Copyright © 1998 by the Boston Phoenix, Inc. All rights reserved.

This Just In: Media

Mike Barnicle: Comeback kid?

By Dan Kennedy

Some unsolicited advice for former Boston Globe columnist Mike Barnicle, who's now attempting a premature comeback: chill out.

No one takes seriously your claims to some measure of vindication over the 1995 column that got you fired. You made a Clintonesque impression on Channel 5 Tuesday night. You're probably not going to do yourself any favors when you appear on Channel 2's Greater Boston with Emily Rooney this week. And now Boston magazine is getting ready to challenge a central premise of your carefully constructed mythology.

According to the forthcoming Boston article, by senior editor Sean Flynn, Barnicle's longstanding claims to have played an important part in Robert Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign may be greatly exaggerated. Barnicle's alleged role was detailed in a lengthy 1983 Boston profile of the writer by Margery Eagan, now a Boston Herald columnist, in which she describes his rise "from payroll clerk to minor campaign worker ... to sometime Kennedy speech writer to regular speech writer on the campaign route -- even on the campaign plane."

That story has been repeated in numerous articles about Barnicle over the years. But now Flynn quotes Adam Walinsky, who was RFK's chief speech writer, as saying, "I never saw anything he [Barnicle] wrote. I never saw him. I never met him." RFK campaign manager Frank Mankiewicz told the Phoenix on Wednesday that Barnicle's claims were "fiction -- pure, total fiction." And former Globe executive editor Robert Healy, a friend of Barnicle's, told both Boston and the Phoenix that he couldn't remember meeting Barnicle during the '68 campaign, even though the 1983 Boston piece describes Healy as one of several reporters and campaign aides Barnicle hung out with. (Healy did warn the Phoenix that his memory may be faulty, and that Barnicle's emergence as an influential political player in the early '70s suggests that he didn't come out of nowhere.)

Meanwhile, Barnicle's attempts to vindicate the 1995 column that ended his career are just sad. Barnicle had written about two boys, one black, one white, who had met as cancer patients at Children's Hospital; after the black boy died, the white boy's family sent his parents a check for $10,000. Barnicle was let go on August 19 after he was unable to provide Globe editors with substantiation for the column, whose authenticity was being challenged by the Weekly Standard. Barnicle's departure also came several hours after the Phoenix released an advance copy of an article reporting that Barnicle had lifted several portions of a 1986 column from A.J. Liebling's The Earl of Louisiana, a 1961 biography of Louisiana political legend Earl Long ("Striking Similarities," News, August 21).

Six days after Barnicle left the Globe, the Journal Tribune, of Biddeford, Maine, reported on a situation that was similar to that described in Barnicle's column, though several (well, okay: most) details were different. The Globe published a piece on the Journal Tribune's discovery. Then, this past Monday, the New York Times' Felicity Barringer reported that Barnicle has been in touch with one of the Maine families, and that Pat Shairs, whose son had died of a heart ailment, told Barnicle: "This is our story."

But Globe editor Matt Storin never actually accused Barnicle of fabricating the story. Indeed, Storin reportedly told his staff that Barnicle's sin was in failing to call Children's Hospital or either set of parents before quoting the black parents and from a letter the white parents had supposedly sent. "The story may well prove to be true or substantially true," Storin was quoted as saying in the Globe. "But the reporting procedures violated any basic journalistic standard." Nothing Barnicle has come up with changes any of that.

Barnicle has failed to persuade the Globe to run a column on the Maine family on the op-ed page or as a full-page ad. Globe spokesman Rick Gulla told the Phoenix on Tuesday that the op-ed and the ad had been rejected because "it presented us with no new information about the issue." Though he declined to release the new Barnicle column or to read passages from it, he did say that Barnicle admits to "reconstruction of dialogue that I had not actually heard directly." The Globe's position, Gulla adds, is simple: "You can't make up quotes from people you've never met."