No hard feelings, satirist says: Schaefer's not as scary as nun

MICHAEL OLESKER

March 17, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

On the telephone is Cornelius J. Hourihan, whose Catonsville residence William Donald Schaefer recently imagined was his home away from home.

"It was," says Hourihan, "a kind of real-life civics lesson from the mayor."

He means the governor. A week ago, minus invitation, Schaefer showed up at Hourihan's home to vent a little gubernatorial spleen. Schaefer used to do this by writing letters to those like Hourihan who criticized him, but now he has taken to making house calls.

This was Bad Move No. 2. The governor's unexpected visit to Hourihan got more bad reviews, and the next thing anybody knew, Schaefer was flitting off to Kuwait. Good grief, haven't the Kuwaitis suffered enough already?

But now, amid Schaefer's winter of discontent, comes a defender (of sorts):

Cornelius J. Hourihan.

"See, I personally am not offended at all that he showed up at my house," declared Hourihan, who says the governor's visit has prompted more than a hundred phone calls -- all supportive, he says -- from around the state, plus radio interviews from as far away as Cleveland and Philadelphia.

"The mayor's got a problem," he said, again meaning the governor, "and if he wants to see me, that's fine. I'm not intimidated. The last time anybody intimidated me was a nun named Sister Genevieve in the sixth grade. She weighed about 400 pounds."

"Did the governor try to intimidate you?" Hourihan was asked.

"Oh, sure, he tried," he said. "The first thing he said was, 'What do you do for a living?' I said I'm a mechanical engineer. He said, 'Where do you work?' I thought, Oh, God, how do I handle this? But I said, 'I work for Westinghouse, over at the airport.'

"He rolled his eyes and said, 'I don't understand. There's so many good people down there.' "

Hourihan says he wanted to respond to the governor but was restrained -- repeatedly -- by his 75-year-old mother, Mary Ellen.

"She kept telling me, 'Hush up. Don't be impertinent.' See, that's what's the most bothersome aspect of this whole thing. My mother kept shutting me down. It's the automatic Catholic school reaction.

"It's like, 'You've humiliated me by making me come to the principal's office, now shut up and listen to what the man has to say.' So I couldn't get a clean shot at him. It was all the mayor talking."

"The governor, you mean," Hourihan is told.

"Yeah, the governor."

Hourihan's little slips of the tongue -- Schaefer as mayor, not governor -- are slightly telling. For a long time after he became governor, people still called him Mayor Schaefer. Over 15 years at City Hall, his title had become a virtual piece of his name.

Where he's apparently run into a barrage of trouble, though, is thinking that the same traits people found eccentrically charming as mayor would work as well across the state.

They haven't. They worked well enough to get Schaefer re-elected, but not by the kind of margin he was expecting. Feeling unappreciated, he wrote letters to those who criticized him, he slurred the Eastern Shore when he thought nobody would hear about it, and he defended his spending style during tough economic times.

Hourihan then wrote letters about these very problems, and the next thing he knew, a limousine was parked in front of his house and his cocker spaniel, Amstel, was barking like mad. "The mayor didn't exactly frighten my dog," Hourihan explains. "He had a discussion with him."

"A discussion?"

"Yeah, out in the yard before Schaefer came in the house. They had a debate. I think my dog got the better of it."

"Could you hear anything Schaefer said to your dog?"

"No," says Hourihan. "I'd have to ask the dog."

If it sounds as if Hourihan's having some fun with this, it's because he is. His letters, he insists, weren't written in an angry tone so much as a form of social satire. "You know," Hourihan says, "like Jonathan Swift or Will Rogers. I tried to explain that to the mayor. I said, 'You know what satire is, don't you?' But he looked puzzled, so I just let it drop."

And this is what has many people perplexed about Schaefer.

He seems to be wildly overreacting to problems, real and imagined. He did this as mayor, too, but you could overlook some of it because he seemed to be bringing the city back to life.

As governor, though, he's subject to the same scrutiny as any other politician, and Schaefer seems stunned that such a thing could happen.

Question, though: Is a new Schaefer emerging from his personal tribulation? Late last week, Hourihan received a follow-up letter from the governor that was a model of civility.

"It was good seeing you, your mother and family," the governor wrote. "You obviously have a sense of humor -- somewhat jaded -- but a sense of humor nonetheless. Why not, while you are writing satire, give me some 'doable' constructive suggestions. Obviously, I will read them. Sincerely, Don."

The letter was dated March 11 -- the day before stories of Schaefer's unexpected visit first broke.

"After I read the letter," Hourihan said on Friday, "I felt guilty. We've all had so much fun at his expense. So I just wanted to say how I felt."

Now we'll see if the rest of the governor's critics are ready for a change of heart.

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