Next mayor owes it to city to study Schaefer

October 28, 1999|By Michael Olesker

THE NEW mayor of Baltimore, poised to receive his political benediction next Tuesday, should sit quietly and study the old man for a while. And he should invite in every brain-fried city planner, every sullen and exhausted bureaucrat, every overburdened tax payer wondering if it's worth the struggle to keep living in the city, every parent worrying about the public schools, everyone who gives up hope on Baltimore about 37 times a day, and they should all pay attention, too.

They can find the old man in the pages of C. Fraser Smith's new book, "William Donald Schaefer: A Political Biography," published by the Johns Hopkins University Press. It will restore their sense of possibilities, and tell them about one underestimated and unlikely and uncomfortable man who willed his city back to life and then went off to tackle the whole state.

Smith, an editorial writer here who spent 20 years covering Schaefer as mayor and governor, has not only captured Schaefer the man, but a whole era and its cast of characters. Irv Kovens is here, laughingly dubbing the early Schaefer "Shaky" for his transparent nervousness, and Jack Pollack's here, and so is Marvin Mandel, trying to help Schaefer pull a few strings in Annapolis to get his old city up from its knees.

And George Russell is here, running against Schaefer in his first mayoral campaign and hinting that his opponent is a "dummy," and William L. "Little Willie" Adams is here, too, torn between the two contenders as the city moved edgily through the first campaign for City Hall to cross racial lines.

"Virtually no one found [Schaefer] gifted, bright, or prepared to be more than a caretaker," Smith writes of the early mayoral days -- and then shows us precisely how everyone was so wrong.

But politics is only part of the book. It's about the famous Schaefer psyche, too. Some of us still remember the Schaefer who was dubbed "the best mayor in America" by Esquire magazine -- and immediately called the article "the worst piece of journalism I've ever seen."

Or we remember Schaefer winning 60 percent of the vote in his second run for governor, in a time when Democrats were being pushed over cliffs all over the country -- and Schaefer plunging into a funk because he'd only won by 20 points.

Smith captures that man, too -- the impulsive, bullying, self-pitying, idiosyncratic cheerleader so incomprehending of those who criticized him that he would fire off emotional salvos in return. But he also explains the sly thinking behind the surface madness. And he offers this description:

"[Schaefer's] life in politics had been vouchsafed by do-gooders, clubhouse operators, slick businessmen, and neighborhood leaders. He managed to find the best in each of these without being a servant to any.

"He was a classic 1950s-style can-do man, a veteran of World War II, a holdover from the time in American life when learning from experience and from respected elders was a way of life. He was a career politician who ran for office to serve -- to work for people, to care about their welfare. He wanted to think of himself, and to have others think of him, as a distinguished city father, a public servant. He seemed to be the last Baltimorean to see how well he had succeeded."

That's part of the man, too, the relentless striver so busy doing it now -- the classic Schaefer phrase -- that he didn't quite grasp the respect and the affection he'd gained. Or, depending on his mood, seemed to sense it but wasn't sure it was grand enough, whose own insecurities were so much larger than everyone else's assurances that he'd done well and was loved, that he wouldn't allow himself a little peace of mind.

As the century winds down, we make lists: the top 10 athletes, the top 10 actors or television shows or bagel-makers. In the world of Maryland politics, there's William Donald Schaefer, and then there's the top 10. He immersed himself in every problem he found, and tried to find a way out, and made this his whole life.

An easy man, he is not. And Smith captures all the famous flaws, but explains them. And the famous fights, too, and how he made up with some (Kweisi Mfume) and not with others (Kurt L. Schmoke, Harry Hughes), and why.

But it's also a study of the improbable: not only this man whom nobody ever imagined as a great leader, but of his refusal to let a city die, and how the next mayor and those around him might find their own way by paying him some attention.

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