On the Bulgers, Howie’s Still Ahead

That’s Howie watching Billy take the Fifth on Whitey, 2003

We can’t pass up the Bulger story, after 30-plus years’ obsession with it. The Rise, Reign and Fall of the Bulger Brothers has been the biggest Boston story of our times, maybe the only really important political news in these parts since the Kennedys. Ask yourself: in how many places could it have been said with authority that the overlord of the drug cartel and the overlord of local politics were brothers and intimates? Medellin, perhaps, but that’s in Colombia. Marseilles, but that was France, upon a time. Yes, and Massachusetts, from the late 1970s to the late 1990s. Seven years ago, when the Democratic National Convention (Barack Obama, keynoter; John Kerry, nominee) came to Boston, it seemed safe enough to celebrate a new reality: that with Whitey on the lam and Billy in disgrace, Massachusetts was a virtually Bulger-free Zone. So I went over to the Boston Herald to record this conversation with one of the very few real heroes of the epic, the gloriously disreputable, fearless and funny Howie Carr. This was my take in 2004, not much changed today:

Howie is the only writer in Boston with the tenacity to learn the whole Bulger story, and the balls to tell it — not only to relate it in infinite detail (look for Howie’s Whitey Watch here) but to laugh in the Bulgers’ faces with jokes about Whitey (“The Caucasian”), Senate President Billy (“The Corrupt Midget”) and the whole Crime Family. These were jokes that he had to know could have cost him his life. The Bulgers had jokes, too, like the word passed from Whitey’s liquor store in South Boston that they had a dumpster out back with Howie Carr’s name on it.

There was a time when a reporter couldn’t laugh at a threat like that. Most reporters just decided not to mention the Bulgers. But let’s not forget them yet. Think of Whitey Bulger as our neighborhood Osama Bin Laden. Both Whitey and Osama were embraced and empowered by the security apparatus of the US government: Whitey by the FBI, ostensibly to get information on the Italian Mafia; Osama by the CIA and Pentagon, to lead the fighting forces of Islam against the Soviet domination of Afghanistan. Both Whitey and Osama grew out of control into much more dangerous monsters, you could argue, than the enemies they’d been enlisted to fight. And then — oops! — both of them disappeared! One big difference between them was that Whitey left his kid brother behind, a politician who inspired much the same dread as Whitey. Bill Bulger exercised power in public office behind a veil not of respectability, really, but of silence.

In the words of the late John E. Powers, who preceded Bulger in South Boston politics and the Senate presidency, “it’s as if Al Capone’s brother was president of the Illinois State Senate, and everybody pretended not to notice.” One reason people could pretend not to notice was that the media conspired in the sentimental absurdity of a good brother/bad brother story, when the record was clear that they were tight little twins in treachery and intimidation. The people who were duped and demeaned by William Bulger make an amazing list, as Howie and I totted it up informally. High in the ranks is Michael Dukakis, who as governor signed Bulger’s vendettas into the state budget. Bulger showed his capacity for gratitude and solidarity by encouraging George H. W. Bush in one of the decisive campaign ploys of the 1988 presidential campaign: the floating diatribe, from a boat in polluted Boston Harbor, against Dukakis’s environmental record. Bulger launched John Silber in the 1990 governor’s race with a grant of the convention votes Silber required to make the Democratic ballot. But no sooner had Silber self-destructed in the final race when Bulger married the Republican winner, Bill Weld.

Once upon a time, as the Federal prosecutor in Boston, Weld had wanted to indict both Bulger brothers, but as governor he learned, he said, to love the Senate President. So much for Weld’s “smell test.” Nothing is more embarrassing overall than the professional commentary on the Bulger story through the years. Bad enough that Mike Barnicle in his Globe column fronted continually for John Connolly, the FBI hack now in prison for fronting for the Bulgers. Bad enough that Brian McGrory continues the Globe tradition: when Bulger, as UMass president, took the Fifth Amendment before Congress rather than detail his contacts with Whitey, McGrory called it an exercise of “brotherly love,” not public contempt. But astonishingly The New Yorker published a fawning, ignorant profile of William Bulger by Richard Brookhiser that was a bad as any of the local coverage. Morley Safer on “60 Minutes” was worse.

There are genuine stand-up heroes in the Bulger story. Judge George Daher was defiant when Bulger, on a personal pique, tried to unfund his Housing Court, and Governor Dukakis went along. “How’s he going to stand up to the Russians,” Daher famously asked about Dukakis, “when he can’t stand up to the corrupt midget?” Federal Judge Mark Wolf made amends for the sins of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, in which he’d served, with an exhaustive inquiry into the corruption of the FBI. We have brave, solid books by now on the Bulger reign of terror: All Souls by Michael McDonald, and Black Mass by the Globe’s Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill. Alan Dershowitz deserves credit for volunteering to Governor Mitt Romney to serve on the UMass board, if only to hound President Bulger at every trustees’ meeting. Some say this was the threat that persuaded Bulger to quit. But nobody over the years took more chances to tell the story straight than Howie Carr. And nobody gave more people courage and some consolation through the Bulger siege. So here’s to Howie and a hell of a yarn.

Posted among Christopher Lydon Interviews, July 26, 2004.

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  • Patrick Fox

    I offer a long overdue apology.  We had many conversations about this in 1993 when I defended Bill Bulger. I said that you and Howie were crazy to believe that Billy’s power came from Whitey’s terror.  I liked and respected Bill Bulger and thought it unfair that he was tarnished by the sins of his brother.  I was wrong.  

  • This ROS interview on the Bulgers is advanced Boston “murkology” and seems at the intersection of “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” meets “The Thomas Crown Affair” meets “The Verdict” with Paul Newman and James Mason. Throw in “Mystic River” too.
    For a light on fraternal duels and rivalries and lifelong co-dependent craziness, see:
    The Brothers Ashkenazi (1936) is a novel by Israel Joshua Singer. Written in Yiddish, it was first translated into English by Maurice Samuel in 1936. In 1980 a new translation was published by the author’s son, Joseph Singer.
    The novel takes place in the Polish city of Lodz, mostly among the large Jewish community that lived there before World War Two. It follows the changes from the 19th century through the revolution of 1905 and ends just after World War One. The main character is Max Ashkenazi, who moves away from the pious Jewish culture he is born into and becomes a successful industrialist. This destroys a lot of his personal relationships, before the upheaval of the war also ruins him financially. Max is engaged in a constant battle to be more successful than his twin brother Jacob. This competition estranges Max from his friends and family. Closer towards the end of his life, Max comes to a realization that he was always driven by greed and he does his best to fix and gain back the family and the relationships that he has lost.
    This is a historical novel about the life of Jews in Poland, about the Industrial Revolution, and the beginnings of Communism. Moreover, it is a story about a man doing what he does best and that is chasing false idols, ideologies, and glory; All Max wanted was to be called the King of Lodz. He becomes very successful throughout the course of his life, but in the process loses everything else that is important to him.
    See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Brothers_Ashkenazi

  • chris

    How sweet it is, Patrick, to hear from your combative, unbelievably well-informed and wise head. Thank you, dear man.

  • Potter

    I am a long enough listener to know how focussed you were on this story Chris. I have not listened to Carr/04 yet ( and will) but I have to say I am loathe to give Carr any credit because I heard him enough and have been revolted enough by him in general. .. but if you say so….

    My second thoughts (or first ones) upon hearing of this bust, after the shock of it, was: not bad at all that he managed to evade justice for so long–living to 80 plus years old ( but without proper medical care I understand) Which leads me to this-for the first part of his life of crime, murder included, was it worth living on the run, in hiding (though in plain sight apparently)? Did he get enough satisfaction out of evading the law to make up for the punishment of the way he had to live?

    My next question would be to his sweetie Catherine- how could she live with a man who could take her out so easily? (A neighbor said she thought she had to put up with a lot. ) But she must have known or felt confident that he needed her.

    Finally- about the connection to Billy- the (reported) exchange of smiles in the courtroom said enough.

    Okay- I’ll listen to Carr.

  • Shaman

    Thanks for re-posting this interview, Chris. It serves as a great refresher to this story now back in the news.

  • Ed

    Great show. Fascinating. I’m going to get Howies book today. Thanks for posting this.

  • Klaus

    Great show, once again! Want to take the opportunity to thank you for your fantastic work! I am Austrian and listening to your show for almost four years, now. Great help for trying to make sense of the US, and the rest of the world.

  • sifta

    The events of the Arab spring have multifarious causes, but one aspect that captured a lot of people’s imaginations in America was the Powered-by-Facebook angle. It makes me wonder how circles of power and privilege may be affected in our own USA by ‘the internet’ writ-large — that is including the way-of-the-world towards the end of Pres. Obama’s first term (2011) as compared to (say) the end of Clinton’s first term (1995).

    On one hand, family power and interests run strong and you might think that things never change. However, that fact that a typical citizen like me can look on the internet and see things like the activities of the Koch brothers — and not have this be some second-hand urban legend or unproven shadowy secret privy to an extreme few. However cynical you want to be about President Obama’s meteroric rise, it is clear that he is nobody’s patsy. His fundraising would have been impossible without the internet — among other things it also served to also validate this viability to the democratic elite.

    It is difficult to see the forest for the trees, but if Egypt was able to overthrow a despot then how static can we be? All of which is a very tangential segway to Howie Carr on the brothers Bulger. If the Mubarak (who actually turned off the internet) couldn’t repress conversation among what chance does the Irish mob have? Freedom from overt repression is possibly not necessarily the interesting angle, but rather how we would anticipate networks of status/power to react to the new environment.

  • Ley Westcott

    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.