2 Old Pols Rage, Rage Against the Dying of the Light

October 30, 1994|By BARRY RASCOVAR

They are the ghosts of politics past, two rapidly fading images from yesterday's headlines, two political heavyweights whose punch no longer contains much clout.

William Donald Schaefer and Helen Bentley, generational partners in public disfavor. Ignored in the general election campaign. Disowned by their party nominees. Forgotten by a fickle electorate.

How quickly fame vanishes. Helen Bentley, hero of the state GOP, suddenly is a non-person in a Republican Party mesmerized by Ellen Sauerbrey's conservative mantra.

Her 10 years of back-breaking work in Congress on behalf of the GOP are but a memory. Her unyielding dedication to building a viable Republican Party in Maryland is history: The same right-wingers from whom she wrested control of the state party are about to regain power under their ideological champion, Mrs. Sauerbrey.

It has been a rough landing for Mrs. Bentley. But it has been far rougher for Mr. Schaefer. He cannot resign himself to his fate: In January, he will leave the Governor's Mansion for good. He will return to private life. For the first time in 23 years, he won't have a full-time job on the government payroll. For the first time in 40 years, he won't have an elective office to call his own.

Most men his age would be contented. Mr. Schaefer has led a long political life full of monumental achievements. Soon he will have the time to contemplate his contributions and to collect all his pensions -- from the city as a councilman and as a mayor; from the state as governor; from the Army Reserve, and from the Social Security Administration.

And yet, Mr. Schaefer (who turns 73 Wednesday) and Mrs. Bentley (who turns 71 on November 28) show few signs of wanting to leave the public spotlight. Neither has taken political misfortune well. Each has gone into a swoon as the realization of a career's end approaches.

It was quite a slap in the face when the Republican Party that Mrs. Bentley nurtured back to health turned on her with a vengeance. She was humiliated. Mrs. Sauerbrey won the primary in a romp. Afterward, Mrs. Bentley could barely bring herself to shake hands with the winner. And she has been under heavy pressure to go one step further and endorse Democrat Parris Glendening.

That might lead to a resurrection of sorts. Rumors are flying that Mrs. Bentley wants to be state transportation secretary. That way, she could revive her public career and continue to play mother hen to her beloved Port of Baltimore. At the least, she may seek a spot on the Maryland Port Commission. But would either scenario happen under a Governor Sauerbrey?

Mr. Schaefer, meanwhile, is having a hard time reconciling himself to his fate. Two politicians he cannot stand are running to replace him. He and Mayor Schmoke aren't fond of each other. He has made a lot of political enemies. His poll ratings are embarrassing.

Aides have boosted his sagging psyche by arranging for groups to shower Mr. Schaefer with tributes. Now they've sent him to the Far East with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra to keep him busy. Buildings are being named after him at a record pace. Everyone wants to create a Schaefer scholarship fund. He's on an extended farewell tour in which he makes tearful, heartfelt ''thank-you'' speeches to groups and organizations.

L Douglas MacArthur couldn't have put on a better performance.

And yet the governor too often sinks into depression. He clearly dreads the day when he must leave.

Can he survive as a private citizen? Without the adulation that comes with being mayor for 15 years and governor for 8? Can he teach himself to drive a car again?

Some individuals enjoy the solitude and anonymity after stepping down from elected office. Don Schaefer isn't one of them. His whole life has been wrapped up in public service.

So don't be shocked if Mr. Schaefer decides to re-enter the political arena. Within the city limits he's still popular. He's remembered as the mayor who revived Baltimore, created the Inner Harbor boom, browbeat bureaucrats into serving the community, made Baltimoreans proud of their city.

Mayor Schmoke has more than his share of troubles. The city's decline continues. Distress and discontent are building. He will have trouble overcoming Council President May Pat Clarke's mayoral bid in next year's primary. It could be a bloodbath.

Why not an independent bid by Mr. Schaefer, or even a run as a Republican (after all, he endorsed George Bush and became Ronald Reagan's favorite mayor)?

He could sidestep the blood-letting of the primary and run a brief fall campaign, heavily financed by his loyal supporters, in which he puts on funny hats and bombards Baltimoreans with the message: ''Bring Back Schaefer -- We Were Great Once, We Can Do It Again!''

Don't count these veteran public officials out. Not yet. ''Retirement'' isn't in their vocabulary.

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun.

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