Mar. 13, 2003
"To every thing there is a season," says Ecclesiastes. "A time to keep silence and a time to speak."
The last time a legislative panel was interested in hearing from Billy Bulger, the University of Massachusetts president decided it was a time to keep silence. That was in December, when a congressional subcommittee came to Boston to ask what Bulger knew about his brother James, a violent fugitive wanted for at least 19 murders. Bulger took the Fifth and said nothing. He didn't even repeat what he had told a grand jury the year before -- that he felt no obligation to help authorities bring his brother to justice and in fact had advised him not to turn himself in.
But when the Legislature's Ways and Means Committees invited Bulger to testify this week about something considerably less urgent than a serial killer on the loose -- Governor Mitt Romney's proposed revamp of the state's higher-education system -- the sullen silence was ended. This time Bulger had plenty to say. Especially about Romney.
The governor, Bulger charged, is trying to engineer a "corporate takeover" of the state colleges and university -- "and everyone in this room knows what such takeovers frequently mean to hard-working people." The restructuring plan is really an "effort to dismantle the University of Massachusetts." It is "simply an attack on public higher education." It is an "indefensible" blueprint drafted by people who "know very little."
And why would the state's new governor propose something so awful? Well, explained Bulger, "Those who haven't struggled to obtain an education opportunity forget that there are those who must struggle. Those in the midst of affluence often forget that there are many among us with aching needs. Those who are transfixed by the marketplace fail to recognize that riches can be found in the plays of Shakespeare, in the novels of Flaubert, and in the music of Bach." In other words, Romney is a heartless yahoo who knows nothing of sacrifice or culture and cares only about money.
And just what does Bulger care about (other than the welfare of a homicidal gangster)? To hear him tell it, his concern is "the many thousands who cannot afford to pay the $25,000 charged at private research universities in Massachusetts." As it happens, those universities share the same concern, which is why they provide millions of dollars in financial aid to students of modest means, a point Bulger neglected to mention. He did say that in a time of fiscal crisis, "sacrifices will be required of all of us" -- but he never actually got around to mentioning any sacrifices that he himself is prepared to accept.
Would he sacrifice, say, some of his immense $309,000 salary or the lavish benefits that go with it? His personal retinue of -- count 'em -- 68 courtiers? Bulger's predecessors managed to function without such trappings. Could Bulger? He didn't say.
Romney's plan calls for doing away with the UMass presidency altogether, saving $14 million a year and eliminating a needless glob of bureaucracy. Oddly, Bulger's prepared testimony said almost nothing about that, either. He seemed more intent on provoking a blood feud with Romney than on patiently discussing the merits of the governor's plan. Hence the class-warfare epithets and gratuitous insults.
Characteristically, Romney didn't take the bait. His plan is "not about Mr. Bulger," the governor insisted, and any perception that it deliberately targets him would only hurt its chances. "It would probably be a lot easier to look at higher education," he said, "were there not that personality associated with it."
He may be right, but this is not the time for a dignified refusal to brawl. If Bulger wants to fight, the governor should lace up his gloves and follow him into the ring. Romney could do a lot worse than be seen by the public as the leading foe of the vindictive former Senate president. The two men could hardly be more unalike, and Romney has nothing to fear from the contrast.
What would voters see in a Romney-Bulger bout? In one corner, they would see a man who waives his salary and gives unstintingly to charity; in the other, an avaricious predator who has grown rich picking the taxpayer's pocket. In one corner, a political outsider who takes a strong line against cronyism and nepotism; in the other, a political hack who has stashed no end of relatives and coat holders on the public payroll. In one corner, a likeable gentleman; in the other, an unpleasant bully. In one corner, a rich man regarded even by his detractors as personally incorruptible; in the other, a rich man with a far less flattering reputation.
Mitt Romney, who won his job by decisively defeating a Bulger ally, represents the potential of a fresher, less cynical style of government. Billy Bulger represents the very worst of the old style. A prizefight between the two of them could well prove a clarifying and constructive encounter. Bring it on.