McMillen Ready To Go Quietly

COMMENT

November 22, 1992|By ELISE ARMACOST

The election of 1992 is history, and Tom McMillen is ready to let go of it.

The vanquished congressman is tying up loose ends here in his now-extinct district. Helping his staff find new jobs on Capitol Hill ("You get down on your knees and beg"). Checking into some new career possibilities, including a post in the Clinton administration, for himself.

Departing in defeat from public office is never easy, and it must be especially hard for Mr. McMillen, who planned for a political career all through college and 11 years as a professional basketball player. But if he is eaten up with disappointment, he does not show it. His voice betrays no resentment. He has the air of quiet dignity some politicians get once they accept their loss and decide to go gentle into the night.

How can he feel this way, after a close and nasty race in which he, more often than not, was criticized as the chief purveyor of nastiness? "Because," Mr. McMillen says, "there really isn't anything else I can think of that I could have done" to win.

He's not totally correct. He tended to focus too much on abstract issues such as banking and finance instead of emphasizing his role in things that affect "common folks" -- the cable television bill he helped craft, for example. He let his opponent suck him into a negative advertising campaign. And he never succeeded in dispelling the perception of him as a wealthy, slick politician.

In retrospect, it's easy to see what a nearly impossible task Mr. McMillen faced. Though his race against Wayne Gilchrest for the new 1st District was accurately hyped as the closest in the state, Mr. McMillen was more of an underdog than most people realized.

A Western Shore Democrat forced by redistricting into the Eastern Shore and the most conservative parts of Anne Arundel, he faced two nemeses: Republicanism and regionalism. Even Mr. McMillen's ballyhooed war chest was an inadequate weapon against a GOP opponent from Kent County.

He knew this all along. He says that a year ago after his Anne Arundel district was carved out of existence, he hired a well-known pollster to evaluate his chances in the 1st. The pollster advised him to skip this election because he could never win the Shore. The pollster also said he stood a better chance in the new 4th District in Prince George's and Montgomery counties, but Mr. McMillen -- to his credit -- dismissed that option because he knew the 4th was created as a minority district.

He decided to run in the 1st, figuring his wealth of campaign money gave him a chance.

Much has been made of Mr. McMillen's $1.5 million war chest, mostly in a negative context. But without the money, he would not have stood a chance.

After he lost, many observers blamed the defeat on negative advertising that rubbed Shore constituents the wrong way. Mr. Gilchrest played the negative game, too, but somehow he succeeded in conveying the impression that he was doing all the defending and Mr. McMillen all the attacking.

Others suggested Mr. McMillen's image as a wealthy celebrity hurt him. Ross Perot is a billionaire, but his looks and speech are so folksy that people identify with him anyway. Mr. McMillen's looks -- he stands nearly seven feet tall and has a helmet of prematurely white hair -- immediately set him apart.

Even other members of the delegation have said Mr. McMillen is not a "warm" politician, that he fails to connect with people at some basic human level.

What is ironic is that Mr. McMillen's book, "Out of Bounds,"

reveals him to be just the opposite. As he writes about his mixed resentment and admiration of his father, his struggle with a childhood bone disease, the confusion he experienced as an shy, inordinately tall teen-ager sought by hundreds of college recruiters, he comes across as a caring, vulnerable person. If only he could have conveyed some of that during his campaign, some said.

But Mr. McMillen did try to make people see him as more than a rich basketball player. He tried to emphasize his middle-class roots. He had television spots shot with his mother in Mansfield, Pa., the small town where he is from.

In the end, he didn't carry a single Eastern Shore county, though he came close in Cecil. The pollster was proven right.

Mr. McMillen's loss means Wayne Gilchrest probably will keep his seat for as long as he wants. If Mr. McMillen could not crack the Shore with his resources, it's a safe bet that no other Western Shore candidate will come as close.

For Mr. McMillen, the loss probably will not mean the end of

public life. He's been talking to the Clinton people; one can easily see him in the Department of Education, where his knowledge of athletics could make him a real force for reform.

Tom McMillen was not the most effective congressman Maryland ever sent to Washington, but he worked hard and was a nicer person than a lot of people gave him credit for. He deserves to be remembered as something more than a tall man who used to play basketball.

Elise Armacost is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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