Larger-Than-Life Politician Now Scales Literary Peaks

SOME men fail at political life but write lasting literature (for example, "The Education of Henry Adams"). Others govern successfully but can't even charm ghostwriters into making their memoirs interesting (fill in any campaign bio).

And then there's Billy Bulger, whom The New York Times proclaimed the "most powerful state legislator in the country" and who is now winning literary kudos.

Billy who?

If you're not from Massachusetts, that's a legitimate question. But William Michael Bulger is one of those larger-than-life (all 5-foot-6 of him) politicians worth discovering: master of the political roast, living rebuke to term limits, Irish imp with a will of steel, proletarian more deeply steeped in culture than most Brahmins, fastest gavel in the East, and poor-boy scholar now awarded a five-campus university to reshape.

Still doubtful? Listen to David McCullough, Pulitzer-certified biographer of Harry Truman and connoisseur of the presidency. McCullough gives a rave to Bulger's just-released memoir, "While the Music Lasts."

He calls the wise (and wisecracking) memoir "a book by a man who loves books and who uses the English language more skillfully than most professional writers."

In an age when politicians use speech writers to ghost their telepromptered oratory and media spokesmen to spin for them, how rare to find a literary politician! Almost an oxymoron.

But Bulger - less known in the larger world - comes closer than most to the classic teller of colorful, meaningful tales.

He, like firebrand Sam Adams and "Silent Cal" Coolidge, was Massachusetts' Senate president (for a modern record 17 years). You may more likely recall him as the proprietor of those famous St. Patrick's Day breakfasts in South Boston, at which any politician wishing to get ahead in any conceivable political party must put in a brave appearance for hazing, singing, and Irish-American hijinks. At those events, Bulger (who says he's retiring as host) serves as a kind of benign Don Rickles, a William Butler Yeats gone "Saturday Night Live."

Bulger's business cards continue to read "president," for he is now in for what bids fair to be a long stint as president of the University of Massachusetts.

Sitting in his bright, modern office down the hill from the State House and around the corner from Boston's City Hall, he recently chatted, with a political surgeon's skill, about quality education, tenure, and endowments; charter schools; Massachusetts's dueling dual-millionaire Senate race; the lack of conviction he says President Clinton has shown; Joe Kennedy's burden; segregation and neighborhoods; Northern Ireland; and his own future.

Bulger has been noted for looking preternaturally boyish for enough decades to send a platoon of plastic surgeons into bankruptcy. His impish blue eyes still scan visitors restlessly, seeking a moment to tease, needle, or break into a half-mocking fragment of an Irish ditty.

No regrets

Decades of warfare with upstart state senators, his nemesis, desegregationist federal Judge Arthur Garrity, and The Boston Globe he loves to rebuke, have left few wrinkles - and no visible regrets (probably no invisible ones either).

He's into the early months of his new presidency of the University of Massachusetts. He's still cautiously learning the ropes, but displays some coiled-spring intensity about making it a great public university on the model of those in Michigan and California.

"There were some lean years ... the wilderness years," he says, when there was "huge competition for state funds." The university still suffers from the fact that Massachusetts is chockablock with famous private colleges: Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Wellesley, Amherst, Smith, Williams, and on into the night. "So, people argue, why duplicate?"

Nevertheless, he intends to raise student-body quality by requiring higher SAT scores and grade-point averages for admission.

And if another economic slump stretches state finances? "We have a huge, untapped resource [for raising funds]," he says, "the alumni. There are over a quarter million of them in the state. We should be able to persuade them to give more. They don't want to pay for electric lighting. But they will give for an important project."

Won't that just let the state ease back on funding? "I was part of an effort to raise $16 million in private funds for the Boston Public Library.... We had various ways of keeping the state aboard [on funding]. We agreed, for instance, that we would forfeit private funds automatically if the state didn't do its part of the job."

Bulger cited Boston University President John Silber on raising educational quality: "He cares deeply about quality. He says higher education has to be higher."

Commitment to education

And Bulger mentioned his own major role in passing charter-school legislation in the state to show his belief that competition helps raise educational quality and goad innovation.

On that other hot-seat issue of quality and professorial tenure, he is more cautious: "It's a problem for the administration ... that so many people are tenured. But you want the faculty to be secure, optimistic ... not too many ups and downs and changes in rules."

Might he himself find time to teach political science, out of the wealth of his real-world experience? "I want to do that.... I did it at BC [Boston College]. I really love to be in that classroom." Meanwhile, with or without a professor's lectern, he ventures some thoughts on politicians.

On the "dueling millionaires" race for a US Senate seat between Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld (R.) and incumbent Sen. John Kerry (D.): "Weld has the best manner of all.... I really like him. I called him once and I said, 'Hey, I cut you too deep [today], and I apologize.' So 'Oh,' he says, 'Don't start talkin' like that,' he says. 'You'll take all the fun outta this business.' He's genuine." The Senate race is "a tight one to call ... [but] Kerry, somehow he has not attracted too many individuals who are truly enthusiastic."

What about that other political "name" in Massachusetts, Joe Kennedy (congressman, UMass alum, and son of slain leader Bobby Kennedy)? "I think he tries very hard to render good public service. I'm not always sure how much he reflects on everything.... But he has enormous appeal. He's part of the family."

And what about the head of his Democratic Party? "I happen to like President Clinton in many ways. I think the one danger he faces as he goes back to the country [is] the sense that he does not come with the conviction that they thought he held when he first got there.... There is an evil thing on the [political] scene: People who never act on any conviction and who have spin doctors and think that all of life is an effort to become a weather vane. It happens all across the political landscape now."

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