Watching with interest as public, private matters collide in politician's life

September 02, 2001|By MICHAEL OLESKER

FOR THOSE WHO missed the cosmic significance of William Donald Schaefer's remarks about Gov. Parris Glendening, and the famous Hilda Mae Snoops fountain, and a not-so-famous young woman named Jennifer Crawford, it amounts to Schaefer declaring this:

If you're going to hurt the memory of my lady, I'm going to talk about yours in public.

Thus is the continuing battle heightened between the now-separated governor and the never-married former governor. And thus do painful sensitivities about their female friends unearth delicate issues about the private lives of public figures.

It was Glendening, reacting to months of incessant Schaefer sniping at Board of Public Works meetings, who turned off the waters of the State House fountain designed by Snoops, Schaefer's late lady friend.

And it was Schaefer, infuriated by the gesture and by Glendening's refusal to let the waters flow again, who last week turned his pleas to Crawford.

As The Sun reported Thursday, Schaefer characterized Crawford as "the big boss," who "runs things" and was thus seen by Schaefer as "my court of last resort" on the fountain. It was also, for those not wishing to feel naive, Schaefer's calculated way to put the unknown Crawford's name into public play. He knew exactly what he was doing: pushing open a door for area news organizations that had been digging into Glendening's post-marital life for months, but had held back from writing about it.

As The Washington Post reported Friday, the 59-year-old Glendening, separated for 14 months, is "involved in a relationship" with the 34-year-old Crawford, who has risen through the ranks for the last 15 months to become the governor's $100,000-a- year deputy chief of staff.

So we arrive at what has been whispered about for the last year, causing great gusts of political gossip in Annapolis, and much consternation in newsrooms across the area: What business is it, exactly, what the governor of Maryland (or any public official) does in his private life? At what point does a private matter become public business? And how do we report about public figures' lives -- and the effect on government -- without adding to the pain of their personal problems?

These are questions of some interest to former Gov. Marvin Mandel, whose embarrassing divorce was reported at length. And to former Governor Schaefer, who cringed at all public discussion of his relationship with Snoops. And they will surely interest Glendening, who, at another time, had a few things to say about Bill Clinton's private life.

In Parris Glendening's life -- as in the others' -- so much of the private is tied to so much of the public.

Glendening is the man who turned his wife, Frances Anne, into a political weapon, clasping her ostentatiously to his side through all his campaigns, leading applause for her during all political speeches -- and, in one of the most over-the-top cloying gestures in political history, bringing out a singer at his first gubernatorial inauguration ceremonies to warble "The Wind Beneath My Wings" to his wife.

But when the Glendenings separated in the summer of last year, the governor and his top aides refused all questions about the breakup, telling one television reporter who asked, "If you ask the governor anything else about it, he'll walk away and not give you any more sound bites as long as he's in office."

It also raised eyebrows among those who remembered Glendening's remarks during the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky troubles.

"We have an 18-year-old son," Glendening said. "We're trying to teach him to be responsible for his actions. You need role models." Glendening was, at the time, both married and locked in an apparently tight race for governor. Within weeks, though, as polls showed that Bill Clinton's popularity remained high, Glendening did an about-face.

"Everyone makes mistakes," he said, explaining why he was now forgiving Clinton. "I've made some mistakes, and I'm still here."

Everyone makes mistakes, including people in marriages that end sadly. No one wants to exploit such tragedies by airing the stories in public.

But the case of Parris Glendening involves people whose lives are tied to the life of this state -- the governor who makes public policy (and found it expedient to talk about other people's marital troubles); the former wife who helped him get elected, and accompanied him in all official duties; and the young woman who has become his deputy chief of staff.

She may not be "the big boss" who "runs things," as William Donald Schaefer suggests. But she's a serious player affecting public life. So we should know a little more about her, and her relationship with the governor, than we have known for the past year.

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