Opinion: You can’t choose your relatives
George Mitchell, a former federal judge and Senate majority leader, was the chief negotiator of the Good Friday Agreement, which brought to a peaceable end 30 years of civil war in Northern Ireland.
He was a kid from Waterville, Maine, whose father was the orphaned son of Irish immigrants and whose mother, who had come to the United States from Lebanon at the age of 18, could neither read nor write English. Long before Mitchell would become a statesman, he grew up as the kid brother of Johnny Mitchell, who became a state legend by leading his undefeated Waterville High basketball team to win the New England championship in Boston Garden.
George Mitchell recalls growing up and invariably being described, because of his own limited athletic talents, around Waterville as “Johnny Mitchell’s kid brother, the one who isn’t any good.” When he won his first election to the Senate decades later, there was a big victory party. On the front page the next day was a picture of the celebration featuring his brother Johnny hanging on his shoulder. The kid brother still remembers the caption under the photo: “Senator George Mitchell celebrating his landslide victory and being cheered on by an unidentified supporter.”
In politics and in life, we can choose our friends but not our relatives. The truth of that rule was underlined by the coverage of the prison murder of James “Whitey” Bulger, the Boston organized crime boss and FBI informant who was charged with 19 murders. Always mentioned in the next sentence was the fact that Whitey had a younger brother, Billy, who grew up to become the husband of Mary and father of nine, as well as the longest-serving Massachusetts Senate president in state history and then the president of the University of Massachusetts.
Bill Weld, having previously served as U.S. attorney in Boston and then head of the Justice Department’s criminal division, was the Republican governor of Massachusetts when Billy Bulger was the state’s most powerful Democrat. Weld publicly saluted Bulger as “the champion of the workingman and the guardian of the widowed, the trustee and protector of Massachusetts General (Hospital) and the patron of the public library, the man who would open the beaches of this beautiful state for all to enjoy … the public servant who wants nothing more or other than to succor men and women as they toil on the graveyard shift to give their little children a humble home and a solid schooling.”
At the St. Patrick’s Day breakfast he hosted, Bulger’s lightning wit was on view. When Boston Brahmin Elliot Richardson, a hero for having resigned as Richard Nixon’s attorney general rather than carry out Nixon’s order to fire the special prosecutor investigating the Watergate scandal, was running for Massachusetts governor, Bulger saluted him by predicting The Boston Globe’s editorial endorsement: “Vote Elliot: He’s Better Than You.” When Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, a man not indifferent to his appearance, was tardy showing up, Bulger explained the delay by saying, “Here is Sen. Kerry, who was unavoidably detained by getting caught in front of a mirror.”
To the Republican governor who could trace his family lines all the way back to the Mayflower, Billy Bulger, a proud Irish-American, cracked, “Thank you for letting us use your country.” Please remember that we don’t get to choose our relatives. Billy Bulger is and was a lot more than Whitey’s kid brother.
— Mark Shields is a columnist for Creators Syndicate.