After he studied to be a civil engineer, and before he became a literary agent, Larry Moulter was a big behind-the-scenes name in politics. This was in the 1970s and 1980s, before he ran The Boston Garden, or owned a sports management business, or led Boston Coach, or landed at UMass Boston, where he is Executive in Residence at the Center for Collaborative Leadership.
Back then, he was an outsider, a recent college graduate—“the kid from Connecticut,” as one city councilor called him, in a not very nice way. He worked first for Mayor Kevin White; then for Sheriff Dennis Kearney; and later for Lt. Governor Tom O’Neill.
Years later, he would become his own kind of famous for a quote he gave to The New York Times, which later made it into the Oxford Dictionary of American Quotations.
“This is a town where there are three pastimes,” he said. “Politics, sports and revenge.”
Here, in his own words, is how Larry got schooled in politics:
“Don’t go into government expecting radical change. There are no radical solutions in government.
Go into it because you feel that you are a member of some broader community, and the community we live in is challenged. Whether it’s in housing or criminal justice, there’s always something you can do to have an impact on somebody else’s life.
Now you may be frustrated by the bureaucratic world you live in. You may be frustrated by the political deals that are cut. But if you want things to be different, you have to play. You have to participate.
I was never a policy wonk. And I didn’t want to be a field soldier. I liked the organizational aspect of government—that’s why I sort of migrated to chief of staff. One of the things I learned about myself early on was, I was never the smartest person in the room, but I had some ability to get smart people lined up together to do something.
I saw good behavior in politics and I saw bad behavior. And I guess I surrounded myself with enough people who showed me the good stuff that I learned how to behave like them.
When we got to the Sheriff’s department, one of the reasons the Sheriff was forced to resign, it was alleged that he was selling court officer jobs for $120,000. So being the chief of staff, and this being Boston, there were a number of people who came to me wanting to see how they could secure a court officer job. These were first generation or current immigrants in particular.
So I saw the bad there. I saw what people were willing to do. And I was just never wired that way, so it never happened.
The good things I saw were things that government did, and people like Kirk O’Donnell, who believed in public service, and that they were part of a broader community and that being a member of that community mattered.
Kirk was from Dorchester- St. Brendan’s parish—and he was a big brain but also had street sensibility. I met him when he was campaign manager for Kevin White and he became my mentor. The year and a half or two years I worked for him, I watched a master at work.
He was politically sharp, and he had sharp elbows, but there was a bright line of morality around him. There were a lot of times after the election where he had the power to hurt somebody because they may have been on the other side, or they may not have been as supportive of Kevin White as Kevin White thought they should be. And Kirk was always willing to stand up, and—as we say today—speak truth to power.
He didn’t play the revenge game…often. He played it, but he didn’t play it often.
And when he was taking that pound of flesh, or revenge, it was for a reason. In his mind, it was a calculated, acceptable reason. It wasn’t an abusive reason. I mean, somebody did something wrong.
I think as I look back, which I do at age 66, each one of those stops (in my career) gave me an abundance of insight and knowledge and opportunity to learn. And in each of those stops, the things I miss most are the people I was working with.
Listen, if I was buried in a bureaucratic job like my wife was, doing housing policy, I would have shot myself. But because I was with people who were in a position to take action, and to do things, I guess I was less frustrated than most of the usual suspects.
I mean, Dennis walked into a jail that was under federal court order—because of the poor conditions of the Charles Street jail—and who was following a Sheriff who was selling jobs, okay?
And Dennis was a 32-year-old state rep from Charlestown who had made his bones during the busing era because he was one of the few young Irish pols to stand up and support busing.
He was appointed on a Thursday morning, I was appointed on a Thursday afternoon. Sunday night, we get a call, go to the jail, because the guards had allowed or encouraged a kid from Charlestown to climb up five stories inside the building and threaten to jump unless he talked to the Sheriff.
Now I believe, I have no proof, but I believe that it was a deliberate effort on their part to embarrass the guy, the Sheriff. Or just to see what he was made out of.
I met Dennis at the jail and he talked the kid down. He didn’t have to do that, but he did.”
Larry was interviewed by story ambassador Gabbie Follett.
You can read the NYT article that contains Larry’s quote here. You can learn more about Kirk O’Donnell in this tribute a friend, Rep. Tom Lantos, read into the Congressional record after O’Donnell passed away.