman are proving at noon. We are sinking to new lows on NPR. You give me some hope.

  • david m

    I’ve wondered the same thing for a long time. and it’s hard for me to believe that john connolly would give up the rest of his life to protect these rats. thank heaven for the recent decision in the whitey case: immunity can never be construed as a license to kill. would that all our public leaders were so lucid.

  • Lew Lloyd

    Would we believe it anywhere else – maybe the Vatican in 2013 and the Massachusetts State House in the 70s, 80s and 90s?I never believed the hype about Billy. Anybody that cute has something to hide.

  • Potter

    I have tried to not waste my precious time on Earth too much with this story but my mouth did drop open the other day at this “license to kill” claim came over the transom as Alan Simpson would say (cough).

    But this is a brave and truthful piece you write here Chris-though maybe others are as well. I don’t know. It takes a village….. .

  • chris

    Ley Wescott went into the Radio Open Source archive and left this comment on an post from 2011. He’s responding to this: What News of the Bulgers? Howie’s Still Ahead.

    Very helpful that you reposted this, with commentary, Chris. Besides educating me on facts and details I had not known it reminds of two things:

    One, the vital importance of good journalists and journalism in any society aiming to remain informed and free.

    Two, what a fine journalist/educator you are and have always been.

    And maybe a third: How complicated and difficult unraveling the truth about things and people can be. Especially when close scrutiny of the facts is forgotten by the journalists we depend on, swayed by personal affinities, the klieg lights, or both.

    I met Billy Bulger. He’s nothing if not eminently charming. Likely Whitey had charm, too. Part of Katherine Grieg’s attraction, though fear, I suspect, with no guarantee of protection even if she had turned Whitey in, ultimately kept her glued to him. Both Bulger’s exacted loyalty through consistent and effective retribution.

    Tribalism, too, may not always be a cause, but it is powerful, and often subtly influential. Barnicle is gone, but McGrory is now The Globe’s new editor. And while Patrick Fox and I may have changed our perspective on Billy and Whitey due to your diligent and detailed reporting, as well Dershowitz’s and Howie Carr’s, I wonder if Brian McGrory has. And what will he have to say about it now that he is at the helm of The Globe?

    Remarkable how Bill Weld lost focus once he entered the MA political arena and was courted and feted by Billy Bulger — the annual South Boston toasts and roasts, etc. Charm and influence are able conscriptors for tribalism, when ethnic and social loyalties aren’t already there. And when that fails there is the strong arm of the law — that of the streets or Capitol (Beacon) Hill. In both, independently and through each other, Whitey and Billy apparently wielded powerful, frightening cudgels.

    Feudalism may long ago have gone out of political fashion, but I think it acquired new clothes. It’s still called “Court,” I recall. And we all are required to “All rise!” whenever the ruling authority enters. A grievous mistake from my perspective. We should ‘all’ rise, including the judge, and salute the true reputed authority in which we place our trust – the Flag – representative of our democratic republic, true authority residing in the people. The exercise of power, after all, still resides in the appointed/elected official.

    But unfortunately it doesn’t work that way, and we continue to conflate principles with persons. Because in real human life that is essentially what is true of human nature.

    And power tends to corrupt. Absolute power tending to absolutely.