The real measure of a career

April 10, 1997|By Peter A. Jay

HAVER DE GRACE — HAVRE DE GRACE -- On Monday, when I received from The Sun the stunningly sad news of Brad Jacobs' death, I went right to the bookshelf to get down ''Thimbleriggers,'' his matchless account of Maryland political corruption in the Marvin Mandel era.

One of the reasons this book has remained a favorite of mine is that whenever I pick it up, as I do regularly, I can hear Brad's voice. Most writers have one voice for writing and another for speaking, but Brad, especially when he was considering politicians, wrote as he spoke -- with a wry, sophisticated incredulity at the things these people said and did.

To my horror, the book was gone, although I found the empty spot where it had once been. I had kept it in my Maryland bookcase, snuggled in between a biography of Millard Tydings and a two-volume set of the papers and addresses of J. Millard Tawes. That shelf is a nice stable neighborhood; Tom Horton is nearby, and so is Mencken. But what could have happened to ''Thimbleriggers?''

Political junkie

Then I remembered. My son, the real political junkie in the family, had taken it off to college. There he's presumably enjoying an experience so many of us in the Baltimore area grew up with and took for granted -- reading Bradford Jacobs. I hoped I hadn't made a mistake lending it to him; Brad's prose will certainly make most of the reading assigned for his political-science courses seem like yesterday's oatmeal by comparison. It's just journalism, Brad might modestly say to somebody who praised his work. Although, he would be likely to add, everybody knows that professors can't write.

Personally, I owe Brad Jacobs thanks for much more than many years of good reading. For me professionally, he was a model and a mentor. It's also fair to say that if it hadn't been for him, I would never have written my first word for the Baltimore Sun.

We met around the time he became editor of the Evening Sun's editorial page in 1968, when I was covering Maryland politics for the Washington Post, and we soon became friendly. I was from Harford County, and he had some roots there too -- although he didn't mind letting me know that he viewed Bel Air, much less Havre de Grace, as far too pokey and rural to qualify as truly civilized.

Off and on over the next few years, we talked about possible job openings at the Evening Sun. At one point there was something close to an offer, and I was interested. But around that time I was assigned overseas by the Post, and forgot about Maryland for a while.

Painful suggestion

After I came home I decided to see if I could find a way to make a living that would still allow me to stay in Harford County. I wrote Brad a note. Was the Evening Sun still interested? I hoped so, because now I really needed a job. Sorry, he wrote back. There were no slots; perhaps I could do some free-lancing. My heart sank. But he had added a little postscript. Maybe, he suggested, I should try the morning paper. Brad was an Evening Sun man to the core in those days, and that suggestion surely pained him.

Anyway, I took his advice and eventually wangled a column-writing spot. And from the moment I joined the staff until his retirement in 1981, Brad Jacobs was friend, colleague, guide to the labyrinths of Baltimore politics, and -- a role he especially enjoyed -- purveyor of Sunpapers company gossip.

He's being remembered now for his role in getting Harry Hughes endorsed, and subsequently elected, as governor in 1978. But while that was a startling and unusual example of a newspaper's editorial comment having a direct effect on the life of its community, Brad Jacobs was much too perceptive a journalist to see what he did for Mr. Hughes as such a big deal.

He knew that it's a newspaper editorialist's job to consider the facts at hand and to comment on them. If the comments bring about action, and the action turns out to have been desirable, then that's all to the good. If The Sun had endorsed Harry Hughes and Mr. Hughes had then lost the election, the endorsement editorial would have been soon forgotten. But that doesn't mean it would have been wrong.

By the same token, if The Sun had endorsed Harry Hughes and taken credit for his election, and if he had then turned out to be a bad governor, it would have been an embarrassment. But that sort of thing happens all the time, in journalism as in other walks of life. You do your best, hope for the best and then if the outcome resembles what you hoped for, accept your good luck.

For many years, Brad Jacobs got up in the small hours of the morning and drove to the Sunpapers to write polished, punchy and often insightful editorials on all sorts of subjects. Before that he was a fine reporter, and wrote one of Baltimore's best local columns. After that he wrote an enduring book of local political history.

It seems to me that those things, not the timely but otherwise rather routine Hughes-for-governor editorial, are the real measure of his career.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 4/10/97

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