The blue collar and the blue blood
Ray Flynn and Robin Moore seem worlds apart, but they've formed a fruitful
writing partnership. Their success has as much to do with a changing political
climate as it does with the stories they have to tell.
by Seth Gitell
Former Boston mayor Raymond Flynn makes his home in a dense corner of South
Boston off Marine Road, within sight of Dorchester Bay. Author Robin Moore
inhabits a graceful redwood-and-glass home overlooking Concord's Sudbury River.
The lives the men have lived are as different as their dwelling places. The
Irish-Catholic Flynn, elected as the city's mayor for three terms beginning in
1983, defined an era of Boston politics. The Unitarian Moore -- born Robert
Lowell Moore Jr. -- is the best-selling author of muscular books such as 1969's
The French Connection, the story of an international drug ring; 1965's
The Green Berets, about the Vietnam War; and 1994's The Moscow
Connection, about illegal Russian arms smuggling.
Ray Flynn defined an era in Boston Politics.Now,in collaboration with Robin Moore, he's making waves as a writer.
Yet the two men are now partners in a burgeoning writing venture. They co-wrote
The Accidental Pope (St. Martin's Press), a novel about the Vatican that
was published last year to positive reviews and reached number five on last
week's local bestsellers list. And they're finishing up a second collaboration,
John Paul II: the Pope and the Man, a memoir of Flynn's time at the
Vatican that's due out from St. Martin's Press in February. Vatican gossip
suggests that members of the College of Cardinals are scurrying to read the
It says a lot that Flynn, whose last political contest saw him defeated by
Michael Capuano in the 1998 race for the Eighth Congressional District, has
spoken more frequently in recent days to the patrician Moore than to John
Sweeney, the president of the AFL-CIO: those two old friends haven't spoken
since the former mayor endorsed George W. Bush in October. The pairing between
Flynn and Moore began as a business relationship. But their working arrangement
-- which saw Flynn traveling to leafy Concord almost every day for two years --
seems to symbolize the distance from the Democratic Party that the former
Boston mayor has moved since his days as the city's chief executive. Or perhaps
it shows how far the Democratic Party has moved away from Flynn, who is now
president of the Washington-based Catholic Alliance, a political-action group
that broke two years ago from the Christian Coalition. At root, both Flynn, the
lunch-bucket populist, and Moore, the swashbuckling Republican novelist,
exemplify a mix of outspokenness and Old World honor that was rare during the
presidency of Bill Clinton.
What do these two fellows have in common?" asks Flynn. "One an Irish-Catholic
Democrat from South Boston -- the other, you're talking about a Unitarian blue
blood from a Republican conservative family, who rubs elbows with the blue
bloods. What's the attraction? What does Ray Flynn from the rough-and-tumble
world of street politics in Boston have in common with Robin and the Chablis
crowd in Concord?"
Flynn is old Boston, a creature of the old Democratic machine politics that
brought families a plump turkey on Thanksgiving. Moore, 75, is old, old Boston
-- Brahmin Lowell Boston. One ancestor served as the Unitarian minister at the
First Parish Church in Cambridge, and another helped lead the first
African-American troops to fight for the North in the Civil War. His father is
Robert Lowell Moore, who co-founded the Sheraton Corporation in 1937. "Lowell
is my middle name. I'm a Unitarian," says Moore. "We're great opposites."
But the two men seem to have hit it off when they met in the waning months of
Flynn's tenure as ambassador to the Vatican, which ended in 1997. When Moore
read in the Boston Globe that Flynn was returning to Boston, he was
tinkering with a draft of a novel set in the Vatican and knew he needed more
substantive details to make the book credible. He wrote to Flynn and asked to
meet. After a couple of lunches -- one on Flynn's turf at Amrheins on Broadway,
another at Moore's home -- they began their collaboration.
The former mayor was already familiar with the outline of Moore's
résumé. When Flynn, now 63, was graduating from college
and paying his dues in Boston politics, Moore was trading in a stultifying life
in the Sheraton Corporation for a life of adventure. A tail gunner in a World
War II bomber, he spent the late '50s and early '60s in Cuba researching
Castro's guerrilla revolution and came up with The Devil To Pay, a
nonfiction account of an American gun-runner in the Caribbean.
Then Moore scored his biggest hit. He arranged with the Pentagon to train with
a then-little-known military unit, the Army Special Forces, at Fort Bragg. That
led him to Vietnam, where (as a civilian, like Hemingway before him in World
War II) he went on missions and even took part in some fighting. It also
led to the novel The Green Berets, which an ancient John Wayne bought
the rights to and made into a profitable but critically panned movie. There was
even a song, "The Ballad of the Green Berets" (which reached number one in
1966), and a newspaper comic strip, The Green Beret, which peace
activists succeeded in killing on the grounds that it glorified the war.
For Americans of a certain age, Moore's novel, or at least the film version,
was a symbol of hawkish right-wing jingoism. Indeed, a phalanx of veterans
surrounded Moore as they marched through throngs of anti-war protesters into
the Manhattan premiere of the movie.
But this perception of Moore as a tool of the right misses what many have
forgotten: that John F. Kennedy himself was a Cold War hawk. Four decades ago,
Moore was an important figure to the young President Kennedy and his brother
Robert, who aided Moore when the writer found his access to information blocked
by old-fashioned Pentagon brass who didn't support newfangled methods of
unconventional warfare. In fact, Moore was central to their agenda.
Robin Moore, renowned for his skill in ferreting out information from secretive institutions, turned to Flynn when he needed substantive details of Vatican life.
President Kennedy, who had campaigned against Richard Nixon on the charge that
the Republicans weren't confronting the Soviet Union boldly enough, was drawn
to the Special Forces as the key to low-level wars against communists across
the world. Before Kennedy, the Pentagon had envisioned the Special Forces as
the military group that would go behind enemy lines and work with indigenous
partisans, the way the American OSS had assisted the French Resistance during
World War II. But the Kennedys flipped the equation. Rather than assist small
rebel groups in anti-communist revolts, the Special Forces, complete with
translators and highly trained medics, would lead and train local
pro-government troops to fight pro-communist rebels.
The Kennedys are so closely associated with the Special Forces that after JFK
was assassinated, a member of the unit took a green beret from his head and
placed it on the president's grave. The Special Forces even renamed the Special
Warfare Center the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center. After The Green
Berets was published, Moore received a letter from Bobby Kennedy thanking
the author for the interest the book stirred up in the Special Forces. Only
recently, former US representative Joe Kennedy told Moore how important his
work had been to his father. To this day a door-knocker with the words DE
OPPRESSO LIBRE hangs on Moore's door. The phrase was the motto of the Special
Forces and means "to free the oppressed" -- an idea that underlay the Kennedys'
Cold War position.
It came naturally to Flynn, who as a state legislator represented the kind of
ethnic blue-collar Democrats who favored the Vietnam War, to work with a person
who is in some quarters viewed as an emblem of that unpopular conflict. Flynn,
whose brother served in Vietnam, once invited Moore onto his now-defunct radio
program on the Catholic Family Radio Network to discuss Vietnam; he says now,
"I supported the men and women who were there. Out of loyalty to them, I would
never speak out."
But support for the Vietnam War is not the only common ground between Moore's
political background and Flynn's. Remember that two cornerstones of Flynn's
philosophy, Pope John Paul II and the labor movement, did as much to end
communism as Ronald Reagan ever did. And Moore, despite his blue-blood roots
and his Cold Warrior credentials, has been as much a rebel as a member of the
establishment: the Department of Defense, after all, tried to block publication
of The Green Berets on the charge that it violated official secrecy
policies, and the Johnson administration tried to block the film version for
reasons of its own.
So perhaps it's not surprising that Flynn and Moore found themselves able to
work so well together. Once progress on The Accidental Pope got under
way, Flynn, who had never been to Concord before, spent hours in Moore's home.
The partnership was intense. Moore schooled Flynn on the art of writing; he
compares the process to "being back in college." Moore would give him a draft
he'd written, then tape Flynn's feedback and let Flynn do his own draft. Out of
the revisions, the tale of Bill Kelly, a layman who became pope, was born.
Their working relationship soon developed a social dimension. On Wednesday
nights, Moore brought Flynn with him to dine with a group of other Concord
writers, including historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and her husband, Richard
Goodwin, a former official in the Kennedy administration. "The friends that I
have could tell you about the point spread for the Indiana-Michigan game, but
Robin's crowd could tell you what Eleanor Roosevelt wore to the first inaugural
ball," recalls Flynn, who would regale the highbrows with tales of his mentor,
former Speaker of the House John McCormack, and other luminaries of Boston's
political history. "There's a certain respect that they had for Boston
politics," he says. "They loved the stories about the Kennedys and Dave Powers
and Larry O'Brien and Kenny O'Donnell." The Globe captured a glimpse of
Flynn's new existence, reporting in the "Names and Faces" column on Flynn's
appearance with such literary lights as "novelist Allegra Goodman, mystery
writer Dennis Lehane, and political consultant and author Richard Goodwin" at a
production of Goodwin's play.
But if Flynn and Moore had nothing but good things to say about the Democrats
of old, they hardly felt the same way about the Clinton administration. Moore's
coolness for Clinton comes with the territory, considering that he has written
a series of military thrillers aided by sources deep in America's most elite
fighting units. "I have never gone with anything Clinton did," says the writer,
who refers to the outgoing president as a "draft-dodger." "I didn't like him. I
was very upset with the way he treated the military." In particular, he
objected to Clinton's handling of American engagement in Somalia.
As for Flynn, he began as a Clinton ally -- during the 1992 presidential
campaign, he gave the candidate political advice and briefed him on Northern
Ireland. Clinton rewarded Flynn's service by appointing him ambassador to the
Vatican. But a rift between the two quickly emerged, as Flynn's upcoming memoir
As ambassador, Flynn faced the task of mollifying the Vatican, which was
already irked by Clinton's signing of executive orders that facilitated
American funding of abortions abroad. As the World Population Conference in
Cairo approached in 1994, Pope John Paul II sent out word that he wanted
to speak to the president about a draft statement being prepared for the
meeting. (Diplomatic protocol mandated that this request be conveyed to Clinton
After the White House rebuffed Flynn's attempts to talk to Clinton for two
days, Flynn flew to Washington to try to speak to the president in person.
White House officials escorted Flynn to secretary Betty Currie's area outside
the Oval Office to wait for the president. There Flynn sat, nibbling on
M&Ms from a bowl in the office, for two days -- leaving only late at night
to return to his hotel room. During his sit-in, Flynn spotted Polish leader
Lech Walesa, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman John Shalikashvili, and Hillary
Clinton, who greeted him warmly. The first lady checked in with Flynn several
times during his wait and finally marched into the Oval Office to force the
president to see him. Ultimately, Flynn persuaded Clinton to call the pope. But
the damage was done.
"There was a certain arrogance there on the part of the White House staff,"
Flynn says. "My relationship with the staff deteriorated." The one exception
was the first lady. "I was more impressed with Hillary Clinton than I was with
the president or anyone else in the administration," he says. "Of course, I' m
strongly pro-life and she is not, but I thought in terms of the issues of poor
working families, she was very compelling."
Flynn's admiration for Hillary Clinton makes sense. Of all the figures in
today's Democratic Party, she is the one who most prominently advocates on
behalf of the needy -- an issue of the deepest importance to Flynn. But on
issues such as abortion, free trade, and health care, Flynn believes that the
Democratic Party has abandoned him -- and those he once represented. "I was
always the strongest advocate for providing affordable housing to working
families and for poor people," he says. "The Democratic Party has done nothing
in that regard." Pressed on the issue, Flynn says he is still a Democrat. But
later he says, "I didn't leave the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party left
me. I'm a Democrat. I grew up in the period of time when [if] somebody was in
trouble or somebody needed help, they picked up the phone and called their
Just like Moore, who subscribes to a Cold War mentality that has faded from the
Baby Boomer White House, Flynn sees himself as a man from a vanished world: the
ethnic machine politics that have diminished as families have assimilated and
moved to the suburbs. Flynn grew up smelling the grilling kielbasa in the
Polish section of South Boston. He and Moore, who with his white hair and blue
eyes can be mistaken for Irish when he dons a kelly-green sweater, see a
semblance of this world when they go to book signings at pubs such as the
Corrib in West Roxbury and the Eire in Dorchester. But this is only a shadow.
Meanwhile, the old fuddy-duddies populating the nascent Bush administration --
Donald Rumsfeld, for example -- are part of the Ford-era defeatism that people
like Moore associate with America's humiliation at the fall of Saigon.
Today, an aging Moore stays in his Concord home, gathering the memoirs of old
Special Forces soldiers who mail him their manuscripts and tinkering with new
projects, such as the film script for The Accidental Pope. And Flynn is
finding more new friends. Just last week at a meeting in Washington, Bush
adviser Karl Rove singled Flynn out for praise as a man of "extraordinary
integrity." Flynn acknowledges that his stands on the issues -- particularly
abortion -- have made him unpopular in many liberal circles. But with Moore, he
doesn't have to worry about that. As for Moore, who has spent so much of his
life trekking through dangerous territory, Flynn offers a new glimpse of life
outside Concord -- of the grit with which he sought so avidly to surround
himself in his younger days. Says Flynn: "Robin was enamored by the lack
of political correctness that I have. He thought I'd gone my own way."
Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]phx.com.
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