Monday, May 21 , 2018, 9:01 pm | Fair 61º


Mark Shields: You Can Choose Your Friends, Not Your Relatives

Politician Bill Bulger made a name for himself long before his fugitive brother's recent capture made headlines

While it might sound like a Hollywood screenplay, what follows really did happen.

It was a bare-knuckles political fight for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate featuring two heavyweight contenders. One was the state’s respected attorney general, Edward McCormack, who was the nephew-surrogate son of the childless Democratic speaker of the U.S. House, John McCormack, a resident of working-class South Boston. He was opposed by the inexperienced Edward Kennedy, the youngest brother of the Democratic president of the United States, John F. Kennedy, registered to vote from aristocratic Beacon Hill.

Seeking public endorsements from elected officeholders to burnish his thin credentials, Ted Kennedy invited Boston state legislators for lunch at Locke-Ober, then probably Boston’s most elegant and pricey restaurant. One young freshman state representative from South Boston who had never set foot in the prestigious eatery had been urged to attend just to order the house specialty, lobster Savannah.

As the young state representative would later recall, of the dozen or so invitees to the Kennedy lunch, “everybody ordered soup (30 cents) or tuna fish salad ($1.85). No one ordered both. When it came to me, I ordered lobster Savannah” — at the then-unimaginable price of $10. This drew stares from the others at the table, who were being pressured by Kennedy’s campaign manager then and there to publicly endorse the president’s brother.

Everyone did just that except the South Boston legislator, who described the scene: “When it came to me, I said — between bites of succulent lobster — ‘I can’t be with you, Ted. The McCormacks are my neighbors.’”

Kennedy’s campaign manager reportedly snapped, “Could you at least stop eating for a minute so we can talk with you?” But Ted Kennedy, himself, summed up the rejection best: “I don’t know whether we should try to persuade him. I don’t think we can afford to feed him.”

Of course, Kennedy defeated McCormack and went on to serve in the U.S. Senate for 47 years. But the young state legislator himself went on a remarkable career where, among other achievements, he successfully led the effort to write Massachusetts’ first child-abuse reporting laws and championed a precedent-setting education reform law that reduced the spending inequities on children living in poor communities with those in affluent suburbs. He pushed for charter schools and school choice while making sure that public libraries were well-funded.

He became, from 1978 to 1996, the longest-serving Massachusetts Senate president in history, and followed that by successfully improving public higher education by serving, for seven years, as the president of the University of Massachusetts.

And why is all this relevant? Because last week the FBI arrested in Santa Monica James “Whitey” Bulger, an alleged Boston crime gang leader who was indicted in 1995 by federal authorities for his role in 19 murders and who had been on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list since 1999.

In many of the stories about Bulger, it is reported that his younger brother, William “Billy” Bulger, had been a powerful Massachusetts politician renowned for his intelligence and his wielding of power who, he admitted, accepted a phone call from his fugitive brother in 1995.

But long before he became a paragraph or a sneering mention in reports about the capture of his notorious brother, Bill Bulger was a young state representative who ordered lobster Savannah in Locke-Ober, supported underdog McCormack, his South Boston neighbor, against Ted Kennedy, and who improved the lives of a lot of people he never met and who never met him.

It really is true: You can choose your friends, but not your relatives.

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.

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