Saturday, June 25, 2011

Don't fire til you see the Whiteys of their eyes

I am among the most rabid fans of the "Godfather" trilogy. Every time it's on TV, I have to watch it. I have it on DVD, including the outtakes.

I can quote you entire passages from either GFI or II (not so much three, which isn't a bad movie; it just doesn't stack up well to the other two).

My favorite scene in the entire saga comes in GFII when Hyman Roth (who is modeled after real-life Meyer Lansky) recounts to Michael Corleone his anger over the murder of his associate, Moe Green. It is the one where Roth practically spits out to Michael that "this is the business we've chosen."

What I always found fascinating about "The Godfather" is the way both Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola manipulated readers/viewers into rooting for the Corleone family despite knowing its evil history. This hits home in the book, perhaps more than movie. When Sonny is killed in a hail of bullets while riding into Manhattan to rescue his beaten-up sister, it was a profound shock to me. I didn't expect it.

And I ask myself why not? The book -- way more than the movie -- was filled with this sort of mayhem. Did I think the Corleones would escape unscathed? Did I think they were above the sort of retribution they routinely handed out to their adversaries?

Could Michale Corleone make his underworld debut by killing a rival mobster and a New York cop while they're eating veal and pasta without any reaction?

Yet there I was. I had to put the book down and contemplate!

I bring this up because Boston has been in middle of a Whitey Bulger feeding frenzy since Public Enemy No. 1 (he graduated to that status after Osama Bin Laden was gunned down) was apprehended in Los Angeles after 16 years on the lam. Turns out they hid him better than the Corleones hid Michael after he blew away Sollozzo and Captain McClusky.

What do we make of Whitey Bulger? By all accounts, this was no benevolent Don. Where there may have been some honor among thieves and murderers connected with Don Vito Corleone (there's an oxymoron for you ... honor among thieves), there was apparently none where James "Whitey" Bulger was concerned. He was allegedly as venal as the Don was magnanimous.

There are similarities, though. The Don had politicians and law enforcement officials in his pocket and, well, so did Whitey. His brother was the president of the Massachusetts senate. And we know now that he fed certain members of the Boston bureau of the FBI out of his hand.

But here's the thing that -- when you strip away all the romance and excitement -- is really troubling: when guys like Whitey Bulger are finally brought down, they become bigger celebrities than the celebrities! Look at what happened when John Gotti was put on trial in New York.

Look at how we've, over the years, allowed guys like Al Capone and Lucky Luciano to ascend to mythical status. Carlo Gambino's (trivia time: His brother, Gaspare, was never involved in the mob and was the basis for the Michael Corleone character) death in 1976 was treated as a major news event. I remember working for United Press International at the time, and when Gambino died, a bulletin came over the teletype wire. And while he may have been the main impetus for the Vito Corleone character (the Don was an amalgamation of all the original New York Dons), he was still a thug.

Here in Boston, I'll never forget the commotion when local boss Gennaro Angiulo was arrested (while he was chomping on pork chops) in the North End of Boston. I'll also never forget the sight of his Don Corleone-like funeral either.

Of course, a lot of this has to do with the fact that the old-time mafioso did just about everything spectacularly. Albert Anastasia bought it in a hail of bullets -- that no doubt inspired Puzo and Coppola to stage the Sonny Corleone death scene the way they did -- while getting a shave in the barber shop of the old New York Sheridan (which is now the Park Central). Carmine Galente met his maker similarly while eating lunch at a Brooklyn restaurant. The Gallo Brothers in New York (any similarities between them and the Rosato Brothers from GFII? You bet.) staged some pretty wild scenes -- most notably at Umberto's Clam House in Manhattan's Little Italy.

So what I think happens is this: Americans -- while definitely, as a whole, on the side of truth, justice and the American way -- have a curious appreciation for people who live life brazenly ... and spectacularly ... regardless of the occupation. Apparently we're all fascinated with Charlie Sheen, Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan. I don't always under stand why, but we are. Perhaps it is because, secretly, we'd all like to be rich enough, or famous enough, or powerful enough, or talented enough, to live life that far out on the edge and get away with it as long as possible.

Thus, people like the aforementioned trio can flout all manners of convention and all it inevitably does is help them ... until they go so far that even the most celebrity-crazed citizens grow tired of them (which may be happening to Charlie even as we speak). Then, they go off and count their money.

Who lives his life farther out on the edge than a mobster? Who takes more risks? Who flouts more convention? Who strutted around more brazenly, in his heyday, than the Dapper Don himself ... John Gotti (who is rumored to have received a haircut in some way, shape or form, every day)?

In his prime, Whitey Bulger had that strut. Even though he achieved his power by sheer brutality, he had it ... and very visibly used it. There was no attempt on Whitey Bulger's part to blend into the fabric -- the way Carlo Gambino did in New York. Bulger was all sizzle. He was every gangster you ever saw on television ... George Raft, James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson all rolled into one.

Being able to take it on the lam for 16 years (after being tipped off by the FBI that he was about to be indicted) only ups the ante. And lo and behold! Those of us who had this vision of Bulger and his moll running furitively to stay one step ahead of the law (which would make their freedom costly, laborious and stressful) got another kick in the ass this week when we found out that he'd been living most of that time right under our noses about a mile from Santa Monica Pier.

How does that even happen? Well we know how it happens. Bin Laden hid for the better part of a decade in the heart of a residential city in Pakistan, right near a military school. Of course, no one knew about that, either (tongue in cheek).

It's hard to accept the idea that the man who manipulated the FBI in Boston for as long as Whitey Bulger did could go into hiding, and remain in one place for much of the 16 years he was missing, without some law enforcement complicity. All I can say is that if Whitey chooses to sing (if he should ever get the opportunity, I should say), it could be one hell of a song. I'm betting there are a few former feds who would really like to see him die of old age before it gets to that point.

This, of course, all adds to the legend of Whitey Bulger. It didn't hurt, of course, that the move "The Departed" based many of its characters on this whole sorry scenario. Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) is based in part on Bulger himself, and NOT the legendary New York mobster of the same name; and Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) is built around the FBI agent (John Connolly) who tipped Whitey off that he was about to be indicted.

And it's also a pretty safe bet that the Dropkick Murphys' "I'm Shipping Up to Boston" was blasting into a lot of earphones this week too.

Truth is, the Whitey Bulger story has all the elements of a true American gangster movie/crime sage LIKE the Godfather. It's all there ... the infiltration into legitimate society; the swaggering gangsters; the molls, going on the lam, and -- eventually -- the capture.

And, of course, when the jig is up, tradition dictates that the perp be afforded the type of royalty treatment generally reserved for a visiting dignitary. Whitey got the star treatment. After the entourage landed at Logan Airport, he deplaned in private. And he got a motorcade to the courthouse less than a mile from his old haunts in South Boston.

Then, in true Bulger fashion (and despite the fact that he had almost $800 grand stashed away in his rent-controlled Santa Monica apartment), he pleaded indigent.

You want to talk about living life on the edge and having the type of chutzpah that most Americans would KILL for? There's an indication of it right there.

I have to admit. I'm as taken in by all of this as anyone is. I can't get enough of it. I mean, I've read The Godfather about 56 times, know every line, and have contributed to internet bulletin boards that do nothing but extol the virtues of the films (who else but me would still bemoan the death of John Cazale when -- I'm betting -- seven people out of 10 don't even know who he is).

So, naturally, it's all Whitey, all of the time. Bring it on! He may have been a horrible person, and he may have delighted in rubbing our noses in it, but damn. As we say in the news business, he's good copy.

But beneath it all, I have to admit that while I'm eating all of this up, the feeling persists that it's like having too much chocolate cake. It's definitely a guilty pleasure. There are people out there whose lives have been irreparably harmed by James "Whitey" Bulger. And while we all crash the chow line to take part in this feeding frenzy, we'd probably do well to remember that.

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere

So, it turns out that Sarah Palin wasn't entirely wrong when she -- allegedly -- butchered her history regarding the "Midnight Ride of Paul Revere."

Pity. You don't know how much I wish she was. I'd consider her one of the lighter lightweights on today's American political scene, except that she continues to be much too divisive not to take seriously at some level.

But just as nobody's right all the time, nobody's wrong all the time either. Not even Sarah Palin, as it turns out.

In 25 (or so) words or less, Palin turned Paul Revere's ride from a warning to colonists that the British Army was on the move to something in the order of an anti-gun control mission.

Palin may have the facts somewhat correct, but she's got the context horribly wrong. It was much different time -- obviously. If you're trying to launch an insurrection against the established authority, it's realistic to expect that you need weapons at some point. You need to defend yourself against reprisal.

That makes sense. It also makes sense that these weapons are not going to be in plain view, where they can be seized in a matter of minutes. It also makes sense that the established authority -- threatened as it obviously is -- is going to do whatever it can to seize those arms to rid itself of the problem.

Today, we ARE the established authority. And we'd better hope that another insurrection doesn't come up and bite us someday, because I suspect the results won't be very pretty. And I can almost guarantee that the people who cry the loudest against some form of reasonable gun control will not garner much sympathy from whatever forces may ultimately bring the government down. And to me, that's the absolute irony of the whole issue.

But back to Sarah. I think half the problem here is that she stumbled along, sounding as if she was making the thing up as she went along. That's not uncommon in politics, where candidates (or would-be candidates in her case) often have to think on their feet and sound intelligent when hit between the eyes with questions they don't expect. Slip up, just once, and you own it for life.

During the campaign, Barack Obama said he'd visited all "58 states." Now, everyone (and even, I'm sure, Obama) knows there are only 50. But there are territories where citizens vote. And if you've been asked a question at the end of a day in which you might have jetted into four or five states, I can see where you might, just out of sheer fatigue, say the wrong thing. It was harmless. And our president does, I'm afraid, have a tendency to give out flip answers sometimes ... oblivious to how they might sound to (and how they might be construed by) his opponents.

Palin's rambling version of Paul Revere's ride does, however, contain quite a few elements of truth. The first is the obvious one. The Redcoats were going to Lexington and Concord to seize weapons. They weren't interested in having a fight on their hands. Who really is? I mean, other than the U.S., which has -- in its recent history -- gone out of its way to initiate military action.

It's been said that the British also wanted to arrest John Hancock and Samuel Adams, but that one's still in play. It's also been said that arresting Hancock and Adams was the last thing Gen. Gage wanted to do, lest the move inflame already-intense feelings by the colonists (who were, after all, still British subjects) toward the authorities.

But it is absolutely correct that the Redcoats were massing, and were about to cross the Charles, and ride into Concord and Lexington to seize weapons. Paul Revere and William Dawes got ahead of them. In fact, the colonists had set up an intricate warning system a few years earlier for this very purpose: to make sure the militants were caught by surprise by the British regulars.

Paul Revere was also confronted by the British at a checkpoint, and he did tell them that he and his fellow couriers had warned the countryside that they were on march ... and there would be a healthy contingent of Minuteman soldiers to greet them when they got to their destinations. But like everything else in life, context is key. He certainly didn't set out to do that. That would have almost made him a traitor.

By the time the "Midnight Ride of Paul Revere" was over, there were many, many colonists "sounding the alarm to every Middlesex Village and Farm," which -- basically -- consisted of what is now Cambridge, Somerville, Medford and Arlington. And we all know what happened after that.

I guess what I object to is Palin's hints that Paul Revere's ride was some sort of lesson about the sanctity of weapons. In the context of the times, maybe it was. But that was a much different era, and the purpose for having weapons was much different too.

If anyone's ever seen "Assume the Position" with Robert Wohl, he said one thing about the American Revolution that -- sarcastic or not -- kind of rings true. He said the movement was led by "rich, white men who didn't want to pay taxes." There are still plenty of them around.

One of the frustrating things about U.S. history is that what we learn in grammar school (and even high school) is a purified version of what really happened. And it does make you wonder how our times are going to be portrayed 300 years down the road.

The reality is that revolutions don't just happened. They evolve over a period of years ... sometimes decades. It took an incredibly long time for the seeds for the American Revolution to sprout. The issues that exploded in 1775 were born 12 years earlier, at the conclusion of the French-Indian war, when the British upped the tax ante (as well pass enacting other measures), citing the high costs of keeping the American colonies in the empire.

There were several boiling points ... the two most notable being the Boston Massacre (1770) and the Boston Tea Part (1773). There were many other smaller fires that erupted before shots were fired in Lexington and Concord (and that's Concord Massachusetts, lest any congresswomen from Minnesota gets confused).

As a footnote to all of this, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "Midnight Ride of Paul Revere" was published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1861, just as South Carolina was about to secede. Longfellow was an avowed abolitionist, and the poem was undertaken as a means to rally Northerners to the cause of saving the union. He cited Paul Revere (some historians note, cynically, that it's easier to rhyme words with "Revere" than it is some of the others who also participated in the ride) as a courageous man ... and said that history favored such action.

It is not entirely accurate, both in small details in in the bigger picture. For example, Revere did not receive the lantern signals from the Old North Church. It was he who devised them.

He did not row himself across the Charles ... he was rowed.

It wasn't just Paul Revere who rode through the countryside. It was a series of men, some of whom have not survived history, and it was part of an elaborate warning system devised to alert colonists in a hurry that the British regulars were on the march.

No matter. As Wohl said in "Assume the Position," "when the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

That in itself is a line from "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance." And it means if a legend has taken hold, it's useless to fight it with facts. The legend is what endures.