Lessons from the Arnick Affair


February 21, 1993|By BARRY RASCOVAR

There are some fundamental lessons to be learned from the John Arnick affair in Annapolis, but there remains a large question mark as to whether our elected officials are willing to pay studious attention to what took place.

Rarely have the weaknesses and corrosive influences of a political institution been so exposed to public display. And rarely Maryland history has the public responded with such fury.

As this episode unfolded, it was amazing to see how stubbornly legislators refused to hear the message being transmitted by the public. These are, after all, successful politicians who are supposed to be in touch with public sentiments. That's how most of them got elected.

Equally stunning was the lack of understanding of how the Arnick affair paralleled the Clarence Thomas brouhaha in Washington. In each case, the charges dealt with sex harassment or denigration of women. And in each case, lawmakers were blind to the public's intolerance of actions by public officials who demean -- or give the appearance of having demeaned -- women.

Have these legislators been living in caves in recent years as women charged into the workplace and demanded -- and rightly -- equal treatment?

The answer, sadly, is yes. Members of the General Assembly do live in caves.

A better analogy might be life in a medieval fortress. Legislators are the feudal princes and princesses, who spend their time in a castle called the State House. They live quite well in local hotels at taxpayer expense, feed off the teat of lobbyists and are surrounded constantly by an array of sycophants eager to massage their egos and curry favor with these lords and ladies of the realm.

So, after 23 years of dedicated service in the castle, why shouldn't one of the princes be given a knighthood and a sinecure? And why shouldn't the other castle inhabitants do everything possible to give this prince his reward?

One of the most common excuses voiced during the Arnick blow-up was that only people who have been involved in the legislative game in Annapolis can appreciate and judge John Arnick.

There is, indeed, a special aura in the State House, especially in the midst of a hectic General Assembly session. Legislators, lobbyists and even reporters get so caught up in the frantic pace and intensity of the legislative process that the outside world seems to disappear and everyone involved talks in a short-hand language impossible for outsiders to fathom.

In such a fantasy environment it is easy to be seduced by the magic of it all, and to ignore the everyday world that lurks just outside the State House castle.

Within this fantasy environment, John Arnick was a worthy warrior, a fine tactician and a loyal servant. He had earned his judgeship. But by everyday standards outside the castle, Mr. Arnick had some serious shortcomings, especially in his past behavior toward women.

Compounding the problem was that legislators misjudged the telecommunications revolution that is transforming American politics. What legislators did, or didn't do, in the Arnick case was discussed on talk radio and covered in depth in the newspapers. No longer is the work of the General Assembly always a well-kept secret. People found out this time what was going on. And they didn't like it.

Legislators didn't understand that their cozy little world was under the public microscope, that in the 1990s you can't easily whitewash charges of vulgar language and demeaning behavior toward women. You can't easily ram through a judgeship nomination in full public view when serious character questions remain unresolved. The public is now watching, and sitting in judgment.

Citizens are starting to realize the power of the phone call or telegram or letter to an elected official. More than anything else, that's what did in John Arnick.

In this era of intense public scrutiny, it may no longer be possible routinely to place flawed politicos in important positions such as judgeships. It may no longer be possible to make a mockery of the Senate's confirmation role in approving judges. It may no longer be possible to listen to the soothing, self-satisfying advice of cloying lobbyists and hangers-on anxious to use public offices as rewards for longtime members of "the club."

Times are changing, even in Annapolis. The drawbridge to the State House castle is coming down. Senators and delegates now realize that the public is no longer sleeping, but instead watching their every move. They had better not offend the public's sensibilities and its basic concept of what's right and wrong.

Legislators now have 18 months to prove to voters that some good has come out of the Arnick affair, that lessons have been learned. The old b'hoys and g'hirls club in the State House had better change its ways -- before voters make some changes themselves.

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director for The Sun.

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