Ehrlich, Steele have some explaining to do

July 11, 2002|By MICHAEL OLESKER

ROBERT EHRLICH and Michael Steele aim to be Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid for the working-class set. Riding across the state's political prairie, they wish to be perceived as products of their humble origins trying to swipe an election from the spoiled little rich girl, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

But we're left with a question that haunted Butch and Sundance: Who are these guys?

And, where do they get off acting so preposterously out of character?

Ehrlich's the poster child from the white working-class background. Dad's a car salesman, mom's a secretary. Young Bobby worked his way through school on scholarship and hard knocks. In our national self-image, it doesn't get much better than this. And when he trumpets this kind of Horatio Alger American triumph, Ehrlich deserves to take pride.

But how does it square with a guy who's spent years in Congress toeing the mark on every conservative Republican measure that helped create the biggest economic gap between haves and have-nots in history - including so-called "stimulus packages" that benefited the big boys like IBM and General Electric and ignored working-class types (like car salesmen and secretaries), including tax cuts where the richest 1 percent of Americans cashed in big while everybody else waited for scraps from the table, and the wealthiest 2.6 million Americans wound up with the same combined after-tax income as 100 million Americans with the lowest incomes?

How do you market yourself as a working-class hero when you enthusiastically backed those kinds of economic measures?

Which brings us to Steele, Ehrlich's gubernatorial running mate, the black guy with the working-class background. On his horseback romp to deliver class distinctions, Steele has happily told everybody that his stepfather was Robert F. Kennedy's chauffeur.

You want a better picture of the American success story, folks, you can't buy one. The upward-striving son of the humble chauffeur takes on the daughter of the rich guy in the limo.

Except, as Steele admitted to The Washington Post - after Kathleen Kennedy Townsend said the story wasn't true - he may have been guilty of a little embellishing. It turns out that Steele's stepfather, a part-time limo driver, came home one day and said, "Guess who I had in the car today?"

It was Robert Kennedy. It happened once. But, over the past two years, as Steele has made his way first to his position as state Republican Party chairman and then as candidate for lieutenant governor, he referred to his stepfather as "Kennedy's chauffeur."

Is the distinction worth a lot? As private anecdote for family and friends, who cares? But, as part of an intended pitch to distinguish the working-class Ehrlich and Steele from the wealthy Townsend, yeah, it matters. Because, in a political campaign, where candidates speak in 10-second sound bites and deliver 30-second commercials, all is metaphor.

Like it or not, Steele is himself a metaphor. As an African-American, he is Ehrlich's attempt to attract black voters who have shunned the Republican Party for the last four decades. He is the GOP attempt to say that history does not matter. But, if Steele's selection is to count for more than empty symbolism, he has to explain why an African-American has found philosophical comfort in this party.

He is 43 years old. When he was 5 years old, and Democrat Lyndon Johnson was trying to pass landmark civil rights legislation, Barry Goldwater was leading the Republican fight for "state's rights," which was a euphemism to allow Southern states to hold onto racial segregation.

When Steele was 9, Richard Nixon was putting together his Southern strategy and writing off all black voters. It's the time when Nixon reached out for Spiro Agnew as his vice presidential running mate because Agnew, as governor of Maryland, made headlines excoriating moderate black community leaders after the 1968 riots.

When Steele was a college kid, he heard Ronald Reagan talk about "welfare queens" and other imagined characters designed to play the race card. And then he saw George Bush the elder give us Willie Horton, and he saw such men as Pat Buchanan and Bob Barr and Strom Thurmond standing tall under the Republican banner.

So Steele is entitled to run as a Republican. But, as an African-American, he would help many people by explaining why he thinks the party's posture has changed. Otherwise, he and Ehrlich come across merely as actors playing roles.

And voters will ask: Who, exactly, are these guys?

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