Schaefer delivers bad news with familiar characteristic charm

December 18, 1991|By Michael Hill CO :Television

Back when it was still Mayor William Donald Schaefer, and when the news he was delivering was almost always good -- a new Harborplace, a new National Aquarium, a reborn city -- he came to us with funny hats and silly costumes.

Last night as Governor Schaefer, the news was mostly bad and he came with charts.

Still, Schaefer's brief, 15-minute talk on the condition of Maryland's economy and state budget was a reminder of why this man was once regarded as such a consummate politician.

It wasn't the Jimmy Carter-like malaise speech that you might have expected from a man reported to be in a melancholy over these fiscal troubles.

No, Schaefer reached down and found the old optimist within him, starting out with the good news, with glowing descriptions of Maryland's resources.

Then, peering through his glasses -- no longer the court jester, now more like an aging favorite uncle -- he went through his rendition on the state of the state.

His style was chatty, conversational, off-the-cuff. This was a man raised not on Ronald Reagan's media-massaged images, but on Franklin Roosevelt's fireside chats.

Schaefer can veer in the same sentence from a hoary bromide about his state to a specific dollar amount in some government program. But, at his best, he can do it in such a way that his listeners realize that the budget figures are not abstract numbers, but represent real programs that have a real effect on people's real lives.

And that was always Schaefer's strength because, at base, he is not an insightful visionary full of grand designs for the future, but a ward-heeler whose specialty was figuring out how to make government actually help his constituents.

So he explained the state's fiscal status like a neighbor talking about the problems he's having with his lawn. "You got any ideas about how to get rid of this crab grass?" you could almost hear him asking.

The ways he told people they could help were of the same hands-on, nuts-and-bolts style. It was no abstract budget plan or revenue enhancement obfuscation. Instead, it was: Volunteer in your community. If you've got money, spend it this Christmas. Buy products made in Maryland. Concrete stuff that you could actually go out and do tomorrow.

But, of course, the talk was woefully lacking in the specifics of how to get out of the mess he described. Clearly, that was not the point. Schaefer seemed to be turning on his old, considerable charm to try to get you back on his side.

He wants the citizens to see government the way he has always seen it, as a power that can do good in people's lives, not as a bloated burden that must be borne reluctantly.

The message of Schaefer's style was that government is not the enemy, it's a friendly guy with glasses who makes some #F mistakes -- didn't he mean 1989, not 1949? -- but is doing his best.

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