A Civility and Selflessness that Are Missed WILLIAM S. JAMES


April 25, 1993|By BARRY RASCOVAR

An important bit of Maryland passed from our midst the other day when William S. James died at age 79. He looms large in State House history, a civilizing influence in a capital dominated by political heathens.

His public career spanned 43 years. For much of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, he played a major role in shaping state government's achievements. But in the late '80s and '90s, he was a forgotten figure. Not coincidentally, the Annapolis scene deteriorated badly after his humiliating rejection as state treasurer in 1987. His calming, intellectual influence has been sorely missed.

Bill James was an old-fashioned man, almost Victorian in his manners and political etiquette. At first meeting him, you'd never assume that he was a leader: He had a sing-song, high-pitched voice and a withered arm. It was his mental powers that impressed -- and his high sense of ethical standards. By sheer force of intellectual power, he imposed gentility and civility on the state Senate.

Mr. James' Senate was gentlemanly. Debates were informative and high-toned. Angry diatribes and personal arguments weren't tolerated. Everyone abided by the rules of parliamentary conduct -- and no one knew the details better than the acknowledged parliamentary and constitutional expert, Bill James.

Annapolis lacks this sort of intellectual and institutional memory. There's little respect for the details of state law and procedures any more. This is the what's-in-it-for-my-political-career generation of office holders. Doing good deeds for the state just is not of primary concern.

For the politicians of Mr. James' era, the reverse held sway. His list of contributions is long, yet little of it helped him with voters back home. That didn't matter. What did matter was doing the right thing.

He was Mr. Environment long before that term had positive connotations. He put his prestige on the line for land-use controls, for farmland preservation, for the Maryland Environmental Service, for Program Open Space. He was a major backer of Baltimore City. He was a ceaseless booster of education.

"I rate as my greatest achievement," he wrote in a hand-written letter after his forced retirement from government, "the drafting and sponsoring with [Sen.] Mary Nock [of Salisbury] the legislation upon which the Maryland community college system is founded." What modern-day senator can claim an accomplishment of such magnitude?

The State House misses Bill James. Had he been presiding over the Senate this past session, there never would have been the embarrassing John Arnick episode: Mr. James would have been appalled by charges of improper and sexist comments. His horror of someone with such an attitude on the bench would have ended that fiasco.

Nor would there have been the continuing Senate embarrassment over legislative scholarships. Mr. James detested these patronage awards and nearly got them outlawed in the early 1970s. He'd have finished the job long before now.

Mr. James spent 20 years as a senator, the last 12 as president of the chamber. He presided over the upper chamber longer than anyone else in Senate history. He left after winning appointment as state treasurer, the position from which he got the boot at the behest of Gov. William Donald Schaefer in 1987. What an ignominious way to go for such a mannered gentleman. He never understood why the governor would treat him so rudely.

"In brief," Mr. James wrote, "at considerable political risk, I was always a friend of Baltimore City, who deserved Don Schaefer's support for re-election as Treasurer. However, he did not reply to my request for an appointment, and he was very discourteous upon the several times I saw him in the State House. His ingratitude and his incivility, not only to me, but to Governor [Harry] Hughes, astonished me."

So the man who represented the highest traditions of public service, who embodied the best qualities of the citizen-legislator, left Annapolis. For the first time in 43 years, Bill James returned to his Havre de Grace farm without a title attached to his name, but with his outlook on life still firmly rooted.

"In all probability," he wrote in 1987, "defeat may be a good thing for me personally. I live in a paradise of natural beauty, which I have protected by giving the state an environmental easement. I never tire of watching the geese and other wild creatures. I have a small office in Bel Air, which keeps me in touch with the legal profession. My civic activities include several charitable and educational institutions. I am blessed with good health, my days will be full, and my interest in public affairs continues. When all else fails, I have my books and The Sun to read."

Now he is dead. He was once asked about his ultimate goal in life. His response was "that the greatest achievement in a democracy is to be remembered as a good citizen."

Bill James fulfilled this goal remarkably well. He was, indeed, a good citizen -- among the very best this state has had in the last half of the 20th century.

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director for The Sun.

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