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Conventional Wisdom Watch: The Amorello story

Posted by Mark Leccese  August 14, 2010 12:20 PM

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On Monday, Matthew Amorello was a wretched drunk. By Wednesday, he was a victim of Massachusetts politics. That’s how quickly the media’s conventional wisdom mutates.

Quick recap: Amorello, a former Republican state senator, was named commissioner of the state’s highway department in 1999 by Republican Gov. Paul Cellucci, and, in 2002, he was elevated to chairman of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority by Republican Gov. Jane Swift. In that job he oversaw the Big Dig. After a section of the roof of Big Dig tunnel collapsed in 2006, killing a woman, Amorello resigned.

And that’s all we heard about until Amorello until Sunday, when the Eagle-Tribune, the Salem News and the Boston Herald and (giving scoop credit to the Herald) reported Amorello had been arrested and charged with drunken driving in Haverhill.

Monday’s Globe reported Amorello would be arraigned that day in Haverhill District Court, and in a Metro Desk blog post late in the day said he had failed to appear in court. The Herald had the same stories.

But the Herald got into the details of the arrest, which, to say the least, did not flatter Amorello.

When Haverhill police found the state’s former Big Dig boss Matthew J. Amorello early Saturday morning, he was alone and allegedly disoriented, seated in his smashed up 1999 Ford Explorer in a Mercedes dealership parking lot, police said.

Only three wheels remained on his SUV.

And this:

“He was really out of it, and he didn’t know where he was,” said one Haverhill police officer yesterday, a day after Amorello’s older brother Peter posted the former state senator’s $40 bail.

Herald columnist Howie Carr unspooled 500 words of taunting, his stock-in-trade for the past 20 years.

Fat Matt Amorello apparently forgot the timeless advice Dean Wormer imparted to Flounder in the old movie “Animal House.”

“Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son.”

Later in the column:

At the Pike he put on maybe 80 pounds, grew a goatee and three chins, and became such a shameless hack that the Democratic Legislature was willing to go to the mat with Gov. Mitt Romney to keep him on as boss of the Turnpike to do their bidding. By that point, Fat Matt had no other career options. Bet now he wishes he’d passed the bar exam, not to mention whatever bar he was drinking at Friday night.

The story jumped to another level by mid-afternoon, when local media got their hands on – and quickly published – what the Herald website called the “Matt Amorello mug shot shocker.” Amorello appears to be unconscious in the mug shot, his battered face held up by gloved hands.

Coverage, and thus he conventional wisdom, began to diverge in Tuesday’s Globe and Herald. A Globe story headlined “For Amorello, a long slide” included quotes from public officials sympathetic to Amorello and details from the police report.

The first paragraph:

Since Matthew Amorello stepped down under pressure as Massachusetts Turnpike Authority chairman four years ago, his life has spiraled downward. His marriage ended. He lost his Wenham home to foreclosure. And he has been unable to find a job, according to friends.

The police report:

“He seemed to be out of it,’’ police wrote. Amorello refused to get out of the car and continued to grip the steering wheel even after police sprayed him twice with pepper spray, according to the report. It took three officers to pull him from the car and drag him to a cruiser. He refused to take a breath analysis test, police said.

A sympathetic friend:

Jordan Levy, a former Turnpike Authority board member, said Amorello unfairly became the scapegoat for every sin of the Big Dig.

“The roof that collapsed was already up when Matt arrived at the Big Dig,’’ he said. “The wall that breached was already poured. The leaks were already there.’’

Previous Big Dig managers are hardly mentioned in public at all, Levy added.

“He took a big hit when the ceiling collapsed, and the guy has been down for a long time since then,’’ he said. “To lose your wife, lose your family, lose your home, lose your opportunity to hold a job. That’s as bad as it gets.’’

The Herald put the story on page one and went to town: a file photo of Amorello, an inset of the mug shot and the headline “Matt’s Tragic Fall.” The headline suggests at least some sympathy, but inside the paper a boxed feature on top of page five headlined “Matt Amorello’s mug puts Lindsay Lohan, Mel Gibson, Snooki to shame” featured the Amorello mug shot above mug shots of Mel Gibson, Nick Nolte looking amusingly disheveled, and Lindsay Lohan. The copy is not sympathetic:

Perhaps there is no such thing as a flattering mug shot — just ask Mel Gibson, Nick Nolte or Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi — but Matt Amorello, the former Big Dig Boss, brings the art to a new low.

Sporting stubble and a scrape on his forehead, a passed-out Amorello had his face held up by an officer during his booking for OUI Saturday in the shocking photo.

On Wednesday, not one but two Globe columnists — Joan Vennochi on the Op-Ed page and Brian McGrory on the Metro front — and the Herald’s other star columnist, Peter Gelzinis, portrayed Amorello as a victim.

Vennochi blamed former Gov. Mitt Romney, who appeared to force Amorello’s resignation after the tunnel collapse.

There was always plenty of blame to spread around. But when a woman died in a Big Dig tunnel collapse, Matthew J. Amorello got most of it.

It’s the Massachusetts way.

McGrory’s column, headlined “Culture bred Amorello fall,” began “Matthew Amorello isn’t an easy guy to pity, but I’m willing to give it a try.” Later in the column:

His spiral speaks volumes not just about him, but the government he served, and Boston itself. This is a city that grinds people up, perhaps more than anyplace else. We’re big enough to be intense, not so big as to be distracted. Mistakes are harped on. Faults are magnified. Credit is served in caveats.

In this environment, Amorello wasn’t just a mediocre transportation executive playing out of his league. He was giddily derided as “Fat Matt’’ by commentators who could afford to lose a few pounds themselves.

The headline on Gelzinis’s column: “Mitt Romney wasted no time throwing Matt Amorello under bus.”

In another life, when he had a wife and child by his side, and a home that still belonged to him, Matt Amorello once hosted a fund-raiser for Mitt Romney.

Mitt, as you may recall, returned the favor … by crucifying Amorello.

Carr, in Wednesday’s Herald, surprisingly wrote about the state’s upcoming tax holiday (he derided it, unsurprisingly, as political hackery and pointed out that every day is a sales tax holiday in New Hampshire) instead of Amorello, although he did get in one kick: “Plus, it’s never too early to start shopping for New Year’s Eve — am I right, Mr. Chairman Amaretto — I mean, Amorello.”

The same day, even the Herald’s news department turned sympathetic to Amorello in a story headlined “Matt Amorello’s brother slams cops’ treatment of ‘passed-out’ suspect.”

“There are issues in this case and we intend to look at them,” attorney William Hogan III said yesterday outside Haverhill District Court after rescheduling the still-hospitalized Amorello’s arraignment for Aug. 24.

Amorello’s family members, horrified by a disturbing mug shot showing gloved hands holding the former state senator’s bloodied face, eyes shut, for the camera, have questions of their own.

“You can see my brother is hurt, you can see the cuts on his face, why didn’t you ask if he needed to go to the hospital?” Peter Amorello said he intends to ask cops.

What is odd about the conventional wisdom veering so abruptly from Amorello as dim-witted drunk to Amorello as victim of Mitt Romney, Massachusetts political culture and police malfeasance is that this storyline was not only available to the local media on Monday, it actually appeared – briefly – in the sixth paragraph of Monday’s Herald story.

“The tunnel collapse was a horrible thing, but it was put up seven years before he got there. He’s the fall guy,” said his brother, Peter.

The new conventional wisdom proved too much for Carr, who tried to throw things into reverse in his Friday today.

All it took was one hangover, and Fat Matt is suddenly a martyr, a scapegoat, a good family man, would only take a drink under extreme social pressure, the evil Mitt Romney framed him, Bechtel gave him the bad ice cube.

Please, everyone, get a grip. Mitt Romney wanted the guy fired from the Turnpike for years before the tunnel collapse in 2006. Fat Matt was a buffoon, a clown.

Carr’s summary:

At this point, though, it’s not about Fat Matt, it’s about Mitt. The trust-funded bow-tied bum-kissers want to dust him up as he begins running for president again.

“Trust-funded bow-tied bum-kissers,” of course, is what Carr has been calling the Boston Globe staff for 20 years. (And, truth be told, 20 years ago a few Globe staffed did affect bow-ties.) I do not know Joan Vennochi, Brian McGrory or Carr’s colleague Peter Gelzinis, but I do wonder if any of the three have trust funds or even own bow ties.

What made the conventional wisdom change so rapidly? The absence of news. There were only two pieces of news in the Amorello story: his arrest and his failure to show up for his arraignment.

Everything else was attempts to justify or explain Amorello’s fall, have some eye-catching fun at his expense, or reel out an opinion about who the good guys and the bad guys are in this story.

Amorello’s fall was so macabre and the early coverage at times so pitiless that, in the absence of news, some good journalists started to reconsider. That so many of them reconsidered so quickly is the surprise.

Follow Mark Leccese on Twitter at @mleccese.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Mark Leccese, a journalism professor at Emerson College, covered Massachusetts politics, business and the arts for more than 25 years as a newspaper reporter, editor and magazine writer. He has More »

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