Whitey Bulger: The Book that Still Needs to Be Written
Hub Blog has had a number of discussions with friends about Whitey Bulger’s recent arrest and the books already published about his gangster exploits. We agreed that the two best Whitey tomes out there, by far, are Gerard O’Neill and Dick Lehr’s groundbreaking “Black Mass
: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob,” and Howie Carr’s “The Brothers Bulger
: How They Terrorized and Corrupted Boston for a Quarter Century.” But we also agreed that even these two books didn’t, and couldn’t, adequately tell the entire saga, mostly because they were classic first-drafts-of-history pieces that came out even as the Whitey saga continued to unfold.
The bottom line: All of the Bulger strands have yet to be pulled together into a larger whole that also tells the story of Boston -- and why the Bulger era still fascinates and, to a degree, divides the city.
James Carroll emphasizes the larger Irish-tragedy
angle of the story – and he’s right to do so. But this isn’t exclusively a tale of Boston’s Irish.
In a recent editorial
, the Globe also touched on a bigger-picture angle, arguing Whitey’s arrest “frees Boston to get past old divisions,” including old ethnic, neighborhood and political divisions. Fat chance. Boston is built on grudges. Too many scores need to be settled. There’s a bigger story waiting to be told about those “old divisions” that still haunt the city.
What’s needed, yours truly and my fellow back-seat hack critics have concluded, is a book like J. Anthony Lukas’s “Common Ground
: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families.” Some might disagree, but we feel Whitey et gang are worthy of a “Common Ground” treatment – and it could almost serve as a sequel, or a companion book, to Lukas’s classic look at Boston’s busing crisis.
With that in mind, here are all the strands that still need to be pulled together to make full sense of the crazy Whitey Bulger story:The Gangsters Strand
– The gangster strand has been pretty much covered so far, especially via Howie’s most recent book “Hit Man.”
But the strand still needs coverage again in any future tome: the North End Mafia, the Winter Hill Gang, the Irish mob wars, the rise of Whitey and Southie, and all the other gangster angles that make journalists’ hearts go pitter-patter when they get to use underworld phrases and words like “wiseguys” and “on the lam” and “yooz guys,” etc. etc. The Corrupt FBI, Staties, Law-enforcement Strand
– The corrupt FBI strand has also been covered quite well, especially in “Black Mass,” which, as its subtitle suggests, lays it all out in shocking detail. But, yes, this strand will also need to be covered again: Two FBI agents tied to mob hits, the guilty pleas of other FBI agents, the gifts and payoffs, the close ties to both of the Bulgers, the deal-with-the-devil protection of Whitey, the entire the-ends-justifying-the-means attitude of the feds.The Political Strand
– OK, now we’re getting closer to the essence of the “big picture” story. Howie moved this ball forward in “The Brothers Bulger,” focusing more on the connection between Whitey and his kid brother, Billy, the former Senate president. But he laid out more of a circumstantial-evidence connection – and a broader political connection still needs to be made.
Some of the obvious and not-so-obvious political issues that need deeper coverage are: the general climate of fear on Beacon Hill during the height of the Bulgers era; how the city was still reeling from the forced-busing crisis as the Bulgers rose to power, and how many of their supporters/critics eerily lined up along those old forced-busing fault lines; the mysterious state agency budget cuts and demotions of anyone who dared cross the Bulgers; the cushy government and industry jobs landed by mobsters, their relatives and ex-FBI agents; the politically wired rise of FBI agent Zip Connelly and his gross FBI retirement party; the alleged push to make Zip chief of Boston police; the former governor of Massachusetts who effectively handed over the keys to state government to Billy while he ran for president in ’88; the once crusading U.S. Attorney-turned-governor who ended up cynically playing footsie with the younger Bulger. Etc., etc.The Ethnic, Class and Neighborhood Strand
s – Similar to above, but burrowing deeper, Lukas like, into how Whitey (and Billy) exploited ethnic and neighborhood divisions to gain power; why so many were so quick to build Whitey up into an urban Irish hero; the insularity of Boston’s neighborhoods and surrounding suburbs that allowed the true Bulgers story to fly under the radar for so long. Research on this strand could start by reading “All Souls.”The Old Boston-New Boston Strand
-- Hopefully, someone will finally explain the following: What do people really mean by “old” Boston and “new” Boston? It has a lot to do with this story – and much of it is tied to the strands above and below.The Media Strand
– The good, bad and ugly of the Boston media, including: the threats to Herald and Globe reporters to back off Bulger stories; the columnists who put on their annoying Jimmy Breslin-wannabe hats, acted like they were old pals of “Jimmy” and working-class stiffs, and fanned the Robin Hood myths about Whitey; the infamous 60 Minutes puff piece on the Bulgers; the Globe’s groundbreaking 75 State Street and Whitey-is-an-informant stories; Howie, Peter Gelzinis, Christopher Lydon and a few others who pounded into all things Bulgers (hey, might as well throw Alan Dershowitz into this mix); the televised congressional hearings.The Hack-Progressive Alliance Strand
– Let’s face it: Most of the Bulgers drama played out within the confines and context of a one-party Democratic state during the ‘80s – and a lot of liberals looked the other way (and still look the other way) at the hack antics of their more “old school” Democratic brethren, as long as they got the liberal-agenda goods in return. One simple question: Where was Ted Kennedy during this entire mess? Bottom line: There was more than a little intentional and unintentional “enabling” going on in this city. No wonder they want to put the entire Bulger era behind them.The Three Straight Republican Governors Strand
– To be fair to Democrats, three straight Republican governors in the ‘90s wouldn’t or couldn’t do anything about the political Gordian Knot strangling this state – and one of them even appointed Billy Bulger as head of UMass. A fourth GOP governor finally took Billy down in the mid-2000s, but Billy ultimately slit his own political throat during televised congressional hearings last decade.The Why It Still Matters Stran
d – The civil and criminal trials are still going on – and more are on the way. The strands of “old Boston” still linger. Etc., etc.
Rereading all of this, the more convinced I become that a future book could just as easily be called "Common Ground, Part 2."