Political payoffs by the pound

December 25, 1998|By Warren Buckler

SANTA CLAUS no doubt wishes he had it as easy as the favor-seekers and special pleaders who used to -- and maybe even now -- see Christmas as a good opportunity to worm their way into a politician's good graces.

Rather than wriggle down a sooty chimney, these mysterious fellows -- I like to think of them as the three kings of the lobbying profession -- strode boldly, and I trust reverently, up my family's walkway early on Christmas morning, while the reputable citizens of Baltimore were still snug in their beds, and left their offerings by the front door.

Or at least that's how it worked from 1947 to 1951, when I was enrolled at Gilman School and my father, Warren Buckler Jr., represented Roland Park and adjoining areas of North Baltimore in the City Council.

Christmas Day always began in our house with the announcement that no presents were to be opened until my father had eaten his breakfast and read the morning paper. We protested loud, long and in vain. This little spectacle became a family ritual, scrupulously observed year after year.

My father's original purpose was to torment the rest of us, especially the kids. But also for him, a leisurely breakfast was a rare luxury, and he relished every bite of his typical Christmas breakfast: poached eggs, waffles, kidney stew, scrapple, kippered herring, grapefruit and toast drenched in butter. He had little time for such delicacies on workdays.

But his edict about not opening presents didn't apply to the goodies on the front porch. For as soon as he began to grumble about Sun editorials (which invariably urged against any precipitate rocking-of-the-boat), we children scrambled purposefully out the front door to inspect the loot.

We had quit believing in Santa by then, or had serious doubts. So the inexplicable appearance of gifts on the front stoop invested the day with a touch of mystery, compensating for what had been lost.

They always arrived sometime between our return from the midnight service at St. Thomas Episcopal Church way out in Greenspring Valley -- my father's annual concession to Christian conformity -- and first light.

The anonymous messengers who raced silently through the city in the pre-dawn hours to share their riches with political decision-makers seemed to me in my innocence the truest exemplars of the Christmas spirit.

Actually, any self-respecting politician today would laugh derisively at the meagerness of our special-interest bonanza.

Beating the bosses

My father was a good-government liberal who was often at odds with the bosses of Baltimore's Democratic machine -- "Back Buckler and Beat the Bosses" read the slogan on his campaign buttons. (Alas, they usually beat him.) Many of the gift bearers no doubt bypassed our house as a lost cause and left double the usual allotment elsewhere.

But we could always count on finding a couple of bottles of Maryland rye whiskey, a carton or two of cigarettes, a case of beer, boxes of candy, a tin of ham, each with a card identifying the individual, institution or cause in search of a sympathetic ear at City Hall.

For my mother, Patty Buckler, however, the biggest prize was the season pass to Pimlico Race Course. My father dismissed horse enthusiasts as no-account dandies in red hunting coats and jodhpurs who were too dull or insensitive to think about anything important, like decent housing and equal rights, let alone redistribution of wealth.

She, on the other hand, fancied herself a psychic, and nowhere did she practice her black art more profitably than at Pimlico or Laurel or Bowie race tracks. She had no "system," dismissed the Racing Form as part of a conspiracy to fleece the public and seldom heeded touts or tipsters. Indeed, they would have done well to look to her for advice.

With me at her heels, she seemed to cash every ticket, and we always went home with a wad of bills that would make any ward heeler proud. Thus did drear December offer a foretaste of summer's bounty.

Politics shaped the holiday in other ways. For instance, one year, my father, apparently hoping to give me a feel for life beyond the genteel embrace of Roland Park, took me to a bash that a big paving contractor staged in a cavernous equipment shed for elected officials, party autocrats, their retinues and hangers-on.

There amid acrid smoke and the medley of aromas wafting from tubs of some of Baltimore's favorite comestibles, I gazed in awe at the most celebrated political schemers of that or any era, smoking big black cigars, stroking their then-fashionable pot bellies, which were swathed in tightly stretched vests, catching ashes.

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