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Political Intelligence

Despite Murray’s moves to explain car crash, questions remain

BILL GREENE/GLOBE STAFF

Lieutenant Governor Timothy P. Murray at a news conference last week about his car crash.

From a public relations perspective, Lieutenant Governor Timothy P. Murray has handled the aftermath of his Nov. 2 car crash in textbook fashion.

Hours after the crash, and again this past week following the release of his vehicle’s black box data, he has strode confidently before the cameras, delivered humble remarks and apologies, and gamely submitted to questions from reporters.

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The problem for him, though, hasn’t been the atmospherics of his delivery. It’s been the substance of his story.

And that story’s steady unraveling has led to the public relations disaster Murray tried to head off when he first requested a field-sobriety test while his car was still smoldering on the side of the highway.

Furthermore, incredulity at his story is now eroding a bedrock necessity for any politician: credibility with the public - or at least a majority of would-be voters.

It’s a big hit for a 43-year-old elected official widely admired for his tenacity and common-man manner, and projected as a candidate to succeed Governor Deval Patrick.

During his first news conference on Nov. 2, Murray tried to project a light-hearted air as he smiled, spoke without notes, and expressed thanks for the interest in his well-being.

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But he also outlined a story that raised eyebrows.

He said he awoke before dawn, went out in search of coffee and newspapers, and decided to drive - in the pitch black - to see the damage wrought by a freak Halloween snowstorm.

When asked why he could not get coffee or newspapers closer to home, or why he would try to examine storm damage from a highway, in total darkness, the former Worcester mayor got defensive.

“I drive around routinely. I think people in the city, people around Central Mass., people get constituent work from me at a lot of different times,’’ he replied.

Then, asked how far up Interstate 190 he traveled on his 30-mile roundtrip, Murray answered: “I probably turned around up around Route 2.’’

Finally, when asked if he was speeding, he replied, “No, as I said, I believe I was, you know, approximately the speed limit. I don’t know for sure. We’ll let the troopers do their job.’’

The State Police did their job, releasing an accident report and a separate cruiser crash report, since Murray’s car was a state-issued unmarked cruiser.

Both blamed the accident on black ice.

After the media clamored for data from the vehicle’s black box, the State Police changed their explanation.

They said Tuesday the accident was not caused by ice but, apparently, Murray falling asleep behind the wheel.

They said he was not going “approximately the speed limit,’’ but about 75 miles per hour and up to 108 miles per hour before impact.

Once again, Murray appeared before reporters - but this time with written notes placed on a podium before him.

The smile was replaced with a somber expression, and the details changed.

He recalled precisely when he left home, 4:45 a.m. He said he specifically turned around at Route 2. And he added another reason for his journey: “to gather my thoughts for the day.’’

He adamantly denied that he had been on a cellphone or writing a text message when he crashed. He still explained that he wanted “to see what I could of the storm damage,’’ even as his excessive speed, confinement to the highway, and the early hour continue to fuel questions about how informative that trip would have been.

Murray grew testy when confronted on that point, saying, “I guess it was a bad habit, as a former mayor, of sometimes going out and taking a look at things.’’

Nonetheless, Murray said he accepted black box data showing he was not wearing a seatbelt, as well as the data examiners’ conclusion that he had probably fallen asleep.

The lieutenant governor never raised that possibility during his Nov. 2 news conference.

And during both meetings with the news media, he said the reason he was up at that hour - driving a speeding automobile - was because he hadn’t been able to sleep while he was lying in a quiet bed just 45 minutes earlier.

Continued disbelief of that explanation has prompted him to perform another textbook public relations move - hire a crisis communications adviser.

Glen Johnson is lead blogger for Political Intelligence, available online at www.boston.com/politics. He can be reached at johnson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.

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