An Academic Settling: <I>Out of Public's Eye, Retired Pol Imparts Life Lessons at Suffolk

Brittany and Timothy and Langdon saunter in, sipping on water bottles or dipping into baskets of French fries, clad in fleece vests and frayed nurses' scrubs, Birkenstocks and warm-up pants, Kangol hats. Presently, they hear an allusion to Gene Autry, which is explained with a reference to Roy Rogers. An Edmund Burke mention meets with a similar reaction.

Their instructor, a neatly but not opulently dressed man with ramrod posture and hair gone white and steel save a stubborn blonde tint in places, has five good decades in age on most of them, and at least as much in the topic that's gathered them in Room 218A of Suffolk University's Donahue building on Temple Street, the class's title: "The Legislature and Legislators."

That's the ostensible topic, anyway, though the real subject is Bill Bulger, and not in any closeted, selfish way, but in the same manner that a chemist leaves the industry to teach high school science, or a ballplayer, retired from packed stadiums and many-zeroed contracts, opens a camp for kids to hone their skills. Imbued with the knowledge that comes only from experience, the veteran passes his trade tricks onto new practitioners.

The difference, of course, is that Bulger's exit from public life was not a happy one. Buffeted by allegations he'd acted improperly by aiding his fugitive brother, "Whitey" the mobster, Bulger stepped down from his University of Massachusetts presidency last year. It was a late chapter in a career marked by frequent sparrings with the Fourth Estate.

But even his wars with the press become subject matter; in this two-and-a-half-hour Friday afternoon, they augment the case studies he's assigned as study material. Allowing his classroom demeanor to slip a bit off the instructive and into that of the gleeful raconteur, he delights in telling how The Boston Globe, long his nemesis, once endorsed a Republican veterinarian running against him, or how Globe executives used back channels to lobby him, unsuccessfully, to kill a bill that would have cut into their revenues.

Bulger, 71 years old and in his first semester teaching at Suffolk since his time in the Legislature, stands behind a lectern on a table, reading from notes to a class mostly of upperclassmen and graduate students. He is part of Boston's political past now, 10 years in the House and then 25 in the Senate, including 17 as president of that body. Representing a northern section of Dorchester, he was and remains a South Boston guy, inextricably linked with that neighborhood and all its glories and shortcomings.

But, to his students, he is perhaps none of that. Some address him as "Mr. President" and some as "Mr. Bulger." But Ruth, a junior, didn't even know Bulger would be teaching the class when she registered for it. "His style is definitely something different than most professors," she acknowledges but here, in a building darkened by State House shadows at the right time of day, she is decisively nonplussed about studying under the man whose style and stances won him great champions and great detractors.

It is a style that Bulger assisted offstage when he left the Senate and then UMass, and which is ebbing again today. The Boston Herald has blared on its front page the news that the Speaker of the House could be stepping down. During the Friday afternoon class, just a block or two north, the press holds a vigil for the impending exit of Tom Finneran, another socially conservative Irish Catholic whose critics derided an autocratic style and who excited the ardor of federal investigators.

Bulger, who says he speaks often with Finneran (who would announce his resignation three days later), can empathize. He was, he chuckles, thinking about leaving the Senate himself until William Keating decided to challenge him for the presidency. "Sometimes, those things make you stay," he grins.

But if Bulger's past, replete with highlights and pitfalls, consumes the public's perception of him and will dominate his legacy, it serves in the classroom only to enlighten the future. "I try to say something only that will advance the lesson," he says after class, explaining his use of anecdotes. "If you can keep them on target, I think it really helps you to make the point."

There is a particularly functional recounting of Bulger's sufferings at the hands of one particularly "scurrilous" scribe, one whom he declines to name, but notes, "I have admonished him on occasion." Bulger is cavalier in responding to the charges leveled against him ("It could hurt your feelings," he says dryly, and "I had forgotten all about him"), but it was press hounding and televised hearings that hastened his departure from the public eye, and he cannot resist agreeing, tongue not too far cheeked, with Benjamin Franklin, who recommended that those whose reputations suffer in the press be allowed "the liberty of the cudgel," and to "give [the writer] a good drubbing."

"My kind of guy," Bulger says, drawing laughs from the class.

Still, he stoutly advocates for the unyielding freedom of the press, explaining the niceties of sedition and libel laws, even while citing a speech he gave in 1989 that says victims of attacks on their reputations "suffer a bankruptcy of spirit, an eclipse of hope." Manifested, maybe, by a curtain call and retreat off stage, the type of exit that leaves foes mouthing begrudging respect while masking vindicatory grins, and rooters shaking their heads at the music stopping.

Nonetheless, the First Amendment finds an unlikely but stalwart champion, a man who spent much time and energy, who helped define his image, by criticizing and being criticized by those who benefit from the First Amendment. A legislator, Bulger says, citing Burke, owes constituents " 'not his industry only, but his judgment.' Mr. Burke is telling us, and I think he's right in this matter, that a legislator has a responsibility not just to be like a weatherman, watching where the wind is blowing, but to act on his judgment. And we encourage that."

The lecture, opened periodically for questions, encapsulates neatly Bulger's career. There is the conservative-streaked populism, the familiar squinting probe for the right word, the artfully timed jibe at a foe who did battle with him before most of Bulger's pupils were born.

The class is Bulger's public life distilled to the parts he hopes prove educational. Preparing his students for the type of life he lived gives him a goal, on the back end of that public life. "I think you make them more disciplined," he says after class, arm resting on the lectern. "I think you make them more capable of a healthy skepticism. I wouldn't want to make them cynical, but skepticism is good."

Jousting with the press, he tells his rapt audience, even paid off at the ballot box, particularly in districts where voters were likely to hold dim views of perceived outsiders who meddled. In Southie, you subscribed to the newspapers or to Bulger.

"It was met with approval among the rank-and-file folks," he says. "It was either that or go to work."