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Prisoner And Politician, Bulger Brothers Led Different Lives


One notable absence in the courtroom today, that of William Bulger, Whitey Bulger's brother. William was one of the most powerful politicians in the state for decades. And we're going to take a minute now to learn about the Bulger brothers' relationship. David Boeri has been tracking this saga for a long time. He's a senior reporter for our member station WBUR in Boston. Hey there, David.


CORNISH: So, first of all, tell us a little more about where these brothers grew up. We know they came from south Boston's sort of infamous housing projects, but tell us what family they came from and how their paths split.

BOERI: Yeah, they came - we call it Southie around here, the neighborhood of South Boston in Boston, which is the most Irish of cities in the country. They grew up in the projects, projects that were as hardscrabble as any and they were on a two-track system, I guess you could say. One brother graduated politically, climbed the ranks and became the president of the Massachusetts State Senate, arguably the second most, if not the most powerful man in Massachusetts for many years. The other brother graduated into crime and he became the Irish godfather here.

CORNISH: So take us back a little. Billy Bulger goes to Boston College Law School, for instance. So what was James "Whitey" Bulger doing at that age?

BOERI: At that age, he was spending time in Alcatraz after a bank robbery spree in the middle of the 1950s cross country. And so, he gets into prison and one of these just strange happenstances, and there's so many of them in this story, it turns out that their local neighbor is none other than the speaker of the House, or he was about to become speaker of the House in Washington.

And he was closely connected to the director of the Bureau of Prisons. And so, Bulger got an early exit out of federal prison, came back and got into the game much more seriously. And as he ramped into crime, his brother ramped up politically. You know, one of the characters in the Massachusetts State House once observed that what Whitey does with a gun, Billy does with a gavel.

CORNISH: Right. Billy Bulger was known for being politically feared. He called himself a dictatorial boss at one point. You know, the two brothers were both successful, right - if you can call it that - in their chosen fields.

BOERI: The two brothers were both successful and their success was - it crossed over because when Billy Bulger told someone you're not a friend of the Bulger family, when you realize that a member of the Bulger family was a killer, you had to think twice about not being a friend of the Bulger family. If you crossed Billy, politically, the question was would you come across Whitey?

And Johnny Powers, another old South Boston politician who was not a friend of the Bulger family, once observed, you know, it's as if Al Capone's brother had become president of the Illinois State Senate and everybody in Chicago just agrees we're not going to notice, we're not going to talk about it.

CORNISH: Now, Whitey's gangster life did eventually hurt Billy Bulger's career. Tell us why and how, because it's not clear - was Billy Bulger suspected of helping Whitey while he was on the lam?

BOERI: That was always the question. But more importantly, it was that Bill Bulger never apologized for his brother's actions. Now, you know, it's said you're not your brother's keeper, but it was interesting to see. Bill Bulger always looked the other way. And what killed him in the end was he had taken one phone call from the fugitive brother. He also had gone in front of a grand jury. The transcripts were released, in which he said he hoped never to be helpful to them in catching his brother.

CORNISH: David, what's been the relationship between these brothers since Whitey Bulger's arrest?

BOERI: They correspond. They also visit and, you know, Bill Bulger was not in the courtroom today, which was interesting. There's a whole bench reserved for the Bulger family and this is the first time that Bill Bulger, in an important event, has not been present. The other brother, John Bulger, is present. He had gone to prison for six months because he denied any connections with his brother.

So there's only one Bulger in the courtroom next to his brother Whitey.

CORNISH: David Boeri is a senior reporter at NPR member station WBUR in Boston. David, thank you.

BOERI: You're welcome, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.