Of symbols and substance

April 20, 2002

IMAGE is everything.

That's what Andre Agassi and a certain camera company used to tell us on TV. People of a certain age squirmed to think the tennis star was right and struggled to make a case for substance.

But the power of imagery cannot be denied, especially as its shaping influence increases along with the pace of life. Do we still have time for careful contemplation?

Symbols slice through the clutter and inform thinking, for good or ill. Well-crafted or inadvertent, sharp-edged images endure.

Take Baltimore's Inner Harbor. Now headed for a makeover after 20 years, its waterside diversions still say: Here's Baltimore, Hon, reborn and on the move! The kite shops, the Bolivian flutists and the rap-singing fudge-makers entertain diners on balconies that feel like a communal front porch. Even canny, doubting Baltimoreans learned to recognize the substance there.

One applauds such successful transformations because, of course, these manipulations don't always work. Some of the most devastatingly effective symbols and images arise from bad timing or faulty judgments about how things will "play" in the marketplace of idea and perception. In recent days, million-dollar corporate bonuses and an academic necklace made the point in Maryland.

The meaning of Towson University's controversial $25,000 medallion might have been endorsed by Marylanders who wish to see their institutions of higher education achieving higher status, but something there is that doesn't like a bejeweled educator. Hung about the Towson president's neck at his inauguration, the medallion was intended to link his campus to the ancient and sacred traditions of learning.

As things turned out, the medallion caper has no peer as a demonstration of a symbol's power -- and of clueless excess. The context could not have been richer.

The university and the University System of Maryland's Board of Regents had purchased a big house in Baltimore's Guilford neighborhood, a place where museum-sized houses are unchallenged symbols of wealth and exclusivity. Then they bought a $25,000 entertainment center. Mark L. Perkins, the now-deposed Towson University president, said it was a multimedia communications center for professional use, not for the Perkins' family rumpus room. By then, though, images had far more force than words. Then came news of the medal, which turned out to be no medallion at all but an albatross instead. As the dust settles, calamitous symbolism may have rendered the grand Guilford house unusable.

At about the same time, an image ran amok for CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield. The nonprofit insurer wants to become a for-profit corporation and sell itself to WellPoint Health Networks, a corporation based in California. An argument could be made that this high finance would help CareFirst customers. But rumors of a huge conversion bonus for CareFirst executives obscured their assertions of the deal's value to consumers. In time, the company acknowledged that, indeed, its officers would get a total of $33 million from WellPoint if the sale went through. End of debate.

The corporate world affords CEOs certain blandishments, but in the real world -- where some people don't much like health insurance companies -- news of the $32 million was a deal breaker.

Already looking for ways to block the sale to WellPoint, state legislators suddenly had something to hang their bowler hats on. Here was a symbol of insider generosity instantly imprinted on the minds of voters from Oakland to Princess Anne.

Such missteps need not be fatal for institutions that are, like Towson and the Blues, admirable and sound. Both may have been guilty of over-reaching, but both have real substance -- which ultimately can be the best symbolism of all.

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