The William Bulger I know

One-dimensional coverage misses the essence of the man

The recent capture of James “Whitey” Bulger has brought forth a torrent of commentary, much of it involving former state Senate president and University of Massachusetts president William Bulger. A typical report by a respected journalist referred to Bulger’s “greatly diminished reputation.”

So what has William Bulger done to deserve the supposed “greatly diminished reputation”?  Nothing – the attacks against him now are nearly a decade old and revolve around his remark that he hoped to do nothing to aid in the capture of his brother.

As Tom Oliphant wrote in a column in the Boston Globe after Bulger’s 2003 testimony in a congressional hearing, there was not a shred of evidence that Bulger was anything but truthful when he asserted that he did not know of his brother’s whereabouts and had never aided him. Oliphant challenged Bulger’s tormentors in the “media-political culture” to “make a real case or shut up.” They have never done either.

We aren’t talking law here, we’re talking politics.  Remember Republican Congressman Dan Burton, the committee chairman? He is most famous for leading the House investigation into the suicide of White House aide and Clinton family friend Vince Foster. In that one, he tried to prove the Clintons were culpable in Foster’s death by taking a gun out to his backyard and blasting away at a pumpkin. Should anyone be expected to entrust their constitutional rights to this guy? As to Gov. Mitt Romney’s successful effort to remove Bulger from the presidency of UMass, also correctly characterized by Oliphant as political, it did nothing for the university and was more likely intended to feed red meat to Republican presidential primary voters.

Now, following his brother’s arrest, Bulger is criticized for his expression of sympathy “to all the families hurt by the calamitous circumstances of this case.” Yet he could never satisfy his critics – his words are now a commodity in a political-media culture much more intense than Oliphant could ever have imagined.

It has frequently been said of William Bulger that what you think of him depends on how well you know him. So permit me a few words about the William Bulger I know, a decent, thoughtful, and compassionate man.

I first met Bulger at Boston College when he taught a course titled “The Legislature and the Legislator,” and as a doctoral candidate I was assigned to be his teaching assistant. Such courses are often little more than prominent politicians telling war stories. Not this course. The demanding reading list included selections from Plutarch’s Lives, interspersed with case studies from the National Conference of State Legislatures. He was prone to calling me at ungodly hours. “Who else would be so audacious as to call this early? Tell me, do you think the students might benefit from reading Sophocles’ Antigone?” And they did.

He was unfailingly courteous and kind. After class he would offer me a ride home, though it would require him to enter the Cambridge city limits (“I’ll drive. I hope your soul is in a state of grace.”) Occasionally there was no ride. He knew of a fellow, a State House hanger-on, who faced difficulties in life. The president would head over to McLean Hospital after class to cheer him up, and I would head to the T.

But the rides home were frequently uproariously funny and quite often educational. But about life, not politics. One day a news story on the radio told of a man who had committed suicide after a life of torment as a closeted gay. Bulger grew pensive as he told me of a fellow he had known growing up in Southie who had endured similar difficulties. It is reason enough to be kind to others, he told me, “because you never know the pain someone else might be in.”

On one occasion as we sat in his office grading student papers I was asked to wait outside a moment as another political figure was ushered in. It was at the time of an uprising of Democratic senators who wanted to remove Bulger as president. When I returned he apologized and told me the visitor had information that one of the insurgents was enjoying cordial relations with a woman other than his wife and perhaps this could be used in the battle. “But,” he told me, “I’d rather lose than use that sort of thing.”

Ah, but the legislative chicanery the man could devise! Perhaps it sometimes had its good purposes, though, as we learned in the Boston Globe story announcing his departure from the Senate for the University of Massachusetts:

“He cared about poor people. When the rules allowed him to gavel through a costly, controversial measure in the middle of the night, he did it,” said human services lobbyist Judy Meredith. “I can make a list of a lot of social service programs that were gaveled through without full and fair debate.”

If James Michael Curley was the Mayor of the Poor, then surely Bulger was the Senate President of the Poor.

What of this notion that Bulger was somehow corrupt? (He must be the most investigated man in Massachusetts history, and what have eager prosecutors come up with? Nothing.) Just recall what the Massachusetts Senate was like when he took over. Senators Joseph DiCarlo and Ronald MacKenzie had been convicted of corruption in the MBM scandal. The former chairman of the ways and means committee, James Kelly, was to be convicted of extortion. Bulger’s predecessor as Senate president was touched by scandal and resigned. That nonsense stopped under Bulger. The so-called parochial Irish pol appointed as ways and means chair the highly capable suburban senator Chet Atkins; and later Patricia McGovern, making her at the time likely the most powerful woman in Massachusetts political history; and then Thomas Birmingham, a Rhodes Scholar. Not bad.

Look at what is happening in national politics today. Members of Congress and presidential candidates are signing pledges to never raise any tax under any circumstance, abdicating their responsibility to deliberate and decide. These folks need a healthy dose of Bulger, who ceaselessly describes the duty of the legislator in words memorized from Edmund Burke: “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

Or consider the News International scandal in Great Britain, where Rupert Murdoch’s malignant “news” organization ran rampant, aided by supine politicians cowering before Murdoch’s publicity machine. If one thing can be said of Bulger, it is assuredly that he never trembled before the press.

His love of books and learning and his unique ability to get things done made him perfect to assume the presidency of the UMass. When he left the university, the Boston Phoenix, not typically a robust voice for Bulger, called him the “salvation” of UMass.           

Meet the Author

Maurice Cunningham

Assoc. Prof. of Political Science, University of Massachusetts Boston
It is a shame that so many know William Bulger only through sensationalistic coverage. He was a superb public servant, and, as one who has known him personally, I’m privileged to call him a dear friend.

Maurice Cunningham is chairman of the department of political science at the University of Massachusetts Boston.