Hometown Melodies in the Life of a 'Pol'

WHILE THE MUSIC LASTS: MY LIFE IN POLITICS

By William M. Bulger

Houghton Mifflin

328 pp., $22.95

William M. "Billy" Bulger does all of the talking in this political memoir. He's worth listening to: Edmund Burke as a ward heeler.

The author held elected office for 35 years, 17 of which he was president of the Massachusetts Senate. Only Willie Brown, Speaker of the California House of Representatives, rivaled him for mastery of a state legislature.

"While the Music Lasts: My Life in Politics," is a unique self-portrait of an individual who dominated Massachusetts politics for more than a generation. The canvas is not so much Bulger as it is how he, along with his "neighborhood," practiced democracy: a life of tactical maneuvers elevated to strategic genius. Always, he got elected.

The narrative - learned, witty, caustic, humorous, and wise in the ways of human nature - resonates far beyond the Democratic precincts (there are no others) of ethnic South Boston, or "Southie." It is a love song about America's city neighborhoods, and by affinity, wherever people feel the lasting bonds of place.

Memoirs are necessarily selective, often idealized. Instinctive feelings about loyalty and honor, friend and foe, are primary in this one. The sweet side of provincialism is portrayed. In South Boston, home turf means refuge from the chaos and alienation of "modernity." Outside the house but close by the heart lie the parish church, the corner pub, the parks and playgrounds and harbor views, the teeming housing projects, the political clubs and, always, the polling booths.

Last, but certainly not least, this book is about settling scores, a political lifetime of them. Bulger's vise-like memory recounts mostly political battles, not a few "personal" fights, and a near total estrangement from TV and newspapers. Though the kitchen of Massachusetts politics is one of the hottest in the United States, Bulger rarely breaks a sweat. "My background had produced a combative nature that perversely enjoyed the challenge," he writes.

Vignettes are never an end in themselves. Bulger uses them as lessons, larger brush strokes colorfully portraying how one does and does not do politics in a democracy - in multiethnic, culturally diverse, class-conscious, Irish-dominated Massachusetts.

The most important score Bulger wants to settle is the charge that his beloved Southie is a haven for racists. He cogently defends local control over forced busing to achieve racial balance in the schools in the 1970s and '80s. Father of nine, he links natural law to a parent's right to choose what is best for his child.

Like the 19th-century Anglo-Irish political writer Edmund Burke, he defends the lawful traditions and organic integrity of local communities against the tyranny of centralized government. He scorns the fool's gold of judicial and academic social engineering. And he condemns the hypocritical commitment of poor peoples' children to social experimentation while the experimenters' children remain safe in the suburbs exempt from such mischief. Busing nearly destroyed his neighborhood and his city.

An entire review could focus on the nicknames of Southie denizens brimming from every page: "Wacko," "Knocko," "Roley," "Bridie,", "Ham Slowe," "Joe Wetwash," "The Good Robb," "Sonny," "Jimmy," and of course, "Paddy."

"All politics is local," said another famous Irish-American politician from Massachusetts, Thomas "Tip" O'Neill. This book celebrates that fact.

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