Officialdom's chance to shine

January 11, 1996|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE De GRACE -- Governor Glendening, informal but dapper in a casual shirt and no necktie, was every inch the manager at his televised news conference on Monday at the state's emergency-operations center in Pikesville.

Gone was the kindly but slightly fuzzy academic we'd watched fumbling through the first year of his term. Suddenly the governor looked like someone with a background in real life. He spoke with authority about the blizzard and exuded the reassuring serenity of a man who really does know what he's doing.

Ritual safety tips

Responding to questions -- ''How much is all this going to cost in overtime pay, Governor?'' -- he had the necessary stats on the tip of his tongue. He provided front-line anecdotes from the ongoing battle with the elements and dropped a few of the ritual safety tips public officials always dispense on such occasions. All in all, it was a smooth, competent performance.

What is it they say about an ill wind? The governor needed a good snow. Quite possibly the rest of us did too, but he stands to gain more than we do.

For local officials, disasters or weather emergencies are the equivalents of a war. Such a crisis touches virtually all their constituents, and puts their government operations to a very public test in which failure is impossible to hide. If the crisis is a snowstorm, either the roads get cleared, or they don't. If they don't, the person at the top still gets the blame, no matter how many bureaucratic heads he causes to roll.

Like a war, a weather crisis can be helpful to politicians. It unites the citizenry, and gets their adrenalin pumping. In the short run, the emergency distracts people from lesser grievances, and if it ends well the reputations of those who were in charge are enhanced.

Thus national politicians having trouble governing are often tempted to send the troops into action. Remember the Argentine generals and their ill-fated invasion of the Falklands? It destroyed their authority and solidified that of Margaret Thatcher, whose government directed the recapture of the islands. And of course there are other, more contemporary examples of politics driving military actions.

Pushbutton weather control

It's fortunate that governors, mayors and county executives don't have control over the weather, because if they did they'd be sure to abuse it, and we'd have a weather emergency for them to manage every election year.

Most of Maryland isn't serious snow country on the scale of Pennsylvania and points north, but big snows occur here just frequently enough so that the political consequences of being caught unprepared can be very damaging.

Highway officials in the state and most of the counties know this very well. They report to people who report to the voters, and they understand what's at stake when the snow starts to fall. The best ones, who are usually the best prepared, see a blizzard as an opportunity to shine.

People who run cities in places where it seldom snows don't understand this, and for some reason those who run the District of Columbia don't either. Officials there traditionally view snow as something unpleasant but transitory, like a bad smell; they try to ignore it, because they know that sooner or later it will go away of its own accord.

Revenge of the voter

Amazingly, District officials usually get away with this. But in most places, a clear failure by public officials to deal effectively VTC with a weather emergency is promptly punished. In New England, after the great hurricane of 1938, politicians who had opposed flood-control projects were swept away by a tidal wave at the polls.

In Maryland right now, as elsewhere, people tend to be down on government. So a crisis in which government employees are seen doing their jobs well, even heroically, is antidotal to this sour mood. It's also good for public-sector morale, which has been sagging too.

For the rest of us as well, an occasional blizzard can be something of a tonic. It's a change of pace. We meet neighbors we didn't know. Sedentary people find themselves exercising, if only with a shovel; hyperactive people find themselves sitting indoors with a book. Despite the irritations and the inconvenience, it's almost enjoyable -- at first.

But if the snow keeps coming down, this upbeat public mood can change in a hurry. To Marylanders, one blizzard a winter is quite enough; after that we look for someone to blame. If that fellow who's running things down in Annapolis knows what's good for him, he'd better arrange for a January thaw.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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