The omission of the word "rarely" from the Aug. 12 District Notebook item about communications director Tony Bullock's imminent departure as Mayor Anthony A. Williams's spokesman reversed the intended meaning of the sentence. The sentence should have paraphrased Bullock as saying that Williams rarely complains about his shoot-from-the-hip style. (Published 8/19/04)
For more than three years, Tony Bullock has been the voluble, shockingly candid, often outrageous, at times infuriating and almost always amusing mouthpiece for D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams. But the era of "B.S. Bullock," as he is known among some City Hall reporters, is coming to a close.
Last Friday Bullock submitted a letter of resignation to Williams (D), announcing his intention to leave his post as communications director Aug. 31. Bullock is taking a job as executive vice president for public affairs at Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide, an international public relations firm.
Bullock, 46, is the second member of the mayor's inner circle to leave in recent weeks (chief of staff Kelvin J. Robinson resigned last month), prompting speculation that Williams may finally have decided not to seek a third term. But Bullock said he has no information about the mayor's plans. The new job pays "substantially more" than the $121,000 he now takes home to the wife and kids, Bullock said, adding that he just "kinda leapt at" the offer.
His departure is likely to mark a dramatic change in the way the Williams administration communicates with the public, if only because it would be virtually impossible to match Bullock's audacity and glib bravura. While many press secretaries confine their public comments to careful, preapproved stock phrases, you never know what might pop out of Bullock's mouth.
Last week, for instance, when U.S. Capitol Police closed roads and erected traffic barriers in response to a heightened security alert, Bullock derided "the nervous Nellies in Congress" and accused them of "turning our symbols of democracy into fortresses of fear."
"This is the nation's capital," he griped. "It's not Beirut."
When the General Accounting Office decided in March to join a long list of federal agencies investigating the District's reaction to reports of lead in the water, Bullock said the GAO should "take a number."
"It's getting like a SoHo bakery around here," he said. "At some point, there's got to be a limit to the number of people investigating us. . . . They'll trip over themselves. Maybe it's already happening."
In perhaps the low point of his tenure, Bullock acknowledged spreading dirt about Jahkema Princess Hansen, 14, who was gunned down in January after witnessing a murder. The girl's mother complained about the city's response, and Bullock told reporters off the record that the girl had a baby (she did not), that her mother entertained a parade of drug dealers in her Sursum Corda townhouse (the mother denied it), and that the family had refused to help police.
Bullock later called those conversations "an expression of frustration. . . . The point is, it's not the police's job to be in everyone's living room counseling their children. That's the role of parents. This mother was very critical of the government when perhaps there should be a bit of looking inward."
Veteran City Hall reporters generally praise Bullock, saying he improved the efficiency of Williams's press operation and opened up access to the mayor by instituting a weekly press conference. Before that, reporters complained that Williams was virtually inaccessible.
Tom Sherwood, a reporter for WRC-4 who has covered city politics for a quarter-century, said Bullock also helped to humanize Williams, who sometimes comes across as disengaged and aloof.
"If the mayor could talk as well as Tony Bullock, he'd get on TV a lot more. I'm amazed at the things Tony Bullock says," Sherwood said. "But I think he speaks the way the mayor feels."
Indeed, Bullock said Williams complains about his shoot-from-the-hip style. "Once or twice, I've probably said something where he probably was sort of appalled," Bullock said.
There was the time, for instance, when a congressman griped about city police tolerating a lengthy standoff with a farmer who drove his tractor onto the National Mall. "I said something like: What did he want us to do? Just shoot him so we could all get home for dinner?" Bullock recalled.
And there was the time Bullock referred to a congressional proposal as "idiotic." And the time he accused the interim school superintendent of "being in outer space."
"On occasion, somebody would tell the mayor, 'You really should tone that guy down,' " Bullock said. "But on balance, we made a good team because he's a little more genteel in his public comments. And sometimes I think there's a point that needs to be made. And perhaps it's best that it not come directly from the mayor."
Bullock has known the mayor since both were students at Yale University. Bullock graduated in 1981 and immediately launched a career in politics, serving in local office for more than a dozen years in eastern Long Island. He came to Washington in 1996 to serve as chief of staff for the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.). Bullock worked briefly for Al Gore's failed presidential campaign in 2000, then signed on with Williams in March 2001.
In Bullock's absence, deputy press secretary Sharon Gang will serve as the mayor's chief spokeswoman. The mayor is searching for a permanent replacement for Bullock, but he has not exactly been inundated with applicants.
"It may be a while until someone is hired," Bullock said. "This job is not for the timid."