Idealism was a blessing once, not a political sin

This Just In...

October 29, 1999|By Dan Rodricks

I SEE where Mike Miller, the lawyer and career politician from Prince George's County who serves as president of the Maryland Senate, presumes to instruct Joe Curran, the lawyer and career politician who serves as Maryland attorney general, on a better calling. "My take on Joe is that he has the makings of a Catholic priest," Miller told a Sun reporter last week. "He's a very thoughtful person, very true to his beliefs -- and always a bit preachy."

So get he to a seminary?

Miller, who is as Catholic as Curran, made this dismissive remark after the attorney general launched his new attack on handguns, calling for stricter controls and an eventual ban on their private ownership. Whether you agree with Curran or not, such political bravery and quixotic idealism is seldom seen or heard these days. Miller, philosophically drained and probably jaded after nearly three decades in the General Assembly, must have been perplexed to hear Father Joe go off on guns. How often does anyone in politics speak out in an effort to move hearts?

It's easy to understand Miller's mild sarcasm about the mild-mannered Curran. If you've held office as long as he has -- first elected to the House of Delegates in 1971, to the Senate in 1975, its president since 1987 -- such idealism seems anachronistic. It doesn't fit into the complicated mathematics of moving legislation through the General Assembly, which has become Miller's area of expertise. Miller and others of the political class look at an idea such as Curran's and declare it dead on arrival. Stricter control of handguns? A ban? There's considerable public support -- 80 percent or higher in Gallup polls -- but it's just not realistic. "It's a nonstarter," said the governor of Maryland. "We've got to be realistic." Career politicians always invoke this two-bit realism to absolve themselves of every compromise of principle, every initiative deferred.

That's where we are: If you dare to offer a progressive idea, if your goal is wildly idealistic, you had better get thee to a seminary (if not an asylum). We leave moral authority to the preachers and priests. There's no place for it in modern politics.

Makes you want to support term limitations, doesn't it?

Appreciating the Jones Falls

During a hike along the Jones Falls, just below TV Hill and the old Woodberry landfill, I experienced something for which the English language does not have a word. "Discovery" doesn't do it justice. It's that feeling you get when, having lived in a place a while -- maybe even your whole life -- you suddenly discover something that was there all along, right under your nose. In this case, it was right under my car.

Like a lot of Baltimoreans, I've driven the Jones Falls Expressway countless times, never knowing the natural delights growing beneath it. I've seen some of the industrial sights, the old mills along the lower Falls Road, the Pepsi plant, and the Light Rail stop at Union Avenue. Been there, blew through.

But it wasn't until Michael Beers, the Jones Falls enthusiast, led me on a hike beyond the stone houses of Woodberry that I appreciated the wooded land that forms that mass of green you see -- if you ever look as you drive -- to the east of the expressway, south of Cold Spring Lane. The river, which appears to be nothing more than a big storm drain to motorists, bends at the bottom of a slope below the old landfill and, for one long stretch, reminds me of some lovely creeks I've seen in Western Maryland and Pennsylvania. As I stood there with Beers, admiring the morning vista, I could hear the rest of Baltimore off to work -- rushing down the expressway, beyond the woods beyond the stream. That's when I had that feeling, that where-have-I-been-all-my-life feeling. How did I miss this?

Easy.

Most people have.

Unless you're as determined a hiker as Beers, or one of the growing number of people who've come to champion the Jones Falls valley and its woodlands, you couldn't appreciate this. The purpose of the annual Jones Falls celebration is to spread that appreciation and garner support for the valley's preservation. The best news I've heard lately is that the city is about to roll out plans for a hike-bike Jones Falls Greenway that will take more people into the valley.

Ben Cardin, the Baltimore congressman who likes to bike, managed to pull some funds out of the federal transportation budget last year for a trail that ultimately will connect the Inner Harbor to the North Central Railroad Trail in Baltimore County, via the Jones Falls valley.

But the first phase of the plan takes the trail south, to Penn Station. Beth Strommen, the city's greenway coordinator, says a 10-foot-wide hike-bike trail would run from Druid Hill Park over Wyman Park Drive Bridge, near the Stieff Silver plant, down to Falls Road, along the river to Lanvale Street and the train station. A second phase of the plan will take the trail north, through the Jones Falls valley, past Cylburn Arboretum to Lake Roland in Baltimore County and, eventually, to the NCR Trail.

That's a wow.

TJIDAN@aol.com is the e-mail address for Dan Rodricks. He can be reached at 410-332-6166 or by post at The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, Md. 21278.

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