Dec. 22, 2002
What goes through Billy Bulger's head, I wonder, as he follows the news these days? What does the president of the University of Massachusetts think when he reads and hears about prominent men who have found themselves enwrapped in cocoons of unwanted notoriety? As their power to inspire awe or admiration or even respect in others has been stripped away, has Bulger been brooding on his own situation? When he sees the faces of these men on TV or in the papers, does he catch glimpses of his own face too?
What are Bulger's thoughts, for example, as he beholds the humiliated Trent Lott? Pity? Empathy? Both he and Lott, after all, are prominent figures whose words have recently exposed an ugly flaw in their moral groundwork. In Lott's case, it is an apparent fondness for the days of Jim Crow -- a fondness reflected in his praise for Strom Thurmond's segregationist presidential run. In Bulger's case, it is the belief that he owes a greater duty to a fugitive serial killer -- his brother "Whitey" Bulger -- than he does to the public, or to the law.
I can't help wondering what Bulger thought of Lott's repeated apologies and his groveling appearance on Black Entertainment Television. My guess is that he found them pathetic. Bulger certainly isn't one to apologize. He never apologized when he was the tyrant of the Massachusetts Senate and he doesn't plan to start now -- not even after everyone has learned his dirty secret: that he arranged to speak with his brother, a gangster second only to Osama bin Laden on the FBI's Most-Wanted List, and advised him not to turn himself in.
But as he saw Lott's racial past get dredged up, one shovelful at a time -- the support for segregationists in Mississippi, the fight to keep his college fraternity all-white -- did Bulger worry that other skeletons in his own closet might be exposed? Already there has been a leak of his classified 2001 testimony, when he coldly told a grand jury that he would never help bring his brother to justice. "It's my hope that I'm never helpful to anyone against him," he said. Better for a ruthless cutthroat to remain on the loose -- better for who knows how many more men and women to be robbed or beaten or killed -- than for Bulger to lift a finger against one of his own.
And that was just one leak. What other shoes are going to drop? What other evidence of Bulger's depravity will come to light? If Lott thought his troubles would blow over after a few days of bad press, he was wrong. Does Bulger, watching what has happened to Lott, worry that he might be wrong as well?
And what has Bulger been telling himself about the fall of Bernard Law? In the space of a few months, a powerful cardinal's reputation was destroyed, his career crippled, his lofty post lost. And all because he was more concerned with shielding predators than with helping their victims. Because he colluded in thwarting the law instead of upholding it. Because he showed more compassion for his fellow priests than for the innocent human beings some of them so badly hurt. Does it make Bulger uneasy to contemplate the parallels between Law's case and his own? Or is he too blinded by self-righteousness to see them?
The final nail in Law's coffin, it is said, was the call for his resignation by 58 priests of the archdiocese. Perhaps when Bulger read about that, he took smug comfort in knowing that his people would never break ranks that way.
Or would they? To be sure, UMass trustees have been tripping over themselves in their rush to kiss Bulger's ring. "My respect and admiration for President Bulger is [sic] stronger than ever," gushed trustee chairman Grace Fey on the day Bulger appeared before a congressional committee and invoked the Fifth Amendment. Even more sycophantic was Robert Sheridan, the president of Savings Bank Life Insurance and a new trustee. "What better leader to have?" he slobbered. "What better model of integrity?"
But how long will that servility last? What will happen as more and more alumni come to understand that their school is headed by a man whose first loyalty is to a vicious racketeer? Already there are campus voices calling for Bulger's resignation. The Mass Media, an independent UMass newspaper, put the issue starkly: The head of a university "cannot claim to pursue truth, and also proclaim his willingness to protect a murderer. Family loyalty cannot shield a murderer. If William Bulger does not understand this, then we must ask if he can understand more elaborate truths."
A year ago, Lott and Law were untouchable, secure in their positions of power. Now they are out, disgraced -- Lott stepping down as Senate leader, Law en route to a monastery. No one imagined it could happen to them. Does Bulger imagine it can never happen to him?
"One in public office must be ever aware of the impermanence of that status," Bulger once wrote. I wonder if he has been taking his own advice to heart.