Out-mayoring and/or out-cussing

Swearing: Martin O'Malley's use of salty language recalls two legendary former mayors of Baltimore.

September 02, 2001|By G. Jefferson Price III | G. Jefferson Price III,PERSPECTIVE EDITOR

Now comes Martin O'Malley, mayor of Baltimore, cussing again in print, even though his mother said she'd talk to him about it.

The cause of O'Malley's latest aggravation is the same as before: Patricia C. Jessamy, state's attorney of Baltimore, and her failure to get things done the way the mayor wants them done.

The mayor was miffed recently because Jessamy wasn't succeeding with the idea he supported for an early disposition court to get petty criminal cases out of the way. The mayor said he didn't care how the cases were resolved early, so long as they were out of the way: "I don't give a rat's ass; as long as it ain't on the docket, it's accomplishing the goal."

This vulgarity brought to mind the mayor's last public assault on Jessamy, back in January, for her failure to prosecute a city police officer on corruption charges because key evidence in the case was compromised by a burglary of the building where it was kept. "She doesn't even have the goddamn guts to get off her ass and go in and try this case, and I'm tired of it," he said. " ... Maybe she should get the hell out and let somebody else in who's not afraid do the goddamn job."

There was an outcry. There was a demonstration. Barbara O'Malley, the mayor's mother, said, "I will talk to him."

But seven months later, he's at it again.

Is O'Malley trying to match two of Baltimore's most legendary Democrats? One is William Donald Schaefer, who was mayor from 1971 to 1986, governor from 1987 to 1995 and now is state comptroller. The other was the late Thomas J. D'Alesandro Jr., who was mayor from 1947 to 1959 after eight years in Congress. If O'Malley can't out-mayor them, maybe he thinks he can out-cuss them.

Out-mayoring D'Alesandro and Schaefer would be tough enough. D'Alesandro was mayor when that post was mighty powerful; he was one of the city's last real political bosses. Schaefer was one of the most successful mayors of his era. He rebuilt the city.

Out-cussing Schaefer and D'Alesandro might be even harder.

Schaefer has always had difficulty composing full sentences, but his gift of cuss is enormous, and he would heap it in person, on the telephone and in writing on anything, anyone or anyplace that annoyed him. He especially liked lavatory expletives.

I called him once to get his reaction to the Monsanto company's decision to pull out of the experimental pyrolisis plant on Russell street. "Ca-ca, pee-pee, doo-doo," the mayor said. (He could be redundant, too.) I asked him if he might say something we could print. Looking back at the story that was printed almost 25 years ago, I see that he finally said this about Monsanto: "They are a common bunch of bastards."

By the time Schaefer ran for a second term as governor, after three terms as mayor, he was still popular, but the glow was fading. His loss of several Eastern Shore counties in the 1990 election enraged him. And in January 1991, he muttered to an Eastern Shore delegate, on the floor of the General Assembly: "How's that [bleep]house of an Eastern Shore?"

The uproar that followed makes the reaction to O'Malley's profanities seem mild.

Frank P.L. Somerville recalls his encounters with D'Alesandro's profanity.

As a young reporter at The Sun in the 1950s, Somerville was told by the news desk to go to City Hall and ask the mayor to react to something the mayor clearly did not want to talk about.

Timidly, the cub reporter approached the mayor and started: "Mr. Mayor, my desk has asked me to ask you ... " The mayor put his ear to his own desk, muttered and said, "Mr. Somerville, my desk tells me to tell your desk to go [bleep] itself."

On another occasion, young Somerville was asked to telephone the mayor to ask about an unpopular action taken by Traffic Commissioner Henry Barnes. "I want to make sure you get this down right. Got a pen?" Somerville recalls the mayor saying. Assured that Somerville was prepared, D'Alesandro went on: "Mr. Barnes has [bleeped] in his hat, and he wants me to wear it."

D'Alesandro and Schaefer had excuses for cussing. D'Alesandro was the product of a rough East Baltimore immigrant community. Schaefer seemed incapable of emphasis without cussing, though he says he mellowed lately. But O'Malley is a product of the Washington suburbs, Gonzaga High School and Catholic University. What's his excuse?

Perhaps O'Malley should pattern himself instead after a third legendary mayor, Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin, a man so popular that he was elected mayor of Baltimore in 1943, governor in 1950 and mayor again in 1963.

A tall, distinguished-looking gentleman, McKeldin was a rare creature in Maryland political success. He was a Republican. He didn't drink, and he didn't swear.

"I don't think anybody ever heard him utter an oath," says Peter Marudas, a recently retired political operative who worked at City Hall during the McKeldin era.

McKeldin got some great roads around Baltimore going, built what's now Baltimore-Washington International Airport, reorganized state government and, in his last term as mayor, started to transform the renewal of downtown Baltimore and the Inner Harbor from inspiration to reality.

He accomplished much, but never cussed to get what he wanted.

G. Jefferson Price III is the editor of Perspective. He covered Baltimore City Hall in the 1970s.

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