THE BULGER MYSTIQUE
Curley offered model, motto: Never explain
THE FIRST GLIMMER of Bill Bulger the Politician took place one afternoon, in
October 1952, in the advanced Greek class of Rev. Carl Thayer at Boston
Thayer had students prepare a five-minute speech on any topic in which they
would persuade their classmates in the manner of Demosthenes, the Greek orator
who, when accused of wrongdoing, offered a fabled defense that rested on the
principles of Athenian democracy.
William Michael Bulger, the freshman from South Boston, chose as his topic
James Michael Curley. And five minutes became 50.
Curley's reputation had been sullied by a short stretch in prison after he
apparently attempted to use his position for monetary gain. But to Bulger,
Curley was a politician wrongly accused, a proud man charged with little more
than having a tainted reputation. And so the young man who later, in the midst
of busing, would come to view himself, and his neighbors, as the Demosthenic
victims of the 1970s, offered a stirring defense of the Demosthenic figure of
When the bell rang, ending class, Bulger's classmates -- most of whom were
the first in their families to attend college and residents of Boston's
working-class neighborhoods where Curley was regarded as a savior -- were on
their feet applauding. For Thayer, now in his 70s and retired, the speech was
a revelation, the first indication that Bill Bulger "would become a leader of
Bulger's admiration of Curley, shaped considerably by his father's fondness
for the irrepressible politician, bordered on idolatry as a youngster. If
young Bulger's play around second base was modeled after Bobby Doerr, his
ideal of a public servant was Curley. In grade school, when the teacher
stepped out of the room, Bulger entertained classmates with impersonations of
Curley. In high school, at an age when most of his friends had a copy of Sport
magazine tucked in their back pockets, Bulger read "The Purple Shamrock,"
Curley's rose-colored biography.
Bulger saw Curley as a modern-day Demosthenes, persecuted via innuendo and
indicted because "he had lent his name to something."
"I thought Curley was a pretty good person, and he was always being
abused," says Bulger.
Besides being extraordinary orators, the similarities between Bulger and
Curley are considerable. Both came from poor families, and as youngsters were
industrious, engaging and doggedly studious, seeing education as their only
way out. Both were elected to their first public office at age 26, fathered
nine children, and became devoted family men. Both possessed ebullient public
personalities that belied a streetwise toughness, a dark side that verged on
the ruthless when someone crossed them.
The trait, however, that defines both men politically is the independence
of action that became the core of their power and self-perception: Never
Ignoring one's critics -- better yet, turning the tables on one's critics
-- was a tactic made immortal by Demosthenes some 2,200 years before Bulger
was born. When a rival accused him of taking bribes, Demosthenes responded
with an oration, "On the Crown," which many scholars regard as the greatest of
all speeches. The speech was a masterful piece of rhetoric, in which
Demosthenes convinced a jury that it was his accuser, Aeschines, not he, who
had betrayed Athens. When the 500 jurors cheered and exonerated Demosthenes,
Aeschines was sent into exile.
Bulger acknowledged that Curley was his most significant political role
"This more distant model of Demosthenes was less human, but very inspiring.
I like the way he persuaded. I don't think he ever answered his critics in
that whole speech. I can remember going over that with a diagram and saying,
'I don't think he's ever answered his critics.' "
Curley never answered his critics, either, an interviewer suggested.
"Right," Bulger responded. "And neither do I."
This story ran in the Boston Globe on 9/19/1988.
© Copyright 1988 Globe Newspaper Company.