I’ve been away from the reevaluation of Whitey’s life for a week or so but I will return to it as soon as I can. Before going back to it during this week of Presidents Day I will write my thoughts about another president, Billy Bulger. I do so because I’ve thought of him after reading some articles in the New York Times concerning the resignation of Pope Benedict.
Billy got elected to the Massachusetts Legislature in 1960 and served there until the mid-90s. He left when he was appointed president of the University of Massachusetts. Billy’s political career was in the tradition of the old-time Irish Catholic politicians from South Boston, John McCormack, and Joe Moakley.
All were guided by the social teachings of the Catholic Church in their service to the public. Their ideas are far removed from those many have today. Ross Douthat said it a lot better than I could the other day. “the Catholic vision of the good society — more egalitarian than American conservatism and more moralistic than American” liberalism . . .” was the camp in which Billy pitched his tent. Today as Douthat pointed out, “Republicans are more likely to channel Ayn Rand than Thomas Aquinas, and a strident social liberalism holds the whip hand in the Democratic Party.”
Billy was strong in his faith and even stronger in his belief that as a politician his first job was to alleviate the sufferings of “them who have little.” Helping those in need was part and parcel of who Billy was. He knew where he came from. He knew he worked hard to achieve his good fortune. He knew others did not have his intellectual abilities, or drive, or skill with language but because he had these gifts he did not condemn the others for their failures but believed as he was taught, “there but for the Grace of God go I.” He worked hard to ensure the benefits needed by the least among us were provided to them.
Billy put himself out to the public to be elected and rubbed shoulders with the poorest of the poor. He would keep his common touch while moving through politics where he became powerful and gained the respect of all who had dealings with him. He was of the old-time school, he rewarded his friends and didn’t coddle his enemies. He prized loyalty and a person’s word. He honored and revered his parents who with little gave him as much as they could which was a good home in which to grow up. As part of that, he knew that his parents loved their children and expected their children to love each other. He kept to his parents wishes and suffered with them when his brother Whitey became a criminal.
As any parent knows, you can give your children your love, the best of care and a fine home in which to grow up but what they will become is up to them. Kahil Gibran put it best about children: “You may give them your love but not your thoughts, For they have their own thoughts. You may house their bodies but not their souls, For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,. . . ”
Whitey’s future was foretold when he was young. Billy’s also could be seen. The former, the older brother, wild and untamed; the latter, studious and diligent. They were as unlike as two brothers could be yet they were still brothers.
It would be a relationship that would damage both even though they lived separate lives. They were linked together not by choice but by birth. Whitey, without Billy, would be just another evil criminal. He does not come anywhere near the malignancy of our local hoodlums the Flemmis, the Martoranos, the Salemmes, Angiulos, or Baione.
Whitey was put at the top of the criminal heap for the sole purpose of hurting Billy. Billy never did anything with respect to Whitey’s criminal enterprises other than to pray that somehow Whitey would change. Billy’s service to the people of Massachusetts for over 40 years is a model for any politician. But the knives were out for him. Those who never stood for elected office and faced the people, a malignant media abetted by malicious and ignorant men, seeking profit from slander, or media praise and fame, held the floor. They threw Billy onto it and stomped on his reputation.
We are told to judge a person by his friends not by his relatives. We’ve seen who were Whitey’s friends. Billy’s were among the most reputable in society. When I think of Billy I’m reminded of Shakesperian tragedies where we see men at the top of their game undergoing a sudden reversal of fortune brought about by a tragic flaw. We know that “the central impression of the tragedy is waste.”