How to Generate Sympathy for Schaefer

PETER A. JAY

June 27, 1993|By PETER A. JAY

Havre de Grace. -- If I were in the public relations business (far-fetched idea) and Governor Schaefer asked me for help (even farther-fetched) in softening up his public image, I'd suggest that he arrange to be unfairly attacked by someone even less popular than he. Sympathy works wonders.

A real mugging would do the trick, but those can be dangerous, and there's a fine line between being roughed up enough to draw sympathy and being really hurt. Besides, there would be sure to be someone who would argue unhelpfully that if the governor had carried a handgun and known how to use it, he would have escaped unscathed.

Much safer and potentially more useful would be a political assault on Mr. Schaefer generated by someone in the White House. The more outrageous its intent, and the more federal agencies and expense it involved, the better. Marylanders may not like Mr. Schaefer much right now, but they like the federal government and the pompous claque in charge of it a whole lot less.

Another approach would be to have the governor set upon by a swarm of lawyers. Just about everyone would rally to his defense then. When it comes to public esteem, lawyers rank somewhere between Serbian snipers and industrial lab technicians who experiment on pussycats. If enough lawyers are after you, it stands to reason, you can't be all bad.

But these things aren't easy to set up, especially right now. The Clinton administration is resting on its laurels after bringing us what it is pleased to describe as peace abroad and prosperity at home, and most lawyers of any significance have taken jobs in Washington and can't be bothered to pester a lame-duck Maryland governor.

That leaves the next most unpopular institution, the press. If I were writing an action memo to the governor, I'd suggest that he get some truly dreadful news coverage -- the kind that is so mean and so obviously unfair that on reading it, the public sucks in its breath and gasps in amazement.

Say for example a reporter from a newspaper checks out the townhouses owned by Mr. Schaefer and Hilda Mae Snoops in Pasadena. And say the reporter finds the state troopers from the Governor's security detail dressed in civilian clothes and doing a little yardwork there. And say the newspaper then puts a story about all that on the front page.

What we have here is a recipe for Mr. Schaefer's rehabilitation. People have an instinctive sense of fairness. They respond positively to those they see being treated inequitably. And if there is one fact about William Donald Schaefer that the Maryland public has taken to heart, it is that whilehe may sometimes verge on arrogance in the performance of his official duties, in his personal life he remains a resolutely plain person unaffected by glitter.

Unlike his predecessors Spiro Agnew and Marvin Mandel, who were fascinated by the ostentatious, he does not appear interested in money or material pretensions. He does not dress lavishly or favor expensive vacation spots. Like another of his predecessors, Millard Tawes, he has a clear sense of who he is, and a predilection for modest, familiar surroundings. He likes West Baltimore, Ocean City and Pasadena.

If a reporter writes a story about the governor getting a little help in the yard from his police bodyguards, the implication is that this is newsworthy. And if a newspaper puts such a story on its front page, the implication is that not only is this newsworthy, it's probably scandalous as well.

To such implicit assertions, reasonable readers will respond, first, ho-hum. They know that whatever Mr. Schaefer's shortcomings, he is not the sort to take advantage of his office for his own financial gain. He may be dogmatic, he may be irascible, but a chiseler he's not. He's been in the public eye for two decades now, and this is thoroughly understood.

It's not implausible that he and Ms. Snoops would ask on-duty troopers, standing around in the yard on a pleasant afternoon, to help them pull a few weeds. But to suggest that they'd make such a request with the corrupt intention of saving the few dollars that a yard-care service would charge is preposterous.

A lawyer or a reporter might respond that what's important is that the weeds were pulled by troopers, and that the governor's intention in accepting such help makes no difference. But an ordinary person, who has learned from experience to be suspicious of absolutes, knows it can make all the difference in the world.

After the first ho-hum, a reader is likely to ask about the newspaper's motives in giving so much display to such a non-story. The likely conclusion is that it was done to embarrass Mr. Schaefer and to make him look dishonest. And the patent unfairness of such an effort instantly builds support for its intended victim.

In fact, when most such stories appear, the newspaper publishing them has no intention of trying to be unfair. Usually it's trying to do what it thinks is right. But often, a newspaper's view of right and wrong isn't even close to that of most of its readers. That's why if a story is nasty enough it can help a politician more than it hurts.

Peter Jay's column appears here each week.

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