Hospital, 'Soft Shoes,' Art: Three Mini-Columns

PETER A. JAY

April 26, 1992|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- One of the frustrations of writing a weekly newspaper column is that no matter how fast you work, the ideas pour in even faster.

Every selection of a subject means other almost-as-tempting topics must be rejected. And once they are passed over they are usually lost forever, buried under the avalanche of new material brought by the news, the mail and first-hand observation. So in the interest of intellectual-resource conservation, herewith three mini-columns on matters which deserved fuller treatment but never got it.

I. A Success Story.

A decade ago, with the state in a recession, Maryland's University Hospital was hemorrhaging money -- big money. The politically scary subject of privatization was raised, first tentatively and then seriously.

By 1984, following a pattern established in a very few other states, the hospital had been moved partially into the private sector. It was being operated, as it is today, by a private non-profit corporation, the University of Maryland Medical System, the directors of which are appointed by the governor. Medical services are still provided by faculty members of the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

The hospital is now in the black. It serves a broad range of patients; in fiscal 1990 it provided $28 million worth of charity care.

Under the direction of Dr. Morton Rapoport, its president, the hospital now operates Maryland's renowned Shock Trauma Center, and has developed special high-tech programs in neuroscience, vaccine development, cardiac care and cancer treatment. It is beginning a new $100 million capital campaign, and its obvious success is improving prospects for all of downtown Baltimore.

Whether what has worked for University Hospital could work in some other form for other state institutions -- Baltimore-Washington International Airport, say -- isn't entirely TTC clear. But it's been a persuasive demonstration that privatization can, quite dramatically, both cut costs and improve services.

II. The Throwback.

One thing to remember about the late Harry J. McGuirk, mourned after his death this week as one of the last survivors of a previous political era, is that the period he so colorfully exemplified was already ending when he went to Annapolis in 1960. Even as a freshman member of the House of Delegates, he was already a dinosaur.

Mr. McGuirk seemed, and presented himself as, a Baltimorean of the '50s. (At times, journalists wrote that he resembled a politician from the Runyonesque '20s and '30s, but journalists are romantics.) He was a Democrat of the grass-roots sort trusted by both business and labor, and fundamentally disinterested in both idealism and ideology.

Yet he began his career just as John F. Kennedy, another Navy man a few years his senior, was seeking the Presidency. Kennedy, in life and for a long time in death, would become a national symbol of a new era; Harry McGuirk would spend the rest of his life as a local symbol of an old one.

For a long time, that meant that Mr. McGuirk was subjected, especially from intellectual quarters, to patronizing ridicule. His clothes, his deal-making talents, his whispery manner -- these were all mocked.

But today, when the current crop of politicians is held in universally low esteem, many of Mr. McGuirk's qualities look a lot like virtues. He was a man closely linked to his city, his neighborhood, his political club. He was long on common sense, as well as political acumen. And he never displayed the flatulent fatuity that so characterizes the General Assembly today. Old Soft Shoes was the genuine article.

III. Ars Larga.

After I published what I considered a rather temperate commentary about recent goings-on in the world of government-subsidized art, I was taken to task in print by Robert Bergman, the director of the Walters Art Gallery. Later Dr. Bergman also took me to lunch, and we pursued the issue further, vigorously though quite amiably.

We didn't resolve it, of course. Dr. Bergman -- like several others who have written me on this subject -- believes the $175 million a year spent by the National Endowment for the Arts is an important expression of our nation's support for artistic endeavor. And if some of that supported endeavor is considered by many of the nation's taxpayers to be disgusting or offensive, he and others who share his views respond in essence that that's just hard cheese.

For my part, I'd say that if the federal government wants to spend some of its borrowed money on the Walters Art Gallery, a quite extraordinary institution, that's not a difficult policy decision to defend -- at least in Baltimore. There's a broad consensus that what's in the Walters is indeed art, and that public dollars given to support the gallery are probably dollars well spent.

On the other hand, when federal dollars are spent for loony-tunes stuff, whether it's a symposium on horse manure or an exhibition of pretentious pornography, the outrage this produces weakens the case for more justifiable expenditures. In the long run, this leaves the Walters hostage to the loonies. It would be interesting to know what William and Henry Walters, were they alive today and following this issue, would have had to say.

Peter Jay's column appears here each Sunday.

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