IN the lunch-pail enclave of South Boston, there's an unwritten rule concerning the Bulger brothers: If you can't think of something nice to say about them, say something nice.
For two decades, James and William Bulger have controlled this blue-collar Irish neighborhood with a leadership style that is part Robin Hood and part Machiavelli.
But what's most remarkable about the Bulgers is the difference in their resumes: Billy is South Boston's leading politician, while Jimmy is reputedly its toughest gangster.
Early this month, Billy was reelected president of the Massachusetts state Senate, a post he has held for a record 16 years. A week later, Jimmy (a.k.a. ''Whitey'') was indicted on federal racketeering charges.
It's the latest, and perhaps climactic, chapter of a story that has tantalized Boston for 20 years: How two brothers, reared in a South Boston housing project, could achieve legendary reputations on opposite sides of the law.
''It's the stuff of a lot of 1930s movies,'' says Lou DiNatale, senior fellow at the McCormack Institute at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. ''One brother is the political muscle in one of the most political neighborhoods in the country, and the other is the local kingpin of organized crime.''
From the rostrum of the Massachusetts Senate, Billy Bulger has ruled with an iron fist, using his discretion over committee chairmanships, staffing, and appropriations to keep his legislators loyal. In return, he takes political risks, like guiding an unpopular legislative pay hike through last month's lame-duck session.
''Bill Bulger has an old-fashioned view of politics,'' says Dennis Hale, chairman of Boston College's political science department. ''His idea is that if you're good to the leader, he's good to you. If you rebel, he punishes you. He's always been very honest about that.''
From the newly renovated Curley Recreation Center in South Boston to the sprawling South Boston court house, Bulger's constituents need not search hard for monuments to his considerable influence. Some can simply glance at their government paychecks.
But Bulger's attachment to his constituents may have prevented him from attaining higher office. He drew dubious national attention in 1974 by leading a protest against forced busing at South Boston High School: an event that portrayed Bulger, and his neighborhood, as intolerant and racist.
But others say the real reason voters are skeptical of Billy is the reputation of his older brother. While Bulger has never been chatty with the media, he has been especially tight-lipped about Jimmy, offering little comment over the years other than this snippet from a 1992 interview with journalist Morley Safer: ''He's my brother,'' Bulger said. ''I care about him. I encourage him to come by all the time.''
Besieged by reporters at the Statehouse, Bulger's response to questions about Jimmy's indictment is ''no comment.''
Jimmy Bulger served nine years in federal prison for armed robbery in the 1950s and '60s. Since then, he has not been charged with any crime, but has been the target of numerous investigations. A 1986 presidential commission on organized crime described him as an extortionist, drug dealer, and murderer.
But the latest indictment charged Jimmy only with extortion, based on charges by two former bookmakers who claimed to have paid ''rent'' to a group called the Winter Hill Gang, allegedly captained by Bulger.
While police nabbed Jimmy's reputed associate, Stephen ''the Rifleman'' Flemmi, Jimmy slipped through the dragnet. It's the latest frustration for the handful of law-enforcement agencies that have tried for a quarter century to build a convincing case against Bulger.
In the smoky pubs on Broadway Street in ''Southie,'' most patrons say Jimmy is the victim of a political witch hunt by prosecutors.
They tell stories of Jimmy giving $50 bills to homeless men, or helping elderly women with their groceries. The threat of retribution from Jimmy's boys, they say, helps keep the neighborhood crime rate low.
''You don't hear about elderly people being beaten upon the head in South Boston, and that's a direct result of Jimmy Bulger,'' says Brian MacNamara of South Boston. ''I'm 100 percent behind both the Bulgers, and you can print that.''
But with Jimmy on the lam and Billy reportedly pondering retirement, the Bulger era may soon be over. Many Bay State residents will joyfully bid the Bulgers farewell, but not the inhabitants of South Boston.
Here, the Bulgers are the last guardians of what Southie used to be: a hardworking, all-white, close-knit community where everybody looked out for one another. Aside from being cultural icons here, the Bulgers are also pillars of the neighborhood economy.
In South Boston, when people felt powerless, Mr. DiNatale says, they had two options: pass out leaflets for a state representative in hopes of landing a government job; or go to the bookies.
''People had the feeling that if you needed milk or something you could always go to the wiseguys,'' he says. ''You might have to hide a dead body in your basement a few days later, but they always made sure you got the milk.''
But these days, South Boston's once-unified political power base is eroding as more prosperous residents move to the suburbs, and blacks and Hispanics take their places.
Some residents say the change is already tangible. ''Everybody's getting real selfish,'' says Don Murray of South Boston, shooting pool on a Wednesday night. ''It's like: 'I wake up with me and you wake up with you.' The neighborhood ain't what it used to be.''