Glendening's valedictory ignores state's problems

January 20, 2002|By Michael Olesker

ON THE MORNING of his annual State of the State address last week, Gov. Parris Glendening told a few reporters that he might take "the full 90 minutes" allotted him by custom. It was Glendening's little joke. Running time for his speech was actually 48 minutes.

Walking-out time was much less.

The governor took a stray turn and left Maryland in his rearview mirror, with many listeners waving bye-bye. He landed, initially, in the psychological precincts of New York on Sept. 11. This was understandable. But then he found himself detouring to Brazilian rain forests, and the nervous Middle East, and then he took everybody to philosophical lunch with South Africa's Nelson Mandela.

The sentiments were fine. But some people, including not a few Democrats who snickered through parts of his speech, suspected that Glendening shifted his thoughts to distant locales so he could avoid talking about the problems he's facing at home.

Glendening glanced down from his podium at the sound of some of the snickering. He seemed confused. He looked like a man who was certain he'd delivered some lovely sentiments and couldn't figure out the strange response. In fact, the first stifled laughs could be heard as the governor talked about a boat ride along the Patuxent River, and his efforts made to protect wildlife there.

"We are protecting this land for all our children," Glendening said, heavily accenting the word "all." And then he proceeded to name so many small children of so many state legislators - listing them by name and by age and by parentage and by everything but voter precinct - that, for a moment, it seemed as if he might actually name "all" children in the whole state.

What was this all about? Name-dropping for its own sake? A governor patronizing legislators whose votes he might need down the road? Or just a fellow killing as much time as he could to avoid talking about uncomfortable matters?

"Weird, it was weird," said Del. Robert L. Flanagan of Howard County, moments after Glendening's speech. Flanagan was grabbing every reporter he could find. He seemed so gleeful that he might take flight. He's a Republican, so the partisanship is understandable. But so were some of the sentiments.

"The rain forest?" Flanagan said. "Nelson Mandela? What's that about? He tried to talk about everything but the budget."

Glendening's people argued that the governor had covered much of the budget the previous day. He did - though not as objectively as some might have wanted, as the state wades into the recession and the aftereffects of some big-government spending.

When Glendening finished his State of the State speech, it felt as much like a valentine to himself, and a valedictory to America's last seven economic boom years, as it did an assessment of Maryland today.

"Well, yes, it was sort of a valedictory," said Sen. Barbara Hoffman of Baltimore. "I think he was saying, `This is what a good world would look like, and I've tried to do my part.' Look, it's his last shot. I guess he's allowed a summing-up."

"Very global," said Sen. Thomas Bromwell of Baltimore County. "I think the tone was, you know, `It's raining in Maryland, but it's typhoons elsewhere.'"

But House Speaker Casper Taylor warned that Glendening had only hinted at possible tough times ahead, and Hoffman and Del. Samuel "Sandy" Rosenberg of Baltimore expressed concern about Glendening shifting funds in patchwork style to cover unexpected shortfalls.

What is it about this governor that makes him so tough for so many people to like? He's been lucky - lucky that economic times were good, and lucky that his personal problems were generally kissed off - but he's also been a progressive governor who preached fairness and spent money on the right things: education and law enforcement and the environment.

But there's an unsettling calculatedness about him, too, which has been seen since the first time he ran for governor. He talked about one Maryland - but sneakily played Montgomery and Prince George's counties off against the Baltimore area. (We understand Baltimore's importance, he told audiences around here; but he told suburban D.C. audiences: Baltimore's day is over.)

Then there was the way he's worked both ends of the street on gambling. Or the way he consistently, and cloyingly, used his family as a political weapon - and then, once he broke it apart, declared the subject a "private" matter. Or the way he tried to finesse the job of chancellor of the state's university system, and still might try again.

Or, for that matter, the way he delivered his State of the State address last week, and took us to distant places around the globe.

It's not that Glendening's sentiments were off the mark. It's just that they seemed so contrived in such a setting. In an hour when his job was to talk about Maryland, he seemed to be trying to distract us from problems waiting just outside our doors.

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