Don't tamper with my man

Dan Rodricks

November 28, 1990|By Dan Rodricks

If, at this very instant, we were gathered in a cocktail lounge somewhere -- a cozy Ramada off the interstate, or maybe some country-western joint in a shopping center -- and the lounge singer was taking requests -- some guy with Frankie Avalon hair sitting behind a Hammond 2000, the kind that makes those marvelous rhythm sounds (Chee-it, chit-chit. Chee-it, chit-chit . . . ) -- I think I'd have to get up, slip him a buck and have him sing a Billy Joel song. You know the one:

"Don't go changin' . . . to try and please me . . ."

There isn't a lounge lizard worth his Mr. Microphone who doesn't know it.

Of course, this time I'd have the song dedicated to the governor of Maryland, William Donald 'Guv Means Never Having To Say You're Sorry" Schaefer, because, after his performance at yesterday's press conference, I'm worried about him going soft on us. I'm worried about losing one of the nation's last genuine cranks to a sudden surge of self-improvement and humility. The governor needs a message. Sing it: "I want you just the way you are!"

Yesterday, he came frightfully close to disillusioning his fans forever. He admitted that he erred in getting upset over the results of this month's general election. Schaefer had won re-election with 60 percent of the vote, but fumed that he did not get more. Then he went into a funk. Things were so bad I was expecting his staff to stage another Pink Positive Day. (You remember Pink Positive Day 1984 -- one day in the life of Baltimore dedicated to a single civic mission: the cheering up of then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer after the Colts had left town. They painted the curbs pink! They adorned City Hall in pink balloons. I think the Frankie Canducci trio sang, "Put On A Happy Face." It was precious.)

Now, Schaefer probably has second-guessed himself in the past. I'm sure he's acknowledged mistakes. And, years from now, when his memoirs are published, I'm sure we'll find out what they were.

But being contrite in public -- at a press conference, no less; a press conference attended by the press! -- well, friends, it was uncharacteristic, and, for long-time Schaefer admirers, a little frightening. There are some reporters who think Schaefer actually apologized for his behavior. The transcript of the press conference reveals that Schaefer admitted to pouting. This is such a new and unusual phenomenon that one reaches futilely for words to describe one's feelings.

The sniping, sarcastic, feuding Schaefer is the one we like. He is the one with which we are most familiar. We would have trouble recognizing a gregarious, sweet-talking, love-a-dove-dove Schaefer. In fact, he'd make us sick.

We have grown accustomed to, and much prefer, the Schaefer of petulance and pouts. He makes politics interesting and government at least mildly amusing. He plays the eccentric emperor at times. At other times, he's the playground bully. Other times, the hard-nosed Dutch uncle. I'll never forget the time when, as mayor, Schaefer attended a congressional hearing and made a casual, one-fingered gesture to reporters across the room. Or the time he called a female reporter a bad name and a male reporter a bad name and City Councilman Joe DiBlasi a bad, bad name. These are moments to remember.

There was the time when, on a holiday, he came looking for me after a column he didn't like, even though he claimed he hadn't read it. He arrived in the lobby of the Baltimore Sun building and asked the security guard to contact me. I only know this because, the next morning, when I snapped on my answering machine, I heard the following message: "Ah, Mr. Rodricks. This is front-lobby security calling. There's a . . . . what's your name, sir? (Muffled but audible) Governor Schaefer. . . . Oh, a Governor Schaefer was here to see you." After that, there were a lot of strange noises in the background.

The Schaefer anger is as legendary as the man himself. He was born without a sense of humor but, despite that deficit, he has given us countless hours of entertainment. What would you prefer, Harry Hughes?

So yesterday, when I heard Schaefer admit that he should not have pouted and carried on like a brat after getting 60 percent of the vote, I became concerned. Was Leo Buscaglia, the Hug Doctor, giving him private consultation? Did Schaefer have a new public image coach telling him to show a little humility? Had Dr. Joyce Brothers come by for milk and cookies and a little skull session?

If so, I say summon the palace guard. Usher these quacks away! Don't tamper with my man. And hey, hey, hey, Governor! Don't go changin'.

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