In some of the stories about his discovery and arrest, mobster Whitey Bulger was described as “legendary” and “colorful.”
One newspaper described Bulger as “Irish,” which no doubt puzzled readers on the island of Ireland, a place which this native of South Boston may never have visited.
The descriptions sounded neutral, but they carried a tinge of admiration. Oh that Whitey! What a character! What a story!
There’s no doubt that Bulger’s story was, and remains, fascinating at a certain level. Just as many of us believe that the Pakistani intelligence service probably knew where Osama bin Laden had been hiding out for the last few years, more than a few observers seem to think that somebody in high places was keeping tabs on Bulger, a onetime FBI informant, while he was in hiding. Quite a story, indeed, although that story is less about Whitey and more about official corruption and malfeasance.
More compelling, however, were the stories of some of the 19 people he killed or ordered killed. Their loved ones seemed glad to see Bulger behind bars at last. But it also seemed clear that they found nothing “colorful” or “legendary” about a man who removed the teeth of victims so their bodies couldn’t be identified through dental records.
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The saga of Whitey Bulger has no redeeming qualities, nothing to recommend it. It is a curiosity, to be sure, that his brother, William, rose from South Boston to become a respected political leader and university president, while Whitey choose another route to fame and fortune. Two brothers, one in politics, the other in organized crime (fill in joke here). That might make a decent movie, but Whitey’s character lacks even a hint of redemption.
But apparently redemption isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. As the Bulger case proved again, some folks can’t seem to get enough of mobsters. The media in New York made a quasi-hero out of the late Mafia leader John Gotti, who, if you believed some of the tabloid columnists, basically was just another well-dressed, well-coiffed CEO with unusually violent assistant vice presidents.
Gotti died in prison, but thanks to his fame, his daughter became a novelist and a tabloid columnist, and his grandchildren got their own reality show. There was no sense of shame on the part of the family, or on the part of mediaexecutives who, in essence, capitalized on the grief and violence for which Gotti was responsible.
Bulger is too old and not nearly glamorous enough to be accorded the Gotti treatment. Too bad. Perhaps if he had stuck around Southie long enough to get busted back in the 1990s, he might have been turned into a folk hero, as so many gangsters have been.
Rather than spend his declining years in hiding, perhaps Bulger should have put on an Armani suit, slicked back his hair, hidden his eyes behind designer sunglasses, and tried to beat the rap. If he did, as Gotti did for so long, he might have gotten his own reality show.
We live in a culture that worships fame regardless of how that fame is achieved. Elements of the American media, so clearly influenced by the worst aspects of Britain’s gutter press, make no distinctions between fame won by achievement and fame won by notoriety. Nobel prize winners are no different from mob bosses while gossip pages and tabloid television shows respect fame for its own sake.
They are not in the business of judging how one achieves status as a bold-face name.
Of course, this is not entirely new. Gangsters have been a staple of Hollywood for nearly a century. James Cagney rose to fame at Warner Brothers by playing Irish-American gangsters in the 1930s. Real-life gangster Al Capone approached iconic status as an American anti-hero at around the same time, thanks to the same kind of breathless press coverage which Gotti received more than a half-century later.
Now we have Whitey Bulger, the man who succeeded Osama bin Laden as the FBI’s most-wanted person. His trial no doubt will become fodder for the amoral tabloids who, you can be sure, will portray Bulger as a Southie version of Robin Hood. Never mind all those dead bodies with missing teeth. Bulger achieved fame, and for journalists raised on the morals and ethics of the worst British tabloids, fame is its own reward, and those who achieve it deserve respect and deference.
Personally, I’m more interested in the prosecutors and law-enforcement officials (many of them, it seems, Irish-Americans from the Boston area) who finally captured Bulger. By all accounts, they faced obstacles because of Bulger’s onetime status as an informant. Some observers have hinted that the mobster’s political connections didn’t hurt, either.
But if there are heroes in this sordid story, they are the people whose names you’ll never know or remember. They are the agents, cops, and prosecutors who never gave up in their search for the legendary Whitey Bulger.
Too bad we’ll never know their stories.