The Boston Phoenix January 18-25, 2001


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

LUNCH-BUCKET POPULIST Ray Flynn defined an era in Boston Politics.Now,in collaboration with Robin Moore, he's making waves as a writer.

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.

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 first book.

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?"

What, indeed?

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.

SWASHBUCKLING NOVELIST Robin Moore, renowned for his skill in ferreting out information from secretive institutions, turned to Flynn when he needed substantive details of Vatican life.

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.

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 recounts.

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 through Flynn.)

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 state representative."

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]

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