The Governor Shows That He Knows How to Balance a Bicycle ZTC

January 26, 1995|By PETER A. JAY

ANNAPOLIS — Annapolis. -- On Monday I came here to watch the new governor meet the old greens. It was worth the trip.

In these first days of his administration, Parris Glendening appears to be off to a flying start. He has poise, confidence, a better understanding of the subtleties of symbolic politics than any Maryland governor I remember, and a beguiling personal diffidence that contrasts nicely with the egomania of his predecessor.

These are only tools, of course, and not everyone with good tools does good work with them. Only time will tell if Mr. Glendening will use his in a consistently craftsmanlike fashion as he goes about the demanding job ahead of him. But, especially to some of us who've had reservations about him, his display of competence Monday was encouraging.

The congregation of activists before which he appeared was sophisticated and feisty, toughened by many political battles. There were no doubt a variety of viewpoints present, but there was also a consensual acceptance of basic green doctrine. And while it isn't entirely clear that the governor truly belongs to their church, he understands its rituals and can sing its hymns.

These are people who believe, as do most Marylanders, in the importance of clean air and clean waters. To achieve these things, however, they favor increased governmental intervention and expenditure, a viewpoint perhaps not quite as universally held. They love the state's controversial new auto-emissions test. They applaud silly slogans such as ''make all chemicals guilty until proven innocent.''

In the election just past, Mr. Glendening was their man, and he's still their man today. They gave him a standing ovation, and he gave them good news and good vibrations.

He named one of the organizers of the conference, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Jane Nishida, as his new secretary of environment. He praised the new multi-state ''tributary strategy'' for improving water quality in the Chesapeake Bay. He declared, to cheers, that ''we can have decades of growth and prosperity and still not use up another acre of open space.''

His smooth performance made me think of a man on a bicycle. To keep himself balanced, the bicyclist must make constant little corrections in his course. Especially when he's going along at speed, these are so small as to be almost invisible, but they're there.

Thus [turn left] he promises to keep the state department of the environment intact (''The environment needs a strong independent voice''), even though his own advisers suggested it be abolished. But he notes [turn right] that there is ''a great deal of overlap and duplication'' between this and other departments, which give rise to ''a sense of frustration'' and suggest the need to ''streamline the process.''

Such streamlining would be helpful, he asserts, because it would [turn left] reduce ''anti-environment sentiment'' in the public, and also for the common-sense reason that [turn right] ''we don't have to do things two or three times over in order to be effective.''

To note these tiny mid-course corrections is not to criticize, or to suggest a lack of executive principle. They're the way a successful governor keeps his administration's bicycle upright and moving forward in the general direction he wants to go.

It also helps if the governor speaks lucidly. William Donald Schaefer's incoherent stream-of-consciousness monologues were amusing and endearing, at first, but eventually they made us all suspect that if we couldn't understand what he was saying, perhaps he didn't understand what he was doing. That was the beginning of the end.

Mr. Glendening's soft-spoken sentences hang together nicely. Even the occasional academic touch is inoffensive. ''A healthy economy and a healthy environment are interdependent,'' he said, and it would be ''a false dichotomy'' to suggest otherwise. Can you imagine Mr. Schaefer opining about false dichotomies?

Environmental issues are hard for a governor, because they represent legitimate concerns for us all, yet are infused with and confused by almost-theological passions, apocalyptic visions and pseudo-scientific nonsense. A middle ground through the green jungle can be hard to find.

Some years back, John Page Williams of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation put it well, speaking specifically about the Bay: ''Total pessi- mism is all wrong. Total optimism is foolish. The reality is tension. If you're really going to pay attention, you have to deal with both sides.''

Mr. Glendening, with long experience in government and usefully refocused by an election he just about lost, is plainly paying attention and preparing to deal with both sides. On Monday at least, not all those he impressed were the same shade of green.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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