Battle of the Bulger

By ADAM REILLY  |  December 16, 2009

It's striking, then, that on page three of James Michael Curley, Bulger casts Curley's 1946 federal conviction for mail fraud (in which Curley allowed a defense-industry swindler to use his name) as, well, a classic case of guilt by association, prosecutorial overreach, and innuendo run amok. "[T]he case against him was torturous and convoluted," Bulger writes of Curley. "Why was there such an effort to get him? . . . Curley was pursued as though he were the mastermind, because he was James Michael Curley."

That's hardly the only hint that Bulger identifies far more closely with Curley than most biographers do with their subjects. Speaking recently at the Burlington Barnes & Noble to promote his book — clad in standard-issue State House garb (blue suit, red tie, black shoes), his delicate features unaffected by the passage of time — Bulger tries to distill the essence of Curley's genius for his audience of 20 or so. In the process, he somehow ends up recalling an inspirational speech that he and the other newly elected members of the Massachusetts legislature heard from John F. Kennedy a half-century ago.

Bulger eventually finds his way back to Curley, praising the former mayor's refusal — after a fraud conviction at the outset of his career — to let legal woes dissuade him from public service. (Curley's first trip to prison came after he took a civil-service exam for a constituent.) "I always liked the fact that, instead of going off in a corner and bleeding, giving up, Curley stayed the course," Bulger declares. "He was in the political world, and he stayed at it. He didn't run away and he didn't hide."

A stirring tribute (though Curley's obstinacy is less commendable if you consider him a power-hungry demagogue rather than a lovable populist rogue). But those remarks could also serve, with minimal tweaking, as Bulger's valedictory for himself.

Think about it: for years, a substantial portion of the public has assumed that, as a public figure, Bulger was unseemly or worse. But Bulger has pressed on. He didn't retreat to the friendly confines of South Boston. Instead, he did his damndest for UMass, was an overseer emeritus of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and served on the board of the Boston Public Library until last year. If Curley's refusal to be cowed by public opprobrium was heroic, then what does that make Bulger's?

The final word?
When I first push Bulger to elaborate on the parallels between Curley's career and his own, he professes not to have given the matter much thought. But a few days later — when asked outright if he was defending Curley's legacy to defend himself — he is more expansive.

"It could very well be," Bulger replies, sitting in the Curley Room (naturally) at Amrheins, the legendary South Boston eatery. "Since I wrote the book, I've thought more about that." While Curley deserved condemnation for taking that fraudulent test, so, too, did the Boston press, for repeatedly caricaturing Curley as a jailbird-turned-politician. "They shouldn't have tormented him," scolds Bulger. "There should have been some recognition that there's some room for redemption."

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