What Donald giveth, he taketh away

March 07, 1991|By Frank A. DeFilippo

GOVERNOR Schaefer, lacking the bread to do much else this year, at least has the wit to put on a decent circus.

For it must be remembered that the essence of Schaefer's style of governance is the grand public relations gesture, and his greatest skill is his ability to deflect the public gaze from everyday problems. Right now Schaefer is having a merry time jerking our chains.

At his best, Schaefer can be downright entertaining. At his worst, he can be a dowdy old sourpuss. He's artful at both, so sometimes it's difficult to distinguish between the two Schaefers. Let there be no question about it, though: The governor is in a punishing mood these days and his instrument of torture is denial. With Schaefer, denial is a form of autobiography.

Schaefer is threatening to run for president as a Democrat at the same time he's busy endorsing George Bush, a Republican. Bizarre, you say? No way, Jose. It's just Schaefer's way of sending us all into the corner with dunce hats as well as threatening to deny us his exalted presence for the final two years of his governorship. Put another way, if Marylanders don't appreciate him as governor, he'll punish us by running for president.

Across the street from the State House, it's the same serial comedy, the Lenten concept of denial. For whom the gods would destroy they first assign to live in the governor's mansion. But Schaefer even denies us this small pleasure, choosing instead to bunk in one of his several other residences.

So along comes designated hitter, Hilda Mae Snoops, grumping over the guff she's getting for her decorator's handiwork. She's intent on depriving the citizens of Maryland the eye-popping splendor of Waterford chandeliers and Serapi carpets and the electric train wonderland that Schaefer engineers at Christmas.

Worse, Snoops is threatening to dismantle and consign to the scrap heap the $168,000 fountain, a bronze casting of Maryland flora and fauna that was installed on the mansion grounds last year as a gift from the governor to the people of Maryland. Again, rejection. Again, retaliation by denial.

Snoops' signature will be the installation in a mansion window of a painted screen in the row house style of East Baltimore. The screen will face the main entrance to the Senate office building, the final act of repudiation. Screen art in your face, senator.

Snoops feels unloved, unappreciated, and says she'll reconsider her trashing of the mansion only if there's an outpouring of affection and support for her taste-making efforts.

For four years, Schaefer avoided the legislature as if it were a collection of contaminated mutants. Now he's ready to qualify for a frequent flier's card. He's testified before committees. He's strolled unannounced into hearing rooms. And among his latests sorties was a surprise visit to a committee chairman's office to fume over a piddling $200,000 cut in the governor's $6.6 million office budget.

Schaefer and his second banana, Lt. Gov. Melvin Steinberg, have broken ranks on the $800 million Linowes tax package, rechristened the "Tax Fairness Program of 1991" (with the spin on "fairness"). Schaefer wants the whole wad.

But Steinberg, who knows his way around the legislature without a tour guide, understands that the program as a package is ready for a toe tag. Again, the Schaefer jujitsu. Steinberg is cut off and cut out, which in government is the ultimate form of denial.

Schaefer has always prided himself on having the common touch, so common, in fact, that it's led people to question -- well, to put it delicately -- his state of mind. And the questions have prompted Schaefer to defend his mental clarity.

The re-restoration of the mansion is only the latest in a series of mad-cap events that began with Schaefer's use of locker-room language to characterize and exorcise the Eastern Shore. Then Marylanders learned that Schaefer is a manic pen pal. Schaefer blows off steam by writing insulting letters to constituents who disagree with him. (The modern manifestation of this punishment is traceable to the 1960s, when the late Sen. Stephen Young of Ohio used to respond to angry constituents: "I just want to let you know that some idiot is writing me stupid letters and signing your name to them.")

Once Schaefer's letters were exposed to widespread publicity, he announced that he'll no longer write poison pen letters to his constituents because the communications are not kept private. More denial.

At another curious turn, Schaefer startled his Democratic colleagues at the winter meeting of the National Association of Governors. He told them he's considering running for president. His complaint was that politicians in Washington have lost touch with the people. Since then, Schaefer has said he supports Bush. Go ahead, ask. Doesn't Schaefer understand that if he runs for president, he'll probably have to run against Bush? Go figure.

Governing is easy, comedy is hard. Schaefer achieves a faithful swing between them. One day he's Machiavelli's lion, the next day his fox, just the way a shrewd politician should be, always keeping those around him off balance. In a year when the cupboard is bare and the budget must be balanced, Schaefer understands that the first rule of burlesque is always leave 'em laughing.

And he also understands a fundamental law of politics: What the governor giveth, the governor taketh away.

Frank A. DeFilippo writes regularly on Maryland politics.

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