We Americans seem to love our gangsters. Nothing new there. From Robin Hood to Jesse James to Bonnie and Clyde to Pretty Boy Floyd, we sing about them, extol them, and make movies about them.
You don't have to look very far to understand it. Take James Gandolfini, who died Wednesday night. He was beloved figure in The Sopranos and other roles. Hey, I loved him, too. Underneath his gruff, murdering, foul-mouthed Tony Soprano-exterior was a troubled soul with the same problems as the rest of us. His character had an internal code of ethics that crooks throughout history have always used to rationalize their bad acts. Consider all the things that have been done in the name of loyalty or vengeance. Those who are rotten to the core go on their merry way -- and this is the point -- and get away with it.
Remember the former comptroller of New York state who got into terrible trouble for having his wife driven around in a state car? (That led to even worse problems.) At the same time, we are seeing brazen mobsters admitting to 20 murders both off and on screen, turning state's evidence and accepting plea bargains that free them from punishment. It seems disproportionate.
We loved the Godfather movies. The part of Michael Corleone helped to make Al Pacino's career. We cheered for him when he made fools out of the Senate investigators who tried to put him in jail. When he murdered his competitors or threw Las Vegas hotel owners out of their jobs, we shrugged our shoulders. Hey, that's life.
Then we come to the story that so many of us, particularly those of us from this commonwealth, can't get enough of: the legend of James "Whitey" Bulger. Some people think that this villainous crook, a killer and sociopath, will actually be held accountable for his crimes. The theory states that the authorities will always get their man, no matter how long it takes. I say, "Not so fast." Whitey Bulger is 83 years old. It took an awful long time to get him. How come?
I would submit to you that pure and simple, Whitey Bulger won. Somehow, as the most wanted criminal in the United States, he survived. He has lived well past the average age of death in this country. At a time when rewards are high, cameras are everywhere, drones are overhead and facial recognition can identify pretty much anyone, he still eluded the authorities. Why couldn't we get him? Was it the fact that his brother was one of the most important politicians in Massachusetts, to whom governors and anyone who wanted to get anything were forced to pay homage? He had the FBI believing that he was their informant while continuing his career in crime. He wouldn't have been the first double or triple agent to play the feds. Then, too, there are people in law enforcement agencies who could have gone bad.
In any case, it seems like Whitey was being protected. It was only when he was out of business and "Where's Whitey?" became a national pastime that he couldn't be ignored. So, they hauled him in at the ripe old age of 83. He sure doesn't look like the kind of guy who went around murdering and maiming his enemies. He looks like your Uncle Harry.
What makes things worse is that the only way to put this old man in the pen is to bring on his associates and get them to put the noose around his neck. These are guys who are confessing to multiple murders of people who had mothers and fathers and children and they will never, ever pay for their crimes.
The only question now is who is going to write the first song and turn Whitey into a folk hero. Here's the first line: "Whitey Bulger was one smart man."
Alan Chartock, a Great Barrington resident, is president and CEO of WAMC Northeast Public Radio and a professor emeritus of communications at SUNY-Albany.