Bentley's herself again, and that calls for response

September 01, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

In newsrooms everywhere, Helen Bentley brings shiny hope to the forlorn. At television stations, she's the sound bite waiting to happen. In newspaper offices, she's seen as William Donald Schaefer in pumps, the one candidate to succeed him who has the governor's . . . well, his eruptability.

For one beautiful moment in College Park the other night, Bentley was everything reporters treasure in a politician, glaring into the camera televising this historic and wonderful gubernatorial debate in which all participants seemed on the verge of narcolepsy, when suddenly she warned all violent criminals watching the proceedings from their living rooms:

"I will catch you, I will incarcerate you and, if need be, I will have you put to death."

(Huh? What do you mean there were no violent criminals watching from their living rooms? Don't all violent criminals spend their leisure hours watching Maryland Public Television from their love seats?)

Anyway, for that one special moment, Bentley was Bentley, and there was relief in newsrooms everywhere. Some of us were beginning to worry she'd become somebody else, someone diplomatic and boring, someone who didn't give good quote. Since last February, she's bypassed a few dozen candidate debates. Once, a frustrated Ellen Sauerbrey declared Bentley "won't come out of the tall grass where she's hiding."

In normal times, Bentley's the one splitting the air with invective, taking a position and scorching the earth with it. But for months, she's laid low. When she surfaced, she reached toward the middle by taking Montgomery County moderate Howard Denis as her running mate. On some campaign swings, she's softened her image by bringing along her dog Tiffany. (It's a poodle-spaniel mix; the old Bentley would have brought a pit bull.)

Reached Monday, a few hours before the big debate, Bentley said, "Both of my opponents need name recognition. Helen Bentley does not. I've had a job to do in Congress. They have not. They're unemployed."

And then she marched into the TV debate and gave warning to criminals everywhere, bringing relief not only to newsrooms, where theatrical pronouncements are treasured, but also signaling Bentley's return to character.

Here's the problem: For all the stark drama she brings to issues, for all her ability to strike a posture, she seems to have played the stalling game until it's too late to examine her claims. The line about criminals symbolized this. The debate allowed for no challenges from her opponents, who should have screamed, "Helen, we're all against crime. You haven't told us how you'd pay for your ideas."

(This wasn't just Bentley's problem, either. Repeatedly, candidates were asked how they would pay for their proposals, and almost everybody dodged the question. Blame the one-minute debate format, or blame sheer political bluff.)

But Bentley's a special case. Not only does a new poll put her far in front of her Republican opponents but, given her instinct for the dramatic gesture, there ought to be room for response.

"I've been busy in Congress," she said the other day, "and you know it. Battling over some major issues" -- including the crime bill, which she voted against -- "which affect all the people."

That's her defense for laying low. But not everyone buys it. Some claim she's been conserving her energy for the general election. She's 70. Some feel she's shaky on Maryland policy issues, having spent her political career on Capitol Hill. Others point to emotional issues on which she's vulnerable, including gun control and abortion, which she's opposed, and Serbian aggression, which she's defended.

Also, she had some shaky moments early in this campaign. In a radio broadcast, she charged that she'd been offered a bribe to change her vote on North American Free Trade Agreement, but backed down from the claim the next day. She said she was voting for the Brady bill, but then voted the other way and couldn't explain how it happened.

Then she claimed some local sports figures were backing her, until the sports figures said it wasn't true. Questioned about it, Bentley's handlers whisked her out of the room.

Now we've all run out of room. Pithy sound bites are fine. Dramatic warnings to criminals make us feel good for a moment. But, if Helen Bentley's ready to start being herself, it's time to start talking details.

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