John Arnick: old-time actor in wrong role

MICHAEL OLESKER

February 16, 1993|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The John Arnick confirmation has become an unfortunate game of trivial pursuit, in which all condemn the use of politically incorrect and vulgar language but miss the real crime, which is the ancient act of bullying.

"Silly," says the governor of Maryland, who happens to know better.

"Do you know anybody who hasn't made a joke about an ethnic group at one time?" asks Sen. Nathan Irby, who should know better.

"We just elected a president who has affairs," says a shrugging Sen. George Della, who only occasionally knows better.

All attempt to defuse the issue by minimizing it, and by straying from the central reality to the issue of words spoken by Arnick and now repeated each day until the shock value begins to fade: "lying bitches . . . bimbos . . . dumb blond" and the female anatomy reference uttered in public now in the gentlest of terms to mute everyone's embarrassment.

The problem is this: In the absence of much testimony beyond Judith Wolfer, the lobbyist whose words set off this confrontation, we're left with no choice but to recycle the same few chunks of language, the same few charges. We want more. Did he use other words? Did he make them on many occasions?

And the larger point is obscured. When John Arnick made his remarks to Wolfer and to Nancy Nowak, who was then an aide to the governor, he was chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and they needed his vote on a domestic violence bill, and he knew it.

Arnick did what bullies do in such instances -- whatever he thought he could get away with. This is the law of the jungle, which is also the law of politics when it loses its way. But it isn't the law we expect from a judge.

You want to know John Arnick's problem now? He still doesn't get it. He did the savvy thing last Friday, by graciously apologizing for any offense he may have given, while declaring he didn't actually remember making any offensive remarks -- and yesterday, he said he welcomed a thorough investigation.

But there's a piece of him that's infuriated by this, that's asking: Why are these people so insufferably proper? Don't they know this is the way we've always done business around here? If they changed the rules of the game, why didn't anybody tell me?

Go back four years ago, to a funeral attended by Arnick and also by Mimi DiPietro, then a city councilman. The two men walk out of services together, and somebody says, "Wasn't the priest's eulogy good?"

"Nah," says DiPietro. "He never mentioned my name."

Now, maybe a week later, John Arnick is still laughing about this, and declares, "Mimi was thinking, 'A big crowd like this, give me a plug.' "

"He's a character, huh?" somebody says. Arnick nods his head happily, and then commences a lament over the dying of political originals. Mimi DiPietro, for example, who never learned how to fake it, how to spot his own flaws and hide them. Most politicians today, they act the way they think they're supposed to, instead of the way they really want to.

"Exactly," Arnick said that day. "The system's so regimented today. . . . What characters are left in the legislature? You don't do things the right way, they frown on you a little bit."

The words take on a special irony now, as Arnick has walked himself into a firestorm of outrage that neither he nor large numbers of the legislature seem to understand. He didn't do things the right way, he just did them the old way, which was considered acceptable to a generation of politicians now dying out.

That day four years ago, Arnick lamented the disappearance of politicians who invented themselves as they went along. He saw himself as a kindred spirit, a man unbound by the modern political self-consciousness. That's OK, except for this: His character sometimes took a mean turn, and Arnick mistakenly thought it marked him as a man who called his own shots.

Characters are nice. They're a piece of our own personalities which -- for better or worse -- didn't get domesticated along the way. They're a vision of ourselves disdaining all those boring rules followed by everybody else.

But we don't necessarily want characters making our laws. And we can't have them presiding over our courtrooms.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.