Schaefer's talk - long on excuses, short on solutions

MICHAEL OLESKER

December 19, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

When William Donald Schaefer appeared on everybody's television sets Tuesday night, he sat perfectly still and said nothing at all for what seemed like a very long time.

When he stared straight ahead and said nothing at all for three full seconds, TV technicians looked at each other and wondered the governor had missed their signal to start speaking. ''Snap out of it, Meatball,'' you sensed them whispering at their monitors. ''This is prime time.''

When the governor said nothing at all for five seconds, his aides began clutching their chests and wondering if he'd suddenly changed his mind about this damned speech over which he'd fretted for days.

When he said nothing at all for 10 full seconds, viewers began to wonder vaguely if Schaefer was pulling a fast one: Was this man who wrote angry letters to constituents now going to give the entire state the silent treatment on TV? Or was he still mulling over what he was going to say about the bleak economic times into which this state has drifted?

All of this was played against a certain background, of course, an anxious time in which the word out of Annapolis was that the governor was not at all certain:

A) What he would say; and,

B) Whether he should say anything at all about a state which, in three years, has gone from a $402 million surplus to a combined deficit this year and next that will top $1 billion?

On Monday, The Sun's Sandy Banisky found the governor sitting by himself and eating a tuna fish sandwich at a little table in the cafeteria of the Legislative Services Building.

''This is wrong,'' Schaefer said, referring to the speech and not the tuna sandwich. ''I shouldn't be doing this. I honestly don't know what I'm going to say.''

On Tuesday, the day of the speech, there were reports that Schaefer was edgy and anxious, worrying that the speech had been over-sold, that expectations had been built up too much, that in truth he didn't have enough substance to tell people.

He was right.

The speech was theatrically interesting but economically fuzzy. You sensed a man with compassion but waited for his insights on getting out of this mess. He admitted the state's in trouble but skipped past his own responsibility and kissed off any hope of help from Washington.

The governor's aides billed the speech as a ''pep talk,'' but what's peppy about urging people to buy Christmas presents with money they simply don't have? It was billed as a report on the state of the economy, but it told us what we already know -- the state's in deep trouble -- without giving assurance that anyone in Annapolis has a clue about getting us out of it.

''We have the greatest state in the nation,'' Schaefer said in the opening moments of his talk. But then he spent 15 more minutes telling us nothing but problems. Where was the greatness? He told us to have confidence enough to spend money but never specified: confidence in what?

The governor is very good at some things and not so good at others. He works hard. He sweats the details. He can translate naked economic figures to the impact on human beings.

You could watch him Tuesday night and, even if you're angry with him, still sense that he knows the problems intimately and enunciates them well.

But he's a man who personalizes criticism, and that's the flip side of his speech: Between the lines, this was a man saying it's not his fault.

He warned everybody a year ago that bad times were coming, he declared. Oh, yeah? Then tell us, callers to this desk keep asking, why did the governor take that big personal pay raise? They understand that the governor's pay raise is a tiny spit in an ocean of problems, but they're also sophisticated enough to mention the symbolism of the man at the top getting money while others are being laid off.

Schaefer talked about the burden of keeping people in hospitals, about the cost of prisons. Do we throw the disabled in the cold? Do we empty the prisons? No, of course not. This was the governor scoring points for compassion, to which he's entitled.

Left unsaid (but not unthought, though) was this: All that stuff about frivolously decorating the mansion, about fountains on the lawn, forget that stuff. We're spending all the money to help the downtrodden.

Those points are well taken. But, having said them, where has he left us? We know now what we knew already. He said Tuesday night what he'll probably tell us again next month, when the legislature convenes and Schaefer gives his State of the State address.

Two words he did not mention on television Tuesday were these: Tax increase. The governor wants one and so do some legislators. But it's a hot political potato.

He'll wait for the legislature before he suggests taxes again. He'll letsome other people take some of the heat.

And this, when all was said (and not said) on television Tuesday night, is what his speech was all about: a subtle argument that this mess isn't the governor's fault.

But, whoever's at fault, how do we get out of it? In 18 minutes of talking, we learned as much about solutions as we did in his 10 seconds of introductory silence.

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