The Rovner Approach to the Democratic Process

PETER A. JAY

July 26, 1992|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- When big Ed Rovner died two weeks ago today, at home in Bethesda reading the Sunday New York Times and awaiting the start of the Democratic national convention, he left a large void in a great many lives.

Ed was gracefully memorialized in obituaries and editorials in both this paper and the Washington Post, and by family and many friends at a service a few days after his death. The departure of this funny, insightful man, whose deep understanding of government and politics was founded on love and seasoned with laughter, certainly didn't go unnoticed.

But there's more. Ed, to a great many people, symbolized all that's best about politics. Particularly during an election

campaign, while we're being incessantly reminded of all that's worst, a further consideration of the Rovner approach to the democratic process might be antidotal.

In early 1969, shortly after the Maryland General Assembly had chosen House Speaker Marvin Mandel to replace Spiro Agnew as governor, the new chief executive came to Washington for a getting-to-know-you lunch in the Washington Post's private dining room. He brought along Mr. Rovner, his new chief of staff, and Frank DeFilippo, his new press secretary. As the Post's statehouse reporter at the time, I was invited, too.

The lunch might have been a disaster. Mr. Mandel, never a chatterbox, was more than usually taciturn, and many of the Post dignitaries knew more about Moldavia than about Maryland. But Mr. DeFilippo and Mr. Rovner oiled the proceedings with a stream of anecdotes, the journalistic questions received sensible answers, and soon the gubernatorial party was making its farewells in a haze of good feeling and heading for the waiting limousine.

''Jeez,'' said editor Ben Bradlee after the elevator doors had closed, ''that was interesting. Who was the fat guy? He's the one who ought to be the governor.''

It wasn't the first or the last time that someone would suggest that Ed Rovner was too bright a light to be laboring on someone else's staff. But Ed really didn't want to be the governor. He was wise as well as smart, wise enough to know that not only would he not have enjoyed it, he might not have been very good at it, either. Brilliance, as our leaders vividly demonstrate for us, is not a quality usually associated with electoral success.

At the same time, the best administrations at any level of government tend to be those which are congenial to bright people and open to unusual ideas. It was one of the great strengths of Mr. Mandel in his first term that he had the sense -- and the courage -- to surround himself with intelligent people of a variety of backgrounds, and to listen to what they had to say. Mr. Rovner, Mr. DeFilippo and several other new staff members helped get Mr. Mandel off to a flying start that earned him, quite deservedly, national recognition.

Mr. Mandel was Baltimore organization politics, resolutely local in focus, ideologically a pragmatist; Mr. Rovner was New York and Washington and Montgomery County, with deep roots in the national Democratic Party, and passionately liberal. Yet the two shared a powerful desire to put together the best possible state government, and for a time it appeared they might actually do so.

Yet their alliance, so promising when it began, didn't last. Failure was probably inevitable. The new staff fought like Hatfields and McCoys, with constant sniping between old-time insider pals of the governor and pushy newcomers. The longer Mr. Mandel served, the more confident he became, and the more he relied on the old friends with whom he felt most comfortable. Eventually this reliance would wreck his administration. By then Mr. Rovner had gone on to other things, first in state and later in county government. Though he was never tainted by the scandals that brought down Mr. Mandel he was genuinely saddened by them.

Ed Rovner was always fond of journalists, and would have been a good one himself. He was a sharper observer and had a better way with words than most of us; coupled with his wonderful sense of the comic, this made him a popular and much-quoted source.

Once Ed visited a farm, for some forgotten purpose, with a large contingent of Mandel-era politicians and functionaries. And I still remember his delight in his discovery that he could tell the city people from the country people by the way they walked. (The city folks were very careful about where they put their feet.)

And then there was his astute remark, noted editorially by the Post after his death, that most people's expectations of local government are fairly basic -- they put their children and their garbage out on the sidewalk in the morning, and they want only the children to be there in the afternoon.

That sounds disparaging or cynical, but it was neither. Ed Rovner really believed that government at any level was a high calling, and that at any level there were good sound democratic ways to make it work better.

There are others like Ed out there, I guess, but in these days of widespread disgust with government, they don't seem to be as much in evidence. Whether the next president's name is Clinton or Bush, it would be nice to see him inspire a few more Ed Rovners to tackle the nitty-gritty chores of public service.

Peter A. Jay's column appears here each Sunday.

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