Havre de Grace. -- Somewhere in my files is a friendly handwritten note, received a number of years ago from the choleric gentleman who is now our about-to-be former governor.
''Dear Horse's Posterior,'' it begins, and continues in similarly florid style. It took issue with something I had written. I don't recall what it was, exactly, except that it seemed pretty trivial at the time. But it certainly got a response.
If the note had come from almost anyone else in politics it would have seemed startling, an off-beat curiosity to be preserved for historians of the future. But although I saved it, I only did so because I save everything, not because it seemed unusual. At that time, the felt-tip pen of William Donald Schaefer seemed to be in perpetual motion. People all over Maryland were treated to his personal fulminations.
As mayor of Baltimore, and later as governor, Mr. Schaefer lived by the motto ''Write It Now!'' Not for him the reflective overnight pause between writing and mailing that saves so many of us from making an embarrassingly permanent record of our tantrums. He wanted his opinions served while they were hot.
When he was sufficiently annoyed, he seemed to be in as many mailboxes as Publisher's Clearing House.
This was funny, but only up to a point. Some of his correspondence could be downright threatening, and he had an Argentine general's enthusiasm for using police to track down those he wanted to intimidate. In the heyday of the Schaefer era, hate mail went out as fast as it came in.
That's all in the past now, of course. But as Mr. Schaefer gets ready to leave office for good, it's entertaining to see him having cozily nostalgic sessions with the press, and lecturing newspaper writers on the importance of being Nice and not Negative. He seems just as sincere in his pursuit of niceness as he was when he was --ing off his poison-pen letters.
Oddly, although the bullying ad hominem tone of a typical Schaefergram suggests that the writer must be a truly nasty person, that's not the case at all. Mr. Schaefer has many endearing characteristics, including his often-stated desire to ''help people.'' And while he has the reputation of sometimes holding a grudge, it's probably overstated. When it seems prudent to kiss and make up, as Kurt Schmoke and Parris Glendening can testify, Mr. Schaefer's willing to pucker. He can do it even when there's no real political incentive.
I recall that when I responded to my Schaefergram with a friendly note and a modest contribution to one of its author's favorite urban charities, another hand-written note soon appeared. This one was cordial and even apologetic. He recognized that his eruption hadn't been warranted, and didn't mind saying so.
Mr. Schaefer's greatest flaw as a public official, and the reason he would have been resoundingly defeated by Ellen Sauerbrey last month had he been permitted by the Maryland Constitution to run for a third term as governor, wasn't his temper. It was his arrogance, of which the temper was only a symptom. Marylanders finally tired of being told, like nitwit children, that their Daddy Don knew best.
While as a private citizen he is unassuming and attractively ordinary, for most of his public life Mr. Schaefer never had to experience humility.
When he won election after election by huge majorities, it over-fertilized his ego. His electoral successes made him ever more certain that his grandiose desires -- he only wanted to ''help people,'' after all -- were right, and conversely that those with the brass to oppose him were evil or stupid or both.
This attitude produced his ludicrous and demeaning explosion after the 1990 general election, in which he was opposed by an unknown Republican and expected a tremendous victory, yet lost 12 rural counties and received only 60 percent of the vote. He attacked rural Maryland bitterly for what he saw as its disloyalty, and thus lost it for good -- and for his Democratic successor, too.
If he'd endured similar setbacks before, Mr. Schaefer would not have become first so deluded about his popularity, and then so despondent when it started to slip away. He wouldn't have come so unglued, and wouldn't have fallen so hard.
The best thing Maryland has done for Mr. Schaefer's successor, Mr. Glendening, was to deny him a mandate. Mr. Glendening, it is already apparent, is going to govern mighty carefully. He will not do bizarre and eccentric things, even though they might temporarily endear him to the public and the news media. He will not build pretentious monuments to himself.
He will not forget, nor seek to punish, the 21 counties he failed to carry. He will not try to impose a grand design on Maryland. He will not insist on the state government's right to ever more of its citizens' earnings, even for the noble purpose of ''helping
people.'' He may be bland, but he will not be arrogant.
These are genuine blessings. And as they were made possible, however inadvertently, by William Donald Schaefer, our outgoing governor and pen pal deserves a thank-you note.
Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.