BOSTON — It has all the hallmarks of a Greek tragedy: two brothers whose lives diverge radically — one into an underworld of crime, the other into the upper echelons of state politics — yet whose fates remain inextricably linked.
Generations of Boston residents have watched that story play out in the real-life drama of former Democratic Senate President William “Billy” Bulger and his older brother, reputed gangster James “Whitey” Bulger.
At the heart of the story, at least for the younger Bulger, was a fierce loyalty to family and the shared experience of growing up in the working class Irish-American enclave of South Boston, where the line between brawling and bare-knuckled politics was easily blurred.
Penchant for power
The two brothers also shared one more thing: a willingness to use whatever power was available to them.
In William’s case, that was a savviness for street-smart politics that propelled him into one of the most powerful positions on Beacon Hill, where he earned a reputation for arm-twisting that rarely saw him lose a battle.
For Whitey, according to an inch-thick pile of indictments, that power came at the barrel of a gun and a coterie of enforcers.
Whitey’s surprising arrest after 16 years on the run to face 19 murder charges this week has again thrust the brothers’ story into the spotlight.
It’s a relationship that would dog William Bulger throughout his career, ultimately forcing his resignation as president of the University of Massachusetts system in 2003 after he testified before a congressional committee investigating the FBI’s ties to his brother, who by then had been revealed as an FBI informant.
After receiving immunity, William acknowledged receiving a call from Whitey shortly after he fled.
“The tone of it was ‘Don’t believe everything that is being said about me,'” William Bulger said. “I think he asked me to tell everybody he was OK. … I think I said I hope this has a happy ending.”
Two years earlier, William Bulger had told a grand jury he didn’t urge his brother to surrender because he didn’t “think it would be in his interest to do so,” according to a transcript of his testimony obtained by The Boston Globe.
“It’s my hope that I’m never helpful to anyone against him,” the younger Bulger said, according to the transcript. “I don’t feel an obligation to help everyone to catch him.”
Among those pressing William Bulger to resign from his university post was then Republican Gov. Mitt Romney.
For William Bulger, it was a role as defender of his brother that he’d long ago accepted, even as Whitey seemed to disappear into an increasingly violent criminal netherworld.
In his 1996 memoir “While the Music Lasts,” William Bulger described Whitey, five years his senior, as being in “a constant state of revolt” and as “restless as a claustrophobic in a dark closet.”
Whitey kept himself in top physical shape, neither smoke nor drank, shunned addictive drugs, and had “an abundance of good humor and a wildly creative talent for impish mischief,” his brother wrote.
But William Bulger also said Whitey found himself in trouble with police and once ran away to join the circus — signing on with Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus as a roustabout. The older brother joined the Air Force but had trouble conforming and was later discharged.
“He was just being Jim,” Bulger wrote.