Friends in Need: the Schaefer-Tsongas Courtship

JOSEPH R. L. STERNE

March 10, 1992|By JOSEPH R. L. STERNE

Before memories of Maryland's presidential primary are overtaken by a whirlwind of other state elections, let the record show that William Donald Schaefer endorsed a candidate early on for the first time in his long career as city councilman, City Council president, mayor and governor.

Why he deviated from past practice this year provides some insight into the mind of this troubled and down-hearted politician.

Public life until a year or so ago was one long triumph for Don Schaefer. He was enormously popular, so popular in fact that his fellow Marylanders not only forgave but savored his spectacular personal style. Then came recession, just as he went on the line for an $800 million tax boost, and suddenly he found himself pilloried, defied, mocked and even ostracized.

It was bitter medicine, doubly so because his positions were as well-motivated as ever. Mr. Schaefer is a plain and passionate man with an irresistible urge for the spotlight of public service. To his own detriment, he also has an easily triggered rage against those who are not with him when the going gets tough. And this rage, in his ill-starred second term, has led only to further alienation, more frustration and a painful loss of popularity. The esteem of his fellow citizens is one of life's basic necessities for the governor.

At this low point in his life, along came what in happier circumstances would have been a marvelous moment for Mr. Schaefer. The 1992 Maryland primary, with his support, had been moved up earlier in the calendar in what proved to be a successful effort to give the state a more pivotal role.

But then a sad little drama began to unfold. Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas emerged early as ''the anointed'' among party shakers and movers. The fellows Don Schaefer refers to as the ''glamour boys'' of Maryland politics gravitated unbidden in his direction ''because he looked like a winner.'' The Schaefer entourage in Annapolis, in contrast, was given to understand that Mr. Clinton would be just as happy if the governor of the state became invisible. Neither a nod nor a chat nor a photo op could fit into the Clinton schedule.

So fine. The governor brooded and waited. Then in mid-February Mr. Clinton lost to the unlikely Paul Tsongas in the New Hampshire primary and when the former Massachusetts senator showed up in Hopkins Plaza next day Don Schaefer was there to greet him. Considering himself a liability, however, he did not go up on the platform.

Thus began a rapid courtship between two pols who like to think of themselves as ''non-politicians'' and know how to turn their purported lack of ''charisma'' into an asset. After first allowing as how he liked Mr. Tsongas at the Baltimore rally, the governor soon moved into the uncharted waters of describing him as ''my man'' and raising money and even formally endorsing him.

More than his sense of isolation from the Clinton campaign drew the governor to Mr. Tsongas. Having watched Lowell, Massachusetts, decline as a textile center, Mr. Tsongas calls for a pro-business manufacturing revival; this resonates well with the ex-mayor of smokestack Baltimore. Never an ideologue, nor a doctrinaire liberal, Mr. Schaefer felt Mr. Tsongas' policies were his policies. He liked the candidate's ''balance'' on environmental and social policy and his willingness to discuss issues candidly. ''He didn't tell you only things you wanted to hear,'' Mr. Schaefer recalls.

Soon enough the election came last Tuesday, and it was a sweet one. The Clinton candidacy went down to defeat despite a star-studded cheering squad that included a Schaefer nemesis, Mayor Schmoke. And Paul Tsongas, the man who had dared to welcome Don Schaefer's endorsement, chalked up his first win outside New England, thus establishing himself as a national candidate.

Governor Schaefer, at this stage, is by no means sure Mr. Tsongas can be nominated or elected. But he is willing to back him despite his sympathy for President Bush, like himself a politician who has gone from the peaks to the valleys, who no longer can do anything right, who is disparaged by the press and by politicians who once fawned. Tearing down leaders, he complains, leads to cynicism and disillusion that hurt the country.

Whatever the election outcome, Mr. Schaefer will make it his business to get along with the man in the Oval Office. That has been his policy during his 22 years as mayor and governor, 18 of which have coincided with Republican presidencies. This will be his policy even if Mr. Clinton wins. But don't expect Don Schaefer to spurn Paul Tsongas, the Democratic challenger who turned to him in need, or George Bush, the president who has shared the tough times and personal trashing brought on by this recession.

Joseph R.L. Sterne is editor of The Sun's editorial page.

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