Putting best face on things is part of Bentley's style

January 27, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The next time anybody calls Rep. Helen Bentley two-faced, they'll mean it. No, she says, she didn't have a face lift. But, yes, she admits, she had some surgical work done on her face.

A week ago, I saw Bentley in Southwest Baltimore. This was surprising. For one thing, it isn't her district. For another, it wasn't her face. It was a lovely, glowing, almost girlish face, and I liked it a lot. It just wasn't particularly hers.

I always liked Helen Bentley's former face. It was a handsome, lived-in face. Did she have wrinkles? I guess so. And I happen to like wrinkles. They're little notches nature gives us as testament to having a history.

Bentley's new face happens to be nice, but also a little unnerving. Whose is it? And who's taken possession of her old one? Does this change of face signal some sort of political about-face? Or would she turn up her nose at such a thought?

When I saw her last week, she was standing in a homeless shelter, with scores of people in the building who were happy they weren't wandering in the cold. Asking her about her new look seemed terribly out of place. For one thing, it seemed unimportant next to the homeless problem. For another, asking about it seemed sexist, ageist and unchivalrous.

I thought I couldn't bring the subject up without . . . well, losing face.

Then, in Tuesday morning's Baltimore Sun, I read Robert Timberg's interview with Bentley. She seemed delighted that someone had noticed, like a lady who's returned from the hairdresser and doesn't want to have to ask her husband, "Notice anything different about me?"

In response to a question, Bentley said, "Did I have a face lift? No. Did I have some work done? Yes." Pressing her fingers into her cheeks, Timberg wrote, Bentley then added, "I had a couple of little fatty pieces removed."

None of this should matter, but probably does. Helen Bentley is running for governor and, not uncoincidentally, she is 70 years old. This makes her the oldest candidate in the race. Also, it makes her the candidate most likely to be wondering: Do I look too old for voters? Will the television cameras make me look older than I feel?

Politicians are the most self-conscious of people. They have to be. They're always on stage, always being judged by strangers. Women have it the worst. They want voters to think they're just as tough as men, but they know that men are judged by different standards when it comes to age and appearance.

Helen Bentley has a reputation for certain pit-bull qualities, a pugnacious manner, an energy level beyond belief and a vocabulary colorful enough to make a construction worker blush.

But there's a vulnerable side, too, and now and then, against her will, she shows flashes of it. For all the outward toughness, she knows she's a Republican in a Democratic state, and she's disliked by people in both parties for some of her conservative positions. She jumped into the campaign by committing a couple of blunders: voting one way on the Brady handgun bill after she said she'd vote the other way, and then launching a bribe allegation over the radio before backing off under scrutiny.

And yet, those are fleeting moments. In the long run, what sticks are these facts: She's a woman where no woman has ever won before, and she's 70, and she has more or less looked her age until now.

And maybe she figured some people would hold this against her.

If you listen closely, you can practically hear some media adviser now: "It's all TV, Helen. People want somebody youthful-looking. They don't want a grandmother type. Let's get you a little facial. We won't call it a lift. And maybe nobody will notice that you're not 50 any more."

To her credit, Bentley indicates otherwise. She told Timberg she'd had previous surgery on her face: a nose job in 1948, a re-done jaw in 1956. This was long before she ran for political office.

So the implication is clear: This isn't for public consumption, it's for Bentley's own needs. It's just coincidence, see, that she happened to get another procedure, 38 years after the last one, at the very dawning of a race for governor.

Helen Bentley can do whatever she wants. It's her face. But let's hope she did it because she really wanted it, and because it makes her feel better -- and not because she thought it would help her win an election.

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