An insider, an outlaw, and loyalty: the Bulger boys

A congressional hearing pries at Boston's cultural core.

"Am I my mobster brother's keeper?"

It's Boston's latest twist on that ancient Biblical query. And it's at the heart of a personal and political drama set to unfold in a packed hearing room Friday.

William Bulger, the silver-haired, Socrates-quoting political icon and president of the University of Massachusetts, is a feisty Irish politician. He's being compelled to testify - for the first time in public - about his infamous brother, James "Whitey" Bulger, an alleged mobster who's on the FBI's 10-most-wanted list and has been on the lam since 1995.

It's one part "The Sopranos," one part "Cain and Abel" - and it's all rooted in the watch-your-back streets of South Boston, the gritty Irish-Catholic neighborhood that has defined much of the city's character and where the Bulger boys grew up.

In one sense, it's a universal story of a sibling gone strangely astray - leaving the family to muddle through. In the Bulger household, somehow Billy was home studying classics, while Whitey was out brawling and stealing cars.

Even presidents have black-sheep brothers: Think Billy Carter and Roger Clinton. And in many families, there are times when something drastic has to be done. David Kaczynski decided he was his brother's keeper - or at least the nation's keeper - and ratted on the Unabomber.

Yet it's also a uniquely Boston drama - a story of immigrant-stock families who stick together against the world. Despite James allegedly killing 21 people and running a reign of terror out of the seedy Triple O's Lounge, Bill Bulger has publicly stuck by him - keeping his distance, but never criticizing.

ACCORDING to grand-jury testimony that leaked out this week, Bill reportedly gave James legal advice a dozen or so times over the years. The two spoke by phone in 1995, after James went into hiding. During the phone call, Bill didn't tell James to turn himself in because, he said, "I don't think it would be in his interest to do so." In fact, he told the grand jury, "It's my hope that I'm never helpful to anyone against him."

In the Bulgers' Boston, bonds of family and Irish pride trump all else. A kid named John Connolly, whom Jimmy Bulger once rescued from a ball-yard brawl, later became an FBI agent - and recruited Bulger as an informant.

For two decades, Bulger ratted out his competition - the Italian mafia. His informant status meant the FBI stayed off his back. Then, just before an indictment came out against Bulger, Connolly tipped him off - and Bulger skipped town. Connolly is serving a 10-year prison for protecting Bulger and others while they continued crime sprees.

Such loyalty flowers among immigrants who feel threatened. It's built up through civic clubs and decades of neighborhood cookouts - through "funny hats and strange oaths," observes William Fowler, head of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

In South Boston, loyalty has extra virtue: "Our folklore bled with the names of informers who had sold out their brethren to hangmen and worse in the lands of our ancestors," writes Bill Bulger in his autobiography.

Indeed, transgressing such bonds can be wrenching - yet fugitives are often found only when betrayed by those close to them. "It's a double-edged sword. He's a friend ... but there was no other option," said Robert Holmes, a reported friend of alleged Washington-area sniper John Muhammad, who helped bring the shooting to an end.

As David Kaczynski once put it: He hoped for the "wisdom of Solomon" in working to bring his brother to justice - yet help him avoid the death penalty.

Bill Bulger hasn't betrayed his brother. And now, he's paying a price. Some in Boston are calling for early retirement from his post as head of the University of Massachusetts. There are whispers of a sullied legacy.

Much will depend on what happens in the hearing room Friday - in front of a congressional committee that's journeyed from Washington to investigate Boston's FBI-mob ties. The committee subpoenaed Bulger to testify. He's been cagey about whether he'll even show up. If he does, he may plead the 5th amendment. But no matter what happens, says Dr. Fowler, "He'll not leave that hearing room as powerful as when he went in."

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