How Governor Schaefer's former press secretary went awry

Bruce L. Bortz

October 08, 1992|By Bruce L. Bortz

IF JOURNALISM is, as they say, history's first draft, then this submission, as late as it is, falls somewhere between journalism and history. But the story of how and why Governor William Donald Schaefer's press secretary lost his job in August is very much a story worth telling.

Frank Traynor came to his post -- much touted by both press and government people -- during the summer of 1991. He was thought to be an experienced media guy and a solid citizen. From several early episodes, however, observers quickly noticed that Mr. Traynor was neither as experienced in press dealings as originally thought nor as sympathetic to the State House crew as most press secretaries at least start out being.

In his first week on the job there was the unfortunate hospitalization of the governor's friend, Hilda Mae Snoops, and the resulting controversy over the appropriate use of an Annapolis city ambulance. The State Police put the best possible face on the controversy. Mr. Traynor seemed more than willing to give it public voice.

Then, still early in Mr. Trainor's tenure, the Washington Post picked up Annapolis talk that the state was paying for the upkeep of the governor's dog Willie. Reporters started making calls. Mr. Traynor promptly phoned the Post's state editor.

The editor didn't know Mr. Traynor. He intensified the paper's coverage of the story. Mr. Traynor went on record saying Willie was a State Police guard with partial responsibility for protecting the governor. The press immediately sensed that Mr. Traynor, as the governor's mouthpiece and apparent chief defender, would push the truthfulness envelope to its outer limits.

Mr. Traynor further alienated the Annapolis press corps during budget cuts, when he terminated the job of Angela Parks, a mainstay in the governor's press office who long had gone out of her way to serve the Annapolis press corps.

During the 1992 legislative session, more problems developed when the governor, for the first time, decided to address the state on live TV. The resulting budget speech was one of the most excruciatingly amateurish performances many had ever seen. Mr. Traynor used only one camera trained at the governor's charts or at the governor reading from his "talking points."

Later in the year, Mr. Traynor was caught having orchestrated an Evening Sun telephone poll on state police Col. Larry Tolliver's fitness to be the new state police superintendent. Mr. Traynor asked state public information officers to inflate the numbers. They were so outraged that they clued the press in.

Meantime, the governor's top staff basically allowed the situation to fester. Mr. Traynor was going beyond spin control, and top administration officials realized it. Yet, no one stepped in to correct the conduct. Todd Spangler, head of the Washington Times Annapolis bureau and a designated press representative, tried his best. He went to top staff and complained about Mr. Traynor. Their response was to gently cut Mr. Traynor out of the loop. They no longer sought his advice on policy and PR matters.

Mr. Traynor's ultimate collapse came with the controversy over a Medicaid waiver -- a request to the federal government that the state be allowed to reduce or withhold AFDC payments to parents whose children regularly failed to attend school. Word spread that an arrangement was made for President Bush to call the governor during a press conference, announcing the waiver. Mr. Traynor vociferously denied the existence of such plans. In fact, such a call was arranged. The governor was furious over Mr. Traynor's denials. He openly contradicted Mr. Traynor.

Following the Bush phone call incident, Mr. Trainor's profane comments to a Baltimore Sun reporter, Marina Sarris, and a Sun editorial highly critical of Mr. Traynor, Governor Schaefer essentially went to his cabinet and instructed them, "I'm now the press secretary" -- this from a governor who rarely fires anyone.

Mr. Traynor later requested and was given a reassignment at Maryland Public Television. Mr. Schaefer himself finally recognized that if he didn't rid himself of Mr. Traynor his own integrity would be in jeopardy. And he knew something fundamental that Mr. Traynor never seemed to recognize: In government, the truth must be told, even when the pressure is great, even when the truth hurts.

The writer is editor of the Maryland Report newsletter and a political analyst for Channel 45 News. His column on Maryland politics will appear regularly.

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