Alas, the Don has mellowed

Dan Rodricks

December 13, 1991|By Dan Rodricks

We can no longer deny it. There is nothing to refute the evidence. William Donald Schaefer is on an irreversible slide into the abyss of lovableness. Don Donaldo has mellowed.

It's awful. It reminds me of the time John McEnroe became a sensitive, touchy-feely guy -- with one major exception: McEnroe eventually snapped out of it. Schaefer has been tenderized, and the condition appears to be permanent.

That's how it looks from here, anyway.

Actually, I've been in a state of denial about this for several months. I knew there was something terribly wrong in May, at the bTC annual Flower Mart. The governor was there. He looked good. He was relaxed. He smiled at me. Not once did he make an obscene gesture.

Amazingly, that was the same day Schaefer sat on a park bench in Mount Vernon and declared he was no longer going to wear funny hats, thereby giving up one of his trademarks, and leaving the Land of Goofy forever. All of this came after the Star, the supermarket rag, published the famous photograph of Schaefer in Victorian bathing suit and straw boater, with a headline declaring him: "The wackiest governor in America."

I thought this was good for tourism. The State Highway Administration should have erected new signs at all borders: "Welcome To Maryland, Home of the Wackiest Governor in America, Please Drive Gently."

Schaefer was not amused. He vowed to change. So we haven't seen him in a funny hat for months. He doesn't even dress like Elvis anymore.

Other things have happened.

Schaefer used to write nasty letters to people who wrote him nasty letters. People were receiving them all over Maryland, and calling reporters to tell all about it. Schaefer even took to sending get-well cards to some of his loonier critics.

It was a beautiful period in political entertainment.

Suddenly, it stopped.

Around the same time, however, Schaefer made a personal house call on an unhappy constituent in Catonsville. But, just as reporters were drawing straws to see who would go on the next house call with him, Schaefer pledged never to arrive unannounced at a constituent's home again.

He called the Eastern Shore an outhouse, so to speak. That was another grand moment in the Schaefer iliad. However, within a week or so he was apologizing for the remark.

Remember when he complained about the 1990 election results? He got 60 percent of the vote, but, in classic Shaeferian style, he whined about it for weeks. He did his best Don Donaldo -- big, snarly and arrogant.

What happened? Schaefer apologized at a news conference for carrying on so childishly.

We have seen, I fear, a constant erosion of the Schaefer persona. We have seen a man gradually getting himself under control.

For years, we had grown accustomed to his confrontational style, his tirades, his public pouting, his animated face, his hot-pink forehead, his tongue sticking out. Schaefer was in an almost constant state of Nya-Nya. That is, when he wasn't visiting the Land of Goofy.

But whatever happened to fun, friends?

In October, Schaefer had lunch with Kurt Schmoke at the Center Club, signaling the end of the deliciously silly feud he had instigated long ago with the young Baltimore mayor. The meal didn't even end in a food fight.

This month, WQSR-FM produced a parody of a novelty Christmas song called, "Schaefer Got Run Over By A Reindeer." The governor's press secretary gave it a listen and declared it "mean-spirited."

Just when we were hoping Schaefer would show up, unannounced, at WQSR's studios to trash every last tape of the song, what happens?

He poses for a photograph! He sends 300 copies of the photo -- it shows him squeezing the light-bulb nose of a topiary reindeer -- to WQSR to help sales of the tape!

And proceeds from the sales of the tape go to charity.

"This is very weird," J.D. Adams, the station's program director, told a reporter.

It's worse than weird. It's the end of Don Donaldo. The Don has mellowed. He's become controlled and reasonable. Next week, he's going to give a speech to the state, a regular fireside chat. He's on the verge of becoming downright lovable. I'm not ready for this.

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