Clever Gag Order Brings Publicity to Schaefer


July 12, 1992|By BARRY RASCOVAR

Thank goodness for William Donald Schaefer! What would this newspaper do without him?

Let's face it. Politicians can be downright dull fellows. Government itself is pretty boring most of the time. Trying to fill a newspaper with stories on dull pols and boring government is agonizingly difficult, especially in the slow summer months when all most people think about is the upcoming vacation.

But not with Don Schaefer around.

Here's a guy who knows how to get his name in the newspaper. He understands that journalists need a governor who creates good copy. He's happy to oblige.

How else can you explain his gag order on talking with the press? It was the master stroke of a public relations genius.

Sure, he looked like an idiot ordering the entire state government to clam up and funnel all contacts with the media through his office. But look at the publicity he generated for himself.

Don Schaefer loves the limelight. He gets annoyed and awfully testy when he's out of it -- or when he's being upstaged.

Yet that's what has been happening recently. Since the legislature left town, the media has grown increasingly disinterested in the governor's comings and goings. He flies off to Europe and no one blinks. He announces a summer jobs program and no one seems to care.

Now they care, though, thanks to the Schaefer gag order. He's back in the center of local media attention.

No government flunky is going to crowd Don Schaefer out of the public eye any more with some press release. No two-bit cabinet officer is going to put a less-than-happy spin on the news, either, not with the governor himself determining what the public is or is not told.

What a godsend Don Schaefer is for The Sun. We LOVE him. Just when we were churning out a paper last Wednesday filled with mundane stories on insurance probes, poverty, death, scandal, health warnings, emergency rescues, suicides, arson fires, rapists and Alan Keyes' latest anti-Sun tirade, along comes our governor with his gag-order gambit. It added some much-needed zest to this depressingly bland diet.

Don Schaefer does this all the time. He's full of helpful surprises. As Baltimore mayor, he swam with seals in the aquarium, put on funny hats, threw colorful tantrums and made it impossible for scribes to ignore his antics. He was all over the front pages.

As governor, he's had to be more circumspect, but this politician seems to have a knack for getting our attention.

Look at the wacky stunt he's planning for the Democratic National Convention this week.

L What other governor is going to show up for just half a day?

What other governor is renting space on his Annapolis-to-New York bus at $60 a head for a one-day blitz of convention parties and a brief appearance on the convention floor before heading home at 11 p.m.?

What other governor is snubbing the state's Democratic Party leaders and most of the state's delegation?

And what other governor calls the party's nominee a phony?

It's tailor-made to draw publicity. The media will flock to see what the nation's wackiest governor is up to this time.

For the press corps, covering Donald Schaefer can be infuriating, such as when he issues ludicrous gag orders that resemble the actions of lowly Third World dictators. Or when he intentionally makes it difficult for journalists to do their job. Or when he constantly whines about unfair coverage.

After all, this is someone who likes to dominate, who likes to be in control. He hates surprises. Yet every day he picks up the

newspaper, and he never knows what will appear. He never knows what approach reporters, columnists and editorialists will take on stories.

No wonder he wants to try to dictate media coverage and influence what appears in the newspapers. So did Richard Nixon. And a host of other politicians who never understood the role of the press.

But from this perspective, even with all the difficulties in covering such a feisty officeholder, Don Schaefer is one of our all-time favorites. Sure, Harry Hughes may have run government better than Mr. Schaefer, but Harry was D-U-L-L. He was no fun to cover. He was too rational, too unruffled, too business-like. He was the Sominex governor.

Our current governor, though, is never dull. You don't know from day to day how his moods will swing. Will he love you or hate you today? Will he curse you or talk thoughtfully about the day's events? Will he impose a gag order or lead a bus tour to the Democratic convention?

Arrogant? Sure. Sensitive? Sure. Unpredictable? Sure. But, boy, is he fun to cover. If there were a Pulitzer Prize handed out for best news personality, Don Schaefer would get my vote, hands down.

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun.

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