It's time to say goodbye with one last look back

September 02, 2001|By Barry Rascovar

SO THIS is how the end of the road looks.

After 32 years at this newspaper, 22 of them as deputy editorial page editor, time has run out on this column.

Saying goodbye isn't easy.

The idea for a local political column came from the fertile mind of Joe Sterne, who for a quarter-century produced one of the best editorial pages in the country.

He hired me out of The Sun's Washington Bureau. Since I had honed my reporting skills in the Annapolis State House during the tumultuous Marvin Mandel years, he suggested I pen a weekly opinion piece focusing on state government and politics.

It began in January 1980, just as the Maryland General Assembly opened its 90-day session.

Year after year, the column rolled along. More recently, it ran twice weekly. Now, after nearly 1,000 signed opinion pieces, and nearly 5,000 editorials (centering on Baltimore and Maryland issues), other challenges await.

Governors got the heaviest exposure. And why not? Their office is the most powerful in Maryland.

Not one of them expressed happiness with these critiques. I've tried to give readers my view of what really goes on in Annapolis. Governors want the public to hear just their side of things - with a positive slant.

Harry Hughes marched in one day and demanded my head; William Donald Schaefer screamed at me and sent angry, hand-written screeds; Parris Glendening became a regular phone pal before he gave up and instead sent poisoned post cards. (One from Detroit: "The cold and snow reminded me of you.")

It came with the territory. So did furious calls from lobbyists and legislators who felt unfairly spotlighted. Sometimes, they had a point.

Walter Lippman, the foremost journalist-philosopher of the 20th century, described the role of a journalist as akin to shining a flashlight on a corner of a darkened room. Only a small portion of that room - or story - is revealed. There's a more complex and bigger tale still hidden.

The same holds for my columns.

I've tried to reveal what lies beneath the surface in the State House and in elections. Yet my flashlight can't illuminate every part of the story, either. You'd probably need a subpoena to do that.

Maryland has been blessed in the caliber of its leaders. Some have fallen short of expectations; a few have tumbled into disrespect.

Mr. Mandel was one such victim. Benefits flowed from the governor to his friends, and they reciprocated. That quid pro quo sent him to prison. And yet there's little doubt he was the most effective reform-minded governor in the last half-century.

He was also an accidental governor, the beneficiary of Spiro Agnew's selection as Richard Nixon's running mate in 1968. While I never covered the Agnew years in Annapolis, I did report on the vice president's resignation and nolo contendre plea-bargain in Baltimore federal court.

Later, I wrote a few columns about Agnew's years as governor. We corresponded briefly. He sent me his book in which he insisted that zealous prosecutors had unfairly targeted him. Prior governors did the same thing, he wrote, and no one objected. His views of events and mine were incompatible.

I set high standards for those involved in political and governmental decision-making. This is, after all, the public's business.

People expect their elected representatives to do what's right. Usually they do. When they don't, columnists and editorialists can - and should - play a watchdog role.

Maryland has gotten a bum reputation for corruption. There's not that much, really. Even in the Watergate era, the vast bulk of governmental decisions and political actions were progressive and well-motivated.

Public officials also make an enormous sacrifice, both in time and energy. That's especially true of state legislators. They essentially give up three months of their lives every year to enact Maryland's budget and laws. Holding a normal, full-time job is impossible.

What you realize after covering the General Assembly is that given Maryland's incredible diversity, it's amazing how frequently differences are bridged.

Unlike Washington, where venomous partisanship makes responsible lawmaking next to impossible, Maryland legislators usually put party labels away when they do their work. The objective is solving problems, not gaining political advantage.

That's the way it should be. It's why most Maryland lawmakers put up with the hectic three-month schedule that plays havoc with their home lives and jobs.

And it's why congressmen like Bob Ehrlich, Elijah Cummings and Ben Cardin say they so enjoyed their years in the state legislature, where they could hammer out differences and find pragmatic ways to make programs work for people - without political rancor.

Over the years, I've encountered some wonderful characters:

Thomas Hunter Lowe, the bull-necked speaker of the House, who used to work out with the Naval Academy's wrestling team.

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