Finding 'a lost ball in tall grass' THE EVENING SUN SETS AT 85 RTC

September 15, 1995|By Bradford Jacobs

IT'S BUSH league," said a caller on one of the then-budding, radio-talk shows.

"That stuff went out with horsehair sofas," said another.

So it was a little bush, a little horse hairy, this posture The Evening Sun struck in the Spring of 1978. But in its bushy, hairy way it worked. It made a little history.

The sniffy remarks were aimed at an editorial endorsing Harry Hughes for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. Sniffs aside, Mr. Hughes was nominated and, that fall, elected by a record majority. Earlier, he had been dismissed as "a lost ball in tall grass." It was The Evening Sun which drew him into the sunlight.

The editorial's second, perhaps more durable impact was not so instantly apparent. Only later it emerged that the Hughes election had smashed, apparently forever, the antique Democratic machine -- buyer of votes and coddler of bosses, briber of the frail and patron of the strong -- which had run all-weather in Maryland since the end of the Civil War.

Bright-eyed reformers, delicately harrumphing, had scarcely laid a glove on the aromatic old party in more than a hundred years of trying. So much for history. Eight Hughes years in office, all politically virginal, put the bosses to flight. Eight more years under William Donald Schaefer mostly held the new line. Parris Glendening, despite what some Republicans say, seems to be running this antiseptic era into its 17th year.

Was the Democratic machine finally laid low? No bets are offered, but the likes of Arthur P. Gorman and I. Freeman Rasin, of E. Brooke Lee and Jack Pollack, of Irv Kovens and Marvin Mandel no longer jerk the party strings. While some neighborhoods cling to grateful memories of the old-time bosses, no broad call is heard for their return.

The Evening Sun's leading role in all this was both direct and indirect. What was apparent, that pivotal spring, was that the state machine was still happily flourishing, albeit awkwardly tangled in mail-fraud charges. Its candidate to replace the fallen Marvin Mandel was a machine man of Mr. Mandel's own choosing, the late Blair Lee III, a man sprawled comfortably and without apology in the machine's now-tattered lap. Polls showed Lee commandingly ahead in the primary.

We at The Evening Sun thought this was outrageous. Were we to sit there ruminating in the fuddy-duddy editorial way while Lee drifted jauntily into the governor's office on a political litter borne by the discredited Mandel leftovers?

Shouldn't we, instead, stand up and fight?

A fight was the decision. And to fight in the old-time, hit-'em-hard way. Eagerly, editors and reporters scanned the Maryland countryside for a fresh, unstained champion. Two hopefuls strung out second and third behind Lee were quickly dismissed as parochial and unproven. Still further back in the polls, a hopeless fourth, limped Harry Hughes.

Why fourth, we wondered? Why limping?

Here was a seasoned veteran of the state Senate, a demonstrated expert on government finance. Here stood a non-politician so principled he had tossed over a good job under Marvin Mandel in protest against a smelly state contract. Potential voters, however, kept their eyes strangely averted.

The trouble was, readers told inquirers from The Evening Sun, Harry Hughes couldn't win. Too stiff, too shy, too obscurely based in a small Eastern Shore county. Probably the class of the field, but why waste a vote on a sure loser? That grass was tall. That ball was lost.

So it was that the overcurrent sparkled brightly for Blair Lee III, each boss and bosslet dutifully thumping the designated machine drum. And yet to the contrary ran an almost silent undercurrent. It seemed to incline uneasily to Mr. Hughes, then to be siphoned off to the other two runners, each a little better known. It was at this point that The Evening Sun made its move.

Lost ball be damned. If Harry Hughes was the best man, it was decided, let's say so early and loud. Let's make a Hughes vote not just wanly honorable. Let's make it a real shot at victory. Let's see then what the voters say.

Mutterings were heard from Baltimore streets, even from inside the Sun building, when The Evening Sun flashed its first signal. The editorial ran two weeks earlier than customary. It ran, what's more, in an extraordinarily eye-catching spot: Page One, top of ,, the page. The message was emphatic: machine vs. independent. A last-sentence clincher aimed hopefully at curing what seemed the only Hughes sore spot: "A vote for the right man is never wrong."

Voters responded hesitantly at first. A week after the editorial ran, Hughes' name crept up in the polls, from fourth to third. The next poll, perhaps two weeks later, had him running second -- but still substantially behind Lee. Was this it? Had The Evening Sun tried bravely but in vain, itself finally smothered in tall grass? Election Day stood just around the corner. Who knew?

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