O'Malley puts power of words to good use

November 04, 1999|By Michael Olesker

THE COURSE was about body language. The teacher was a guy named Michael Ryan, out of the Baltimore state's attorney's office sex offense unit, and he was telling all these bright young prosecutors, many of them fresh out of law school, how to watch people's posture and gestures and not just listen to the words they say.

The course only took a couple of hours, but when it was done, Ryan remembered, one of these young attorneys walked up to him and said earnestly, "I learned more in the last two hours in here than I did in my entire last year of law school."

"You're Irish, aren't you?" Ryan said.

"How do you know?" said Martin O'Malley, the young prosecutor.

"The blarney," said Michael Francis Xavier Ryan.

The two men laughed out loud, and O'Malley, trimming the exaggeration, said, "OK, the last six months of law school."

Ryan was remembering the story with great affection Tuesday, Election Day in the city, which was about a dozen years since that moment with the youthful, future mayor-elect of Baltimore.

The dictionary defines "blarney" as "smooth talk used in flattering or coaxing." This hints at O'Malley but only begins to describe him. The silence out of City Hall is about to be over. For all of his good intentions, for all of his years of graduate-school diligence applied to running a city government, the outgoing man, Kurt L. Schmoke, always seemed ill-at-ease talking about his work, or his city's emotional troubles, or the need to bridge the gaps among those who live here.

O'Malley has no such reluctance. He delights in language, and embraces the emotions behind it. He understands the power of words and images and mass communication. In the first five minutes of his tenure as mayor-elect, standing before a cheering crowd at the Columbus Center, he showed more fire in the belly, and more indication that he wants to address sensitive subjects in public, than Schmoke did in a dozen years at City Hall.

Partly, it's the nature of the man, and partly, he understands that it's the nature of the job. Being mayor is not just being an administrator, it's setting a mood, it's creating an atmosphere that translates across the city's diverse communities.

"We know that there is more that unites us than divides us," O'Malley said Tuesday night.

Nobody needs a translation. It's an old line, but it establishes a frame of mind: This is where we stand. On election night, O'Malley had Pete Rawlings near him, and Joan Carter Conway and Stephanie Rawlings, all of whom said during the primary campaign that race must be secondary.

And Carl Stokes was there, and O'Malley looked at his opponent in the primary and called him "my friend" for everyone to hear, and a beaming Kweisi Mfume looked on, hearing the kind of language, and the kind of cadence, that could have come from Mfume himself.

Words have power. In the absence of words, there are images: the trash lying in vacant lots remaining after the demolition of homes; the sound of a mother weeping over a fallen child; the sense of menace on street corners after dark.

(And, not entirely to be minimized, a computer system crashing on election night, and no sense of official outrage. It's just fate, officials say, or it's God's will. And no one steps forward to take responsibility.)

In the past dozen years, there was always the sense that Kurt Schmoke understood these problems, but never the sense that he would not tolerate them. Out of his apparent detachment, or ambivalence, came a city's emotional deflation.

Now O'Malley shows up, and he talks about changing this. The phrase is zero tolerance. The details are controversial, and there will be trouble, and political confrontations -- but there is the sense that, finally, someone has looked at the lingering absurdity of a community frightened of itself and will move aggressively to change it.

It's hard for a municipality to believe in itself when there is no sense that its own leaders believe in it. When William Donald Schaefer took over City Hall 28 years ago, the city was an emotional wreck.

So he lied to everybody, and the lie stuck around long enough that it took on a life of its own. Baltimore is best, he kept insisting. And, while he repeated the generality, he worked relentlessly on the specifics.

Words have power. When Mike Ryan told the young prosecutor Martin O'Malley that he had the gift of blarney, it was a casual joke. O'Malley understands why we need words. They're a message to everyone who hears them: We're paying attention. We know what you're up against, and we intend to help.

And the words themselves are a very important start.

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