Schaefer, at 70: present woes and past glories


October 29, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

He'll be 70 on Saturday. No parties are listed in his schedule book that day, nor any displays of gratitude from an adoring public. The public no longer adores William Donald Schaefer. So he will rise from his bed, and think about the troubles that envelop him, and wonder how so much went so wrong.

Now is the autumn of his discontent. He cannot open a newspaper or turn on a talk show without hearing the bitter language of criticism. There are polls showing 65 percent of the electorate unhappy with him, and Schaefer reads these numbers and broods.

dTC Once he was beyond reproach. He was the urban miracle man who brought his city back from the dead. The national magazines called him the best damned mayor in America, and the voters brought him to Annapolis in anticipation of a miracle that would spread across the state.

On Saturday, they will think of the budget crunch and wonder who will fix it. They will blame the governor for wanting higher taxes, and they will scream about the big state layoffs and the big political salaries and the decaying state economy, and they will declare that everything is his fault.

Do not look for him marking his birthday in a funny hat. There will be no photographs of him dipping into a seal pool in front of an audience. If he tried it today, someone might hold his head under water.

The 70th birthday is symbolic to him, not merely as a milestone in the aging process but as another in a series of reminders that time is running out: He cannot run for governor again. His companion, Hilda Mae Snoops, is ill. His career in politics, which is his life, is coming to an uncomfortable end.

The governor tells friends that no one will care about him once he leaves Annapolis. He fears people want him only for the political good he can do them. Here is a man whose public life has been so rich but whose personal life is a blank page. And he looks at the richness of other people's family life, and stares at them like some waif looking longingly through a bakery window.

And he wonders: Don't the voters understand how much I've given up for them? How can they hate me after all that I've sacrificed for them?

"It's sad," one State House insider says. "He's had all these boom years in office, and now it's the end of a career coming, and it's coming badly. It's like getting dressed for Easter Sunday. You put on your new suit, you new shoes, your new shirt. And you walk out the door and find your new tie has a tremendous stain on it, and it's the only thing people are gonna notice."

On Friday, the day before his birthday, some of his staff wants to plant a grove of trees at the new stadium. There's talk of rounding up enough state workers to give the thing a festive air.

But ironies abound. In this tight money era, the governor's laying off about 1,500 of these state workers. As for the new stadium, nobody's forgetting the final day at the old one. Schaefer wasn't there. He stayed away, fearing he'd be booed.

"That's not just sad, it's humiliating," says one Schaefer intimate. "Here's his hometown ballpark, and he couldn't go to its closing. He didn't want his feelings hurt."

"He avoids going places because of people's reactions," says another. "What's his mood? He's in withdrawal. Everybody in public life gets booed at some time. But there's a new edge to the booing now, and he feels it deeply.

"And why not? Here's a guy who never wanted to cut anyone's budget, and now he's cutting everybody's. It's a terrible thing for him. The budget impacts the best side of him, which is a simplistic interest in people as individuals. More than anybody in public service, he visualizes these cuts in terms of people, not in terms of agencies."

The glories of his Baltimore years are being forgotten in the cold wasteland of the new economic realities. Suddenly, the state of Maryland faces the same perils as the impoverished city of Baltimore.

Washington seems not to notice any of this. Money that once sustained struggling communities now has dried up. The governor, estranged from Kurt Schmoke for a decade, suddenly extends an olive branch. The Israelis and the Arabs should heal their old wounds so quickly.

"Very simple," says a Schaefer friend. "He sees Baltimore in real serious trouble. He's lived here all his life. This is where he put his blood, sweat and tears. He doesn't want to see Baltimore hurt, and so he's letting go of the old animosities toward Schmoke."

In the city's plight he sees more cause for depression. Here is where he established his monuments, his Inner Harbor rebirth, the psychological rejuvenation of a city that had ceased believing in itself until Schaefer insisted otherwise. If the city crumbles, so does his own legacy.

"When this term ends," says a State House colleague, "and people look at his career, they'll focus on Baltimore. That's how he'll be remembered, and I think that bothers him, too. He hasn't written history here the way he did in Baltimore. I think that works on his insides."

And so he approaches 70 in a manner he hadn't anticipated. The economy seems to have blindsided everyone. The popularity polls bruise him. He takes the booing to bed with him.

He's never particularly liked being governor. But it's all he's got now. He can look out the State House windows toward Baltimore and think, It's only an hour away. But sometimes it seems like another lifetime ago, when he was young and he was performing miracles and everybody seemed to love him.

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