Intemperate remarks by governor lead to demands for apology Big fellow vents ire at the little guys

MICHAEL OLESKER

February 05, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

I am starting to worry about William Donald Schaefer, the profane pen pal of Maryland, who needs to get a grip on his temper as well as his typewriter.

Schaefer is a very unhappy man these days. He's unhappy being governor of Maryland instead of mayor of Baltimore, and he's unhappy that more people don't love him as governor the way they loved him as mayor, and he's taking out his exasperations on the most unlikely people.

He's writing letters to constituents who dare to express their opinions, and he's using some breathtaking language. The governor writes letters the way Henry Louis Mencken wrote diaries, only he waits about 35 minutes instead of 35 years to issue his insults.

This worries me because I've always liked Schaefer for his quick temper, his street-fighter instincts, his profane language, and lots of similar stuff that most people find distinctly unlikeable.

I like these qualities because they're a sign to me that, unlike most politicians, Schaefer has a heart that beats. In fact, it beats so passionately that he doesn't know how to control it. Unlike most politicians, who have the souls of accountants and the hearty, insincere demeanor of encyclopedia salesmen, he's never learned how to hide his feelings.

Only now, he's starting to look a little unglued.

''He's Schaefer,'' one veteran legislator said yesterday. ''You can't categorize the man. He just goes his own way.''

''He's crazy,'' added a longtime Schaefer business friend, throwing up his hands. ''But he's always been crazy. When he was crazy in Baltimore, he took a dip in the seal tank and people laughed. When he's crazy in Annapolis, he writes letters. What are you gonna do? This is how he blows off steam.''

In one sense, the verbal blasts are the perfect extension of the Schaefer personality. Whatever he's feeling, he lets you know. It's a kind of therapy for Schaefer, a safety valve for his temper. This is a man who doesn't get chest pains, he just gives 'em.

But there's a fundamental flaw in the latest outbursts. He's too big for this. The people he's writing are too little for language so angry. You want to tell him: Pick on somebody your own size.

Among those catching the Schaeferian wrath is a lady in Anne Arundel County who called here not long ago to say she'd gotten a scathing note from the governor for merely raising a finger -- or lowering a thumb, actually -- in protest.

''It was right before the election,'' the woman said. ''Schaefer was standing in the middle of the road and waving to people as they drove by. Traffic was slow. As I passed him, he waved to me and I gave him a thumbs-down.''

''Are you sure it was a thumbs-down?'' I asked, ''and not some other famous digital gesture.''

''Thumbs down,'' she assured.

Somebody -- Schaefer, or perhaps an aide -- quickly took down her license number, then got her name and phone number through the appropriate government agency, and a few days later came this note, on stationery marked, ''State of Maryland, From the desk of Don Schaefer,'' which she forwarded here:

''[Your gesture] reminds me of an old expression I once heard: 'Your action only exceeds the ugliness of your face.' Have a nice day. William Donald Schaefer.''

Already, there have been newspaper accounts of other Schaefer missives. One was a 63-year-old man who wrote a letter to the Carroll County Times criticizing the governor, who then received a note from Schaefer saying, ''Your letter sounds like a frustrated little boy. How old are you? I pay taxes on real estate federal and state!! Most likely more than you!!''

Another man wrote to the Annapolis Capital, complaining of Schaefer's tax-and-spend tendencies. Schaefer got the man's address and wrote him: ''You are everything that speaks of stupidity.''

The governor's like everybody else, only more so. He works hard, and he wants to be appreciated for it. In the last election, though, what he expected to be a coronation instead turned out to be (for Schaefer) a fairly close race.

Ever since, he's been in a funk. In public and private, he broods openly that voters no longer love him. At the swearing-in of state Treasurer Lucille Maurer last Friday, Schaefer spotted some Eastern Shore legislators and said, ''How's that s - - - house of an Eastern Shore?''

Many were upset by the remark, though I was not. (Let me make this very clear: I disagree with Schaefer's sentiments. The Eastern Shore is lovely, and I have no wish to alienate people there in the midst of somebody else's fight.)

What I liked about the remark, though, was precisely what troubles me about Schaefer's letters: He was dishing it out to people who can take it, fellow politicians who understand the give and take of politics, who know Schaefer's bristly personality, and who are free to dish it back to him.

Seven of nine Eastern Shore counties voted against Schaefer's re-election, and he's furious about it. So Shore legislators are fair game for a barbed remark.

People writing letters to newspapers, a woman turning thumbs down on a highway -- that's different stuff. The governor's a man of power, and they are not. The governor's a figure of awe, and they are not.

Is he allowed to respond to citizens' complaints? Of course. This rTC is America, and he's a citizen, too. But there are nice ways to do these things, and these letters aren't very nice.

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