Wisdom from a Veteran Observer of Fluidity

C. FRASER SMITH

March 11, 1992|By C. FRASER SMITH | C. FRASER SMITH,C. Fraser Smith is a reporter for The Sun.

My boss called me at home last week, but I couldn't talk. Had the BBC on another line. They needed a veteran political observer in Maryland to comment on the state primary. They said they had to have me. I put the boss on hold.

''Who will win?'' asked the guy with the elegant accent.

''It's really up in the air,'' I said. ''Very fluid.'' You need a long history of observing Maryland politics before you're qualified to give that sort of daring analysis.

Suitably impressed with my caution, no doubt, he went on. How does Maryland like its presidential candidates? Liberal? Conservative? I did a little history here: traditionally Democratic, not quite swept away by the Reagan years, etc.

Umm, he said.

''What sort of state is it culturally, geographically? Northern? Southern? Polyglot? If Tsongas wins Maryland [He made it Mary-land] would that mean he was no longer a regional candidate?''

Steel and other once-flourishing industries made the state seem to some like the southern-most fringe of the Northeast, I said, knowing my response was perverse: I was destroying the story line. In the plot line for 1992, Maryland had been established as a defining state, where candidates show appeal outside the Northeast, or the South for that matter.

''On the other hand,'' I said quickly before he went after a veteran observer whose views were more suitable, ''we like to think of ourselves as America in miniature.''

Regional, I decided later, means one of two things when used to describe a candidate:

1. It's a guy you don't want to win because you're backing someone else.

2. It's a guy who has won a primary right after a bunch of veteran observers said he couldn't win anywhere.

The engaging Brit rang off.

''Sorry,'' I said getting back to my boss, still holding.

''It's OK,'' I heard him say as Call Waiting beeped.

A very prestigious out-of-town newspaper was calling. A famous veteran observer of the entire nation was on the phone. I won't tell you who. You'd think I was dropping names. You'll have to trust me on this one. He wanted what we in the news biz call ''a fill,'' an update on the situation from someone on the ground. That was me. On the ground. Fill Person to the World.

Another beep. A political talk show in Chicago needed me. Could I chat Live! with a couple of people on the ground in Chicago?

Could I! This was my Warhol period run amok, my fifteen minutes of fame spinning off the chart.

Baltimore talk shows wanted me, too. I went on one night right after a discussion of the Americans With Disabilities Act. The transition to politicians seemed logical to me.

''As a veteran political observer in Maryland,'' the host began, ''could you tell us who's going to win the primary here?''

''Up in the air,'' I said. ''Very fluid.''

''A very insightful analysis,'' he said. I couldn't tell if he was serious.

When I finished this program I remembered I had left my boss on hold the day before. I decided to call him the very next day even before I had a cup of coffee. He was in the bathroom. His wife called him to the phone.

Before he got there I heard the beep. It was the McNeill-Lehrer News Hour. Could I do something with them on tape the next day? I thought I could fit it in.

Beep.

L Must be ''60 Minutes,'' I thought. Actually, it was my boss.

''Be in my office in 10 minutes,'' he said. Didn't say why. Probably wanted to discuss some of my insights.

Before I could get out the door the phone rang again. It was a radio producer in Los Angeles. Could I talk with his guy on the air in about 30 minutes? Sure, I said.

When I got to work a couple of hours later the boss was gone, but I found a message from one of the networks. One of the morning programs wanted me (breakfast for your brain, no doubt). When I finally got through, though, they had found another veteran political observer from Maryland. Couldn't imagine who. I started to ask if he was qualified to talk about how fluid it is here.

After that it was C-Span, ''Talk of the Nation'' on National Public Radio and a guy from Lowell, Massachusetts, who wanted to talk about the Tsongas victory here. (Mr. Tsongas is from Lowell.)

When I was finished, I checked in with my boss.

''Veteran Maryland political observer here,'' I chuckled. ''Do I still have a job?''

Pause.

''Very fluid,'' he said, finally. ''Very up in the air.''

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