In the January 10 Boston Globe, columnist Eileen McNamara sized up the legacy of long-time South Boston city councilor Jimmy Kelly, who died the day before. Her judgment was not favorable. “Boston politics will not see his like again,” McNamara wrote, “and that, on the whole, is a good thing.”
Reaction was swift and angry. In a January 12 blog entry, WBZ political analyst Jon Keller called McNamara’s column a “crude attack . . . a hit job that apparently couldn’t have waited at least until after the family could bury their loved one.” That same day, in a letter to the editor published in the Globe, four prominent Southie politicians — Congressman Steve Lynch, State Senator Jack Hart, State Representative Brian Wallace, and City Councilor Mike Flaherty — complained that McNamara’s “attacks on [Kelly’s] character were unwarranted and hurtful, especially during this difficult time for his family and friends.” Then there was the following exchange, which occurred at The Noise Boston message board (TheNoiseBoard.com): “Did you read the Globe’s Eileen McNamara’s lambasting article printed just 24 hours after [Kelly] croaked?” “Yes — I sent that fucking kunt [sic] a nice email.”
Take a deep breath, everybody. First off, death of a public figure is the most natural catalyst imaginable for reflection on the lessons — good and bad — of his or her life. And Kelly was unquestionably a public figure, ever since he rose to prominence in the ’70s opposing busing as head of the South Boston Information Center. Furthermore, in today’s media landscape, those reflections will inevitably come with a minimum of lag time. (Both the Herald and the Globe posted their Kelly obits online within a few hours of his death, for example.) Kelly’s legacy is a deeply ambiguous one: whether he should be remembered as a passionate defender of the downtrodden or an angry xenophobe depends, ultimately, on whom you happen to ask.
Finally, it should be noted that one of Kelly’s best-known supporters had no compunction whatsoever about politicizing his death. In the eulogy he delivered at Kelly’s funeral on January 12, former–State Senate president and Southie pol par excellence Billy Bulger didn’t stick to discussing Kelly’s charm or work ethic or dogged fight against cancer. Instead, he tried to turn Kelly’s death into a final validation of anti-busing sentiment. “Jim, you saw the busing decree which impacted this community so terribly as unjust, as unnecessary, and doomed to prove counterproductive, and you told everyone in advance,” Bulger said. “Thank you for that. You braved a vicious, sustained smear campaign that raged from Morrissey Boulevard to Wellesley and beyond, among the millions of unaffected proponents. I don’t know how many of us are left hereabouts, but Jim — you were heroic, you were steadfast, and you were right.”
Judging from the thunderous applause that followed, the mourners in St. Brigid Church had no problem with Bulger picking a political fight prior to Kelly’s burial. Nor should they have; after all, Kelly was an inherently political animal. Given that, however, it makes little sense to cry foul over McNamara’s dissenting take. Whether you agree with McNamara or not, her column ran at just the right time.