Harry McGuirk was a master of manipulation


April 21, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Harry McGuirk used to deny the origin of his famous nickname, Soft Shoes, but he never denied it very loudly.

The name implied a guy who left no tracks, who could sneak around the political back rooms and rearrange things while nobody was looking, and then slip away without leaving the traces of the amateur.

Part of him reveled in the name: in politics, power is mostly perceptions, so why not feed the idea that he had connections beyond the imaginings of most rubes? But he knew, too, that the image limited him. Senator Soft Shoes was one thing, but Governor Soft Shoes? Mayor Soft Shoes?

''No, no,'' McGuirk would say of the dubious image, ''it's not like that at all.''

He said the nickname came from a group photograph, taken years ago in Annapolis. Nobody even knew he'd been there, until the picture was developed.

''Look at this,'' somebody said. ''There's McGuirk. I didn't even know he was standing there.''

''He must have soft shoes,'' somebody else said.

The nickname stuck, and it took on colorful implications from the way Harry McGuirk conducted his brand of politics, until the hour he died of a heart attack yesterday, at 68.

Politics wasn't a game to him, it was an art form conducted with all the subtlety of a spy movie. McGuirk could have been a gumshoe, or a government undercover agent. In a crowd, he didn't just say hello to you. He lowered his head, leaned in close, talked in the hushed tones of a religious confessional.

From a distance, it looked like conspiratorial intimacy -- even if he was talking about the weather. From up close, it felt like flattery. Everybody saw the powerful state senator from South Baltimore talking to you, and the image made you a player by implication.

Some years ago, Gov. Marvin Mandel told a reporter, ''When we were in the House together, Harry used to walk up to the speaker's rostrum during a roll-call and whisper something in my ear. I'd nod in agreement and then he'd walk back to his desk and vote.

''Everyone was watching him, of course, and assuming he'd gotten the word, they'd all vote with him. But all he had done was ask me if I wanted a cup of coffee. When he did it the first time, I thought he was just being a nice guy, but after it happened a few more times, I figured out what he was up to.''

The business is conducted a little differently now. In McGuirk's heyday, the political clubs counted for a lot. With his passing, his old Stonewall Democratic Club seems more than ever a throwback to a distant time.

''It was a club based on practicality,'' an old McGuirk crony was saying yesterday, as the news of McGuirk's death spread through City Hall. ''It was precinct people. There are no precinct people any more, it's just these old ladies who work a few hours on election day and then go home for four years.

''Harry's people worked the phones, they put up lawn signs and had bull roasts. They got patronage when patronage was big. And you always thought he could do more than he actually could. And that was part of the magic.''

The first time I met McGuirk was 1970, in the back lot of St. Veronica's Church in Cherry Hill. He seemed utterly at home with a bunch of young black kids, then listened as elderly women in the neighborhood told him their troubles. He took names, jotted a few notes, looked concerned.

But it was tough squaring that with the image of him a few years later, on a steamy night inside the Fifth Regiment Armory. George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama, was there on one of his presidential campaigns, and McGuirk wanted a little reflected light.

He went to Wallace's aides and asked for a seat on the platform. He didn't want to talk, just to be seen. He wanted all those folks in the hall and everybody who'd watch the late TV news to see his face, his shimmery mane of silver hair, wanted them to put Harry McGuirk and George Wallace in the same mind-set.

When Wallace's aides said no, McGuirk walked softly to the top step on the side of the platform, and for as long as Wallace talked to the big crowd, McGuirk never took his eyes off him, and the look on his face was nothing short of ostentatious adoration.

So where did he stand on the political spectrum? Wherever it felt right at any given moment. Politics was the art of the deal, and vague philosophy should never stand in the way of the practical.

''When I broke into politics,'' City Councilman Joe DiBlasi said yesterday, ''Harry told me, 'Be true to yourself.' ''

Read what you will into that. Here's another DiBlasi memory: a Memorial Day service some years back, and McGuirk is there to give a speech.

''How are you?'' says DiBlasi.

''My brother just died,'' says McGuirk.

Yesterday, DiBlasi said this: ''He was there because he'd made the commitment. That's how Harry was. Politics was commitments.''

Sitting on a bench just outside City Hall, DiBlasi looked stunned by the news of McGuirk's death. McGuirk always seemed to control so many things, how could he have overlooked his own heart?

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.