Schaefer, the theme park

Dan Rodricks

May 03, 1991|By Dan Rodricks

The question, ladies and gentleman, might sound preposterous, but it speaks, I'm convinced, directly to the future of Maryland as a place of tourist appeal: Is it an altogether bad thing to have the wackiest governor in America?

Is it necessarily a negative to have a governor who wears silly hats and costumes?

Are we really ready to reject a man who dressed, just a week ago, as Elvis Presley?

Isn't William Donald Schaefer, Maryland's most energetic booster, the very embodiment of a tourist attraction?

Do we want him to change just when his eccentricities are gaining even more national attention?

These are strange and difficult questions, I know. But they need to be considered.

To me, the answers are obvious. Schaefer is a human theme park.

I say dress him as Lord Calvert, with a big feather in a cavalier's cap, and let him promote Maryland's colonial history. Put him in Yankee pinstripes, stick a pillow under the jersey and let him promote the Babe Ruth Museum in a national ad campaign. Dress him as a crab. Dress him as a goose. Dress him as an oyster. The man is good at this.

I bring all this up, friends, because I think we are on the verge of losing the Don Donaldo we know and love. That would not be TC good thing. The state could lose one of its biggest attractions, the most entertaining pol in America.

The governor is talking about changing his ways again. I always worry when he talks this way. Last November, after fuming and brooding over his comfortable margin of victory in the general election, he apologized for his behavior. He admitted to having been unreasonable, said he should have been happy with the results.

Then, of course, January came, bringing a new session of the General Assembly. The governor said something terribly inappropriate about the Eastern Shore. A week or so later, he was apologizing.

A month or so after that, we heard that he had made a house call on a citizen who had written the governor a sarcastic letter of complaint about his administration. Soon after that story hit the press, Schaefer was pledging not to make any more house calls, and not to write any more poison pen letters to angry constituents.

All of this public contrition -- all these pledges to make changes -- were very disturbing.

I want my William Donald Schaefer combative and kooky. I can't use him humble and sedate. He's no good to me that way. Now, there's another reason for concern on the Don Donaldo front. He's vowing to stop wearing silly hats and costumes, hallmarks of his public persona for years.

Why is the governor saying this?

Because some smarmy supermarket tabloid ran a picture of him -- not just any picture, THE MOST FAMOUS picture of him -- wearing a Victorian bathing suit and straw boater, and carrying a rubber duckie. The photo is 10 years old. (I have a blowup in my office and cherish it madly.) The photo was taken the day the National Aquarium opened. It was printed all over the Western world -- I first saw it in a London tabloid -- and it gave both Schaefer and the new aquarium national, even international, notoriety.

But the Star -- on sale at most supermarket checkouts -- ran that famous photo with a story headlined, "The wackiest governor in America." Schaefer apparently did not like this kind of attention. He was stung by it.

So now he's vowing to stop with the goofy hats and costumes. I hope he doesn't mean it (though it is endearing, in a way, to see him doing his nya-nya routine in reaction to a supermarket rag; most politicians -- the boring ones -- would have felt they were above such reaction).

Dropping the hats and costumes is utter nonsense. Take the zany antics away and all we've got is another ho-hum politician who wears his ties too short. You can't name me another governor in America who is as entertaining as he is committed to public service. You can't name a governor with Schaefer's knack for showmanship and disjointed elocution. You can't name me another governor who is as temperamental and as petulant and as passionate as Don Donaldo. Let's face it: Many of you can't name me another governor.

So, with tourist season fast approaching, it would be absurd to have Schaefer drastically change his image. The man's a draw. There could be thousands of Americans headed to Maryland this summer just to get a look at him, hoping to catch the governor in a silly hat or outrageous costume. I tell you, this could be big.

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