A Bay State morality, and political, play

William Bulger will testify Thursday before Congress about his fugitive brother in a saga dividing Massachusetts.

What to do about Billy Bulger?

It has become a consuming question in Massachusetts these days: How to deal with one of the state's most revered and feared public figures who may have passively - or actively - helped his fugitive brother, James "Whitey" Bulger, remain on the run.

The two brothers grew up on the tough streets of Irish, insular South Boston. Billy became one of the state's most powerful politicians, president of the state Senate. Whitey became a legendary mobster - and one of the FBI's most wanted.

With William "Billy" Bulger set to testify before a congressional committee in Washington Thursday, the brothers' saga has created a rare moment of political theater in a state that's had its share of Ibsen moments. The political establishment, and much of the state, is riven over whether Billy, now the president of the University of Massachusetts, should pay a price for his ties to Whitey.

In one sense, the calls for Mr. Bulger to step down as head of the university system are reminiscent of bygone battles between upper-crust Brahmins and Irish Catholic pols. This is, after all, a place where vestiges of old-world biases of class, ethnicity, and religion linger.

"It's a classic standoff," says Thomas O'Connor, author of "The Boston Irish: A Political History." The cultural elements of this drama include "a feature of Boston many of us thought we had gone beyond - the Protestant Yankees against the Irish Catholics," he says. "But if you look under the surface, it's still there."

Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican, and the state's top Democrat, Attorney General Tom Reilly, have called for Mr. Bulger to step down - ostensibly for different reasons. Mr. Romney initially called for Bulger's resignation as part of a university-reorganization plan to save money. Mr. Reilly has been upfront about wanting Bulger out because of his actions around Whitey. Yet much of the establishment, still heavily infused with Irish Catholic Democrats, has rallied behind Bulger.

Cabots, Lowells, Bulgers

After being the longest-serving president of the state Senate - wielding more power than many governors - Bulger become head of the state's university system in 1996.

In that post, the man who quotes Socrates and scripture has been an articulate advocate for the lower and middle classes and their right to top-quality education. It's his champion-of-the-little-guy role that's inspired many to jump to his defense - and has frustrated efforts to remove him.

"He served as a huge role model for me," says Jess Kane, an orthodontist who is president of the University of Massachusetts Alumni Association.

But Bulger's link to his brother - wanted in connection with 18 murders - is dogging him more than ever. Whitey has always been the family's black sheep, off stealing cars while William studied the classics. First a mobster, later an FBI informant, Whitey ratted on his rivals in the Italian mafia. Then, hours before the FBI tried to arrest him in 1995, he fled.

In grand-jury testimony that leaked out this year, William reportedly spoke to his brother in 1995 and advised him not to turn himself in. Some argue this constitutes active interference with efforts to track a fugitive.

William was also listed as a contact person on a safe-deposit box that Whitey opened in London. After the bank reportedly called William to update him on details, he did not alert authorities about the box.

Loyalty, law, and levity

To some, Bulger's arguments are hugely flawed - tantamount to saying, " 'I've thought carefully about the law, and I understand that here in Massachusetts, I'm above the law,' " says Rushworth Kidder, president of the Institute for Global Ethics in Camden, Maine.

Bulger argues that his obstinacy is loyalty to a brother gone bad. And over the years, his power and charm have intrigued many political glitterati: Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein consulted Bulger on a trip to America in 1994. As first lady, Hillary Clinton invited him to Washington. And in 1994, as Bulger hosted his famous St. Patrick's Day breakfast - attended by all the state's politicos - President Clinton phoned in.

"I know that this morning, I'm just the other president on the phone," said Mr. Clinton, referring to Bulger's title as President of the Senate.

"I commend you for your humility," Bulger retorted.

"Well, one of us has to be humble," Mr. Clinton replied.

It is, in part, this gift for witty repartee that has won Bulger great popularity in an Irish-dominated state, says Mr. O'Connor. With macabre mischief, Bulger once told an interviewer: "I want to be buried in St. Augustine's Cemetery," referring to a South Boston burial ground notorious for being the source of names used in voting fraud, "because I want to remain politically active."

He plays into an archetype of a charismatic but ethically ambiguous politician - like former mayor James Michael Curley, who many Bostonians fondly remember for his wit and mellifluous voice. "But he was a crook," says O'Connor. He's also a role models in Bulger's autobiography.

In a sign of the times, a bare majority of state residents - 51 percent in a Boston Herald poll - say Bulger should resign. In immigrant-rich neighborhoods, however, Bulger is, for the most part, as popular as ever.

Whether Bulger wins or loses, the drama may hint at a shift away from the personality-driven politics of yore. For a long time, Massachusetts and Boston have "been under the rule of people - not the law," says Dr. Kidder. What may be happening now, he says, "is a maturing of Boston politics."

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