Bulger's Last Stand

At the conclusion of the House Government Reform Committee hearing that marked the beginning of the end of his public career, William M. Bulger rose from the table with a strange look on his face. It was a look so uncharacteristic of the glib, imperious Caesar of Massachusetts politics that one longtime Bulger-watcher had to think twice before identifying it.

Bulger was in shock. During six hours of grueling, occasionally scornful cross-examination, he had failed to explain away — or even express the slightest contrition for — four decades of social connections and political actions that seemed to implicate him as, at best, an enabler of his brother Whitey's infamous orgy of murder, rape, and drug-peddling. Instead, he had offered an unconvincing litany of denials and forgetfulness, mixed with just enough arrogance and indifference to infuriate the likes of Republican Congressman Christopher Shays of Connecticut. Shays told Bulger he was “truly stunned” by the UMass president's reluctance to cooperate with the committee's probe of Whitey's reign of terror.

Incredibly, despite months of preparation for the hearing at the hands of some of Boston's top legal and public-relations experts, Bulger seemed equally stunned by the committee's prosecutorial tone. He had found himself treated like a clueless con man, a relic of an outdated, discredited social and political culture that might still be tolerated in some Bay State backwater, but not in the modern-day real world.

In fact, the only surprising aspect of the committee's skeptical grilling was Bulger's surprised response to it. By Bulger's own account, the specter of Whitey's criminality has shadowed his career for more than 40 years. But like the aging Frank Sinatra of the late 1960s, railing uncomprehendingly at the inexorable displacement of his musical genre by rock'n'roll, Bulger has seemed without a clue about how profoundly the political and social ozone layer that once protected him from damage from his brother's crimes has eroded.

The story of Bulger's failing struggle to break free of that rip tide — developed through months of interviews with key players in every corner of this epic saga — is that of an intelligent, experienced, pragmatic politician exposed as staggeringly clueless, naive, and in denial about his predicament. Move over, Bernard Law, a Bulger pal and peer who also failed to understand what was happening around him. The behind-the-scenes story of William Bulger's decline and fall is every bit as riddled with the spectacular misjudgments of a former slugger who just can't hit the curve balls anymore.

In December, during a meeting at Governor-elect Mitt Romney's Cambridge transition headquarters, Romney learned that Bulger was balking at appearing before the congressional committee. Even though the Romney campaign had specialized in condemning the state's political old guard, Bulger's name had never surfaced. “It's not like Bulger is Mitt Romney's white whale,” says a top Romney adviser.

But as he learned of Bulger's threat to blow off the committee hearing, “Mitt was just shaking his head and saying, 'How do you not testify?'” recalls an eyewitness. Later that day, asked by reporters for comment on Bulger's foot-dragging, Romney was blunt. “It would be inappropriate for any citizen, let alone the president of a great university, to be in contempt of Congress,” he said.

Press accounts of Romney's comment noted how unprecedented it was for a politician of either party to take on Bulger over his relationship with Whitey — or anything else, for that matter. But that ignored the sea change prompted by years of graphic evidence of the savagery of Whitey and his gang, from stark video of bodies being unearthed from shallow graves to an account of videotaping sexual encounters with young girls in the back of a South Boston gym. Even Shannon O'Brien, a former Senate ally of Bulger's and the Democratic nominee for governor, had said during her campaign: “I certainly hope that William Bulger is doing the right thing and urging his brother to turn himself in.”

Bulger and his camp were startled by Romney's criticism, and moved quickly to extinguish what they saw as an isolated flare-up. A Bulger aide called a Romney adviser he knew and collegially urged, “Let's make sure things don't spin out of control.” Grace Fey, chair of the UMass board of trustees, met privately with Romney chief of staff Beth Myers and gushed about the “terrific” working relationship Bulger and Romney could have. But along with that dangling carrot came a subtle reminder of the stick Bulger might wield if pushed: Fey urged Myers to avoid an “embarrassing” spat like the battle between outgoing acting Governor Jane Swift and the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority board, which had ended in legal and political humiliation for Swift.

Romney's people saw that as a veiled threat — and didn't like it. They were also put off by several Bulger-Romney encounters Bulger's camp saw as typical spin, but Romney aides interpreted as unacceptable grandstanding. In one instance, Romney attended a December meeting of a board on which Bulger sits. The governor-elect shook hands with Bulger as well as “everybody in the room,” recalls a Romney aide. “Next thing we know, we're getting a phone call from a reporter about how the governor was at this meeting and was very friendly with Bulger. We shook our heads over that one. Bulger thought he could still play the game because he's charming.”

But Bulger had misjudged both Romney's personality and his intentions. In his career as a private-sector takeover artist and as salvager of the corruption-plagued Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, Romney's style was clear: He cleaned out with a high-pressure hose whatever Augean stable he took on, without concern for charmers like Bulger (or, his political enemies argued, hapless blue-collar workers) who got swept away in the process. Though Romney had campaigned explicitly on this record, promising to do the same thing to a state government befouled by waste and patronage, Bulger was stunned when the new governor turned the hose on him.

Bulger and his staff had clung to the false hope that Romney might spare them in his February budget proposal, hope fueled in part by a sympathy bouquet of flowers sent by Romney after Bulger fainted at sportswriter Will McDonough's funeral in January. But that illusion was shattered two months later when the Romney administration humiliated Bulger by killing a $371 million bond package slated to pay for construction projects at UMass. Until then, Bulger still thought Romney might be transformed over time into another Bill Weld, the former Republican governor who made Bulger into a bogeyman during his 1990 run for office but quickly became a friend and political ally. And Bulger was rightly confident he would prevail when Romney's plan to close his office reached the legislature, where he enjoyed powerful allies and a reservoir of favors owed. But the executive branch has jurisdiction over bonding, and Romney's willingness to use that authority in an unprecedented fashion jolted Bulger into a fateful change of tactics.

Just days after the bond deal was nixed, Bulger tore into Romney at a public hearing on the governor's higher-education reform plan, accusing the governor of “arrogance” and “elitism,” and belittling his work with the venture-capital firm Bain & Company. “What do they know? No one knows,” Bulger snarled as the cameras rolled. “Some people have to sacrifice. I don't think that's appreciated at all by the governor.”

The personal tone of the tirade surprised and angered Romney, whose press operation responded by encouraging a steady stream of news stories and columns attacking Bulger's claims of spectacular success in raising money for UMass, and detailing both his extraordinarily lucrative contract and the larding of his office and university payrolls with highly salaried, politically connected hires. These accounts, coming at a time of fiscal stress so severe that even veteran legislative featherbedders like Senate President Robert Travaglini and House Speaker Tom Finneran were eager to be seen slashing budgetary pork, were devastating to what was left of Bulger's public standing. But Bulger and his closest aides dismissed the bad press, basking instead in the apparent support of the narrow UMass universe. “Your support has to be rooted in the board of trustees, the university community, the alumni, and you would not believe the level of support,” bragged one top Bulger adviser. “You don't have to worry as much about public opinion.” Indeed, even as the negative publicity and public clamor for his ouster spun out of control, Bulger blithely told an acquaintance that “most of the stuff, happily for me, arises from the tabloid [Boston Herald]. They don't have any validity to their claims. There's no substance to it.”

Even if he had grasped the toxicity of public horror over Whitey's crimes merging with public outrage over his own free-spending patronage empire, Bulger was still singularly unprepared to swallow modern-day public-relations antidotes. His press aides and the high-powered Boston lobbying firm Rasky/Baerlein, which he brought in to help with damage control, found themselves dealing with an uncooperative client. “Bulger himself does not really seek PR counsel,” says a source within the Bulger PR operation. “That makes our efforts a little bit challenging.”

Thus, less than two hours after Attorney General Thomas Reilly became the first prominent Democrat to call for his resignation in June for refusing to help authorities bring Whitey to justice, Bulger rushed before the cameras to lash back, terming Reilly's remarks “shameless” and “shabby” — then refusing to take questions. The exchange was a public-relations disaster that helped elevate Reilly's critique to a national news story, earning coverage on the Today show and in the New York Times, a far cry from that routine hassling by “the tabloid.”

Even more important, fellow Democrat Reilly's attack — and Bulger's failure to deflect it — stripped Bulger of crucial political shelter by puncturing the oft-repeated claim that criticism of him was partisan. It emphatically shifted the debate over Bulger's future from a dry insiders' rhubarb over UMass governance to a key element of the search for justice for Whitey's victims, a context that left Bulger infinitely more vulnerable.

Characteristically, Bulger didn't see it that way. Statements of support from such old-guard cronies as state Auditor Joseph DeNucci, Boston City Councilor Jimmy Kelly, and former Red Sox president John Harrington were privately touted by Bulger as evidence of victory, despite the conspicuous silence of most of the political establishment. And others who remained publicly supportive of Bulger were privately writing him off. “Anybody who cares about the university needs to pray that he gets out,” said one top Democratic leader.

Worst of all, Bulger's tone-deafness was finally starting to erode his most crucial constituency. Bulger and his crew always insisted, publicly and privately, that they had the board of trustees' complete support, but that was never true. At least two board members contacted the Romney camp early in the year to express support for the governor's attempts to dismantle Bulger's office, citing fallout from his ties to Whitey. And in the wake of the Reilly fiasco, one previously staunch Bulger ally on the board told Boston magazine that the president had “left himself vulnerable” by responding to the attorney general with “a bit too much of a fuck-you. All this stuff has really sharpened in the minds of the trustees what their role is, not to defend Bulger, but to evaluate the situation and make a determination of how this is affecting the university. As the heat has come up in this thing, the trustees have now really focused on this as their role.”

At every step of the way in his season of discontent, Bulger viewed reality through a distorted lens of misunderstanding of his critics, miscalculation of his responses, and misinterpretation of his support. His charm and well-received tenure at UMass might have carried him through had he been able to contain the defiant strain that prompted him to mouth off to the grand jury about his disinterest in seeing Whitey captured, to bait Romney for going after his budget instead of quietly letting Beacon Hill protect him, and to trash Reilly, thus turning a one-day story into an avalanche of negative press. Had he a better appreciation of the public's sympathy for victims, he might have played one himself; had he listened to his public-relations experts, they might have shown him how. Instead, Bulger's myopia brought him to the edge of the abyss. And if his sense of surprise and bewilderment seems incredible, it may be because of the depth of his denial. Of his brother's vicious crimes, he says: “I still have the hope that some of the more terrible things are not true.” And as he struggled to keep his composure during a testy encounter with reporters at the end of the congressional hearing, Bulger cemented his image as an aging Sinatra-like figure who just can't feel the beat to which everyone around him is dancing.

“Do you feel you've dispelled ethical questions about your fitness to head UMass?” he was asked.

“Well,” replied Bulger with a trace of a sneer on his face, “I didn't know that had been a question.”