Saturday, April 28, 2007
Breakfast With Bulger - 2000
Hey people, here's another installment of one of my old pieces which I came across while moving recently, and which I feel deserves a reprint. This is about a breakfast I attended with the infamous Billy Bulger, brother of Whitey. I took the picture of Billy above at the event.
Like most people, I can think of situations where ending a pregnancy through abortion is really the pro-life thing to do, if what you mean by pro-life is doing what is best for the mother and the unwanted prospective child. But although I'm a supporter of abortion rights, I make a few commonsense exceptions. For example, I don't like taxpayer-financed abortions, which seems to me tramples on the rights of those who oppose abortion by forcing them to pay for the procedure with money taken from their paychecks involuntarily by taxation. That doesn't sound to me like respecting anyone's "right to choose," and I think the pro-abortion movement makes itself look hypocritical by insisting on taxpayer funding. I also have little respect for those late term abortion procedures that are just one step removed from infanticide.
Yet despite these misgivings I am definitely not someone much inclined to participate in the activities of the anti-abortion movement, and therefore had little interest in attending the local Knights of Columbus anti-abortion fundraising breakfast in Chicopee on October 15, 2000. However, at the last minute a friend gave me a free ticket, which put the breakfast in a whole different perspective for me. I'll go almost anywhere if there's free food.
In addition to the free eats I was drawn to the event by the guest speaker, none other than University of Massachusetts President Dr. William Bulger. Of course to most Massachusetts residents Dr. Bulger is best known as the controversy plagued, iron-fisted former State Senate leader Billy Bulger, the brother of alleged mobster and suspected murderer James "Whitey" Bulger.
Quietly retired to the ivy halls of academia, Dr. Bulger is not so much in the news anymore, but he still gets around, and is one of the most passionate leaders of the Massachusetts anti-abortion movement. I was curious to see Bulger in that role, as I'd been told that you couldn't appreciate just what a right-winger Bulger really is until you see him expound on the subject of abortion.
One of the things that impressed me immediately about the pro-life breakfast was the size of the crowd. At least 200 people were present and contrary to what the media coverage might lead you to expect, not one of them resembled a Neanderthal. These were good, respectable church-going types whom you would never consider calling radical or extremist. Indeed, the breakfast was a who's who of local politicians, with virtually everyone running for office attending along with no shortage of public officials. Indeed sitting at my table along with two retired school teachers were Governor's Council candidate Marshall Moriarty and his wife Sandy, Springfield City Councilor Angelo Puppolo and Republican Chicopee Alderman Rick Goyette. Despite the attempts of the media to portray the anti-abortion activists otherwise, this was as mainstream a gathering as you could have hoped to assemble. And the food was pretty good too, neither the eggs nor the ham tasted like rubber and the toast was not so cold that the butter wouldn't melt.
But the undisputed star of the event was Dr. Bulger. Instead of hiding from his checkered past, the UMass President openly embraced it in a way that often had the audience howling with laughter. At one point he remarked that one of the waitresses serving breakfast that morning had told him that she had once lived in Bulger's South Boston district. She said she wished she could have voted for him but she never could because she moved away in 1972. Bulger said he reassured her, "You are still registered to vote in Southie, and I'm sure you have voted for me many times."
He used his district's reputation for corruption as fodder for much of his humor, at one point praising the practice of counting dead people as voters in an election. "Why shouldn't we count their votes," Bulger asked, "when we know perfectly well they would have voted Democrat were they alive?" He said his favorite precinct in Southie included St. Augustine, the local cemetery, which he described as "always the last precinct counted and always just enough!" When an election commissioner once confronted Bulger over how it could be possible that in a certain Irish neighborhood over two hundred people were registered to vote from a single tenement, Bulger said he replied, "The top floor is vacant!"
Bulger also railed against the Boston Globe, which he said had always supported his opponents and which he dismissed as "the Herald with verbs." In one of his campaigns he said his opponent was a token candidate whom the Globe could find no reason to praise besides the fact that he was a well liked veterinarian. Frustrated by the Globe's stubborn refusal to support him even though he had no serious opposition, Bulger said he ran on the slogan, "Things may be going to the dogs, but that doesn't mean it's time to bring in the veterinarian!"
Yet Bulger did eventually become serious. Harkening back to the days of ancient Greece, Bulger said that the Greeks considered those who did not participate in politics as "useless people" who refused to consider life beyond that which occurs in front of their own face, ignoring the larger community. Complementing the audience by declaring, "We are not useless people," Bulger then gave a surprisingly heartfelt speech in favor of banning abortion. It was largely a religious argument he made and thereby hard to refute. If you're a good Catholic his arguments were compelling. If not, they were probably less so. One surprise was when Bulger singled out United States Senate candidate Phillip Lawler of the Constitution Party, who was seated in the audience, to praise his anti-abortion writings. In mainstream circles the Constitution Party is considered something of a fringe group, and the politically correct thing for Bulger to do would have been to ignore Lawler's presence. Yet Bulger apparently wanted to make sure that all realized his solidarity with the more militant elements of the anti-abortion movement.
Certainly Bulger was right on target when he talked about "the abortion distortion," which he described as the dishonest manner in which the media distorts the anti-abortion movement or completely ignores it. In fact his own appearance in Chicopee was a perfect example of what he meant. Let a dozen academic feminists from Smith come down to Springfield's Court Square for a candlelight vigil for abortion rights and it will appear everywhere in the local media. But let 200 people gather on a Sunday morning to hear the President of the University of Massachusetts speak against abortion, and sure enough, there were no television cameras present, no radio microphones and not one syllable about Bulger's speech appeared in the local press.
The breakfast ended when Bulger, "responding to the request of a person planted in the audience," sang the old Irish tear-jerker, "The Isle of Innesfree." It should have been an awkwardly corny moment, but it turned out that Bulger has a gorgeous voice and he sang with such emotion that many present appeared openly moved. Then he walked offstage to a thundering standing ovation - Dr. Billy Bulger - politician and scholar, academic and outlaw, moralist and backroom dealer. An enigma certainly, but a fascinating one.