Don Donaldo jumps back into his silly suit

DAN RODRICKS

October 31, 1992|By DAN RODRICKS

I guess this means William Donald Schaefer is back, and feeling like his ole silly self. Just when we thought he had become so fed up with public life that he would never be fun again, Don Donaldo bounced up the basement stairs to assume chairmanship of Lame Duck Governors For Bush. What a gas.

In the real world, of course, the Democrat Schaefer's endorsement of the Republican Bush amounts to a political burp. For Marylanders it is important because it tells us Schaefer is -- sigh -- just as goofy as ever.

Until yesterday, Don Donaldo had given us few reasons to giggle. I worried about him. Each time we saw him during the last two years, he was blue. He announced budget deficits and cutbacks. Finding himself described as "the whackiest governor America" by a national supermarket rag, Schaefer stopped wearing funny hats. He stopped writing nasty letters to constituents. Instead of the petty, overaged brat we had all come to love, we saw a morose grump.

He wasn't fun anymore.

Just five years ago, life was cream pie. Don Donaldo won a landslide election, dressed up as an Admiral of the Chesapeake and stepped inside a box labeled, "Baltimore's Gift To Maryland." A crane lifted the box to the deck of a boat and it sailed off to Annapolis.

The state had a budget surplus. The legislature was eager to please. The bond issue for Oriole Park passed. Ditto light rail. The Do-It-Now Man gave big raises to his Cabinet. He strung new lights across the Key Bridge. He told Hilda Mae to order new wallpaper.

Then came the recession. Don Donaldo went into a funk. What fun was being governor if there was no money to spend, no programs to start, no way to help people?

That, after all, was part of Schaefer's political heritage: The idea that government can actually help people, that government can be a solution instead of a problem. Government activism has long been part of Schaefer's very being. It's what got his city through the tough times. It's what made the Baltimore Renaissance possible.

Federal dollars helped, too.

But that changed drastically after the Reagan-Bush administration arrived in Washington. Owing nothing to cities, the administration turned its back. Schaefer went to Annapolis in 1987 because, in part, he knew he wouldn't be able to accomplish much as mayor anymore.

Still, there was hope that, with Baltimore's greatest champion in Annapolis, the city could continue to rise, with help from its wealthier suburban neighbors.

Instead, Schaefer squandered his mandate on petty politics. He alienated legislators and constituents. He blew a chance for a political alliance with Kurt Schmoke. In 1992, feeling lonely and unloved, he has embraced George Bush.

It could be that Schaefer did this because Schmoke has endorsed Bill Clinton. When an opportunity to be petty presents itself, Schaefer can't resist. To him, petulance is tonic. If it came as liquid, he would mainline it.

It could be that Schaefer, knowing well his second term ends in two years, might be angling for a job in the Bush administration.

But Schaefer's decision to come out for Bush has more to do with ego than anything else. It gave him a chance to make a splash again -- the way he once splashed into the seal pool at the National Aquarium.

There might be a deeper reason. Schaefer and Bush are of the same generation. They have been in public life for decades. They are both widely criticized by their constituents. They both squandered their popularity. In these ways, they belong together.

But there is one huge difference between the two.

Schaefer -- the one who served Baltimore as mayor for four terms -- genuinely cared about his city and the people in it. He did not see government as evil, but as an instrument for progress. He devoted his entire life to making his city and state better places to live.

While George Bush has been vice president and president, the federal government tightened the flow of funds that made urban redevelopment possible through the 1970s and early 1980s. This year, Bush told the National League of Cities to forget about federal aid. "Please understand," he said, "we will never measure our compassion in dollars spent. We will measure it by results. Let's not forget that the trials our citizens face each and every day were generations in the making. . . . We can't expect change overnight. But make no mistake. Change will come because change must come." It was one of Bush's lamest speeches, and he made it about a month before the Los Angeles riots.

William Donald Schaefer endorsing George Bush -- it's amusing, it's stupid, it's tragic. It's classic Don Donaldo.

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