Honoring a man of rare eloquence

April 27, 2003|By G. Jefferson Price III | G. Jefferson Price III,PERSPECTIVE EDITOR

The row of portraits of former governors of Maryland on the walls of the State House ceremonial room will get a touch of class tomorrow.

Sometime before noon, the portraits of two former governors, Marvin Mandel and Harry Roe Hughes, will move aside to make way for the portrait of the late Blair Lee III, who served as acting governor between their terms. This was because Mandel had been convicted in a 1977 federal corruption trial and Lee was his lieutenant governor. Hughes beat Lee in the 1978 Democratic primary for a full term as governor, thanks largely to this newspaper, which endorsed Hughes more aggressively than practically any other political candidate it ever supported. But that's another story.

For more than a year, Blair Lee, the scion of a family that had served Maryland and the United States since its founding, brought a rare grace and eloquence to the governor's office.

To say that Blair Lee III carried the weight of family tradition and responsibility would be an understatement.

He was a direct descendant of two signers of the Declaration of Independence, Richard Henry Lee and Francis Lightfoot Lee. His great-great grandfather, Francis Preston Blair, came to Washington to help President Andrew Jackson and bought a house across from the White House that's still called Blair House. The Blairs and Lees were influential in Washington for decades to follow. Francis Blair was the man designated by President Abraham Lincoln to offer Robert E. Lee command of the Union Army.

The first Blair Lee of Maryland was the first popularly elected member of the U. S. Senate. Blair Lee III's father, E. Brooke Lee, was speaker of the House of Delegates and a powerful force in Maryland politics.

One of the family's favorite stories is about Blair Lee III at Princeton, producing his thesis on the presidency of James Polk and getting an F because there was no evidence of research, no citations of books or articles. Lee explained to his professor that in fact he had primary sources in the form of correspondence and papers of his own ancestors taken from a trunk in the Lee home. The grade was changed to an A.

"This family never throws anything away," chuckled Blair Lee IV in a conversation about his father last week.

Except the occasional election.

When I first met Blair Lee III, he seemed an awfully lonely man. He was Marvin Mandel's Secretary of State and later his lieutenant governor. Most days, he would walk from the State House to a French restaurant on Main street, have a cocktail, eat lunch, smoke a few cigarettes and walk back to the State House. If a reporter asked him what was going on, he would smile, shrug his shoulders and be left alone.

Just as well he didn't know what was going on. In the entire federal investigation of Mandel's corruption case, federal authorities never even questioned Lt. Gov. Blair Lee III. While Mandel was doing business with his cronies, Lee devoted his time to such mundane but important enterprises as public education.

When Mandel was convicted in 1977, Lee suddenly became governor and, for the next dozen or so months, was the most important man in Maryland.

Lee had some overwhelming handicaps.

One was a sort of loyalty, or perhaps it was insecurity, that made him feel compelled to keep on some of Mandel's brashest retainers. So he never seized the chance to put his own imprimatur on his acting-governorship. For a gentleman of his class, it might have seemed unseemly.

Another was a streak of humor that some people didn't find very funny - no matter how honest he was about it.

In the midst of his campaign for governor in 1978, Lee told a political group in Southern Maryland that the state's fiscal condition might be immeasurably improved if the city of Baltimore did not exist. He was kidding, of course.

Reacting in The Sun to the comments of one of his opponents - Walter S. Orlinsky, then-president of the Baltimore City Council - Lee explained, "I found it ironic that the President of the City Council of Baltimore was complaining about the state budget because a great deal of our fiscal escalation resulted from our aid to the city of Baltimore."

"Fiscal escalation." He talked like that.

As a reporter at the State House during Lee's acting governorship, I pestered him relentlessly about whether he would support the restoration of the death penalty in Maryland.

His response to this and other questions he did not want to answer was never rude, or garbled with "umms" and "uhhs."

"This will be revealed to you in the fullness of time," he would say with a grin that stretched from one ear to another.

For someone of his comfortable background, living in the governor's mansion was hardly a step up. His wife, Mathilde, better known as Mimi, preferred not to move to Annapolis, so son Blair IV and his wife, Mary, went down to help him run the mansion.

Asked what he thought of living in the 54-room mansion, the elder Lee responded in mock seriousness:

"I've had a terrible time about the laundering of pajamas," he said. "I don't know about you guys, but I'm accustomed to wearing the same pair of pajamas four or five nights running. And I don't think I'm slovenly. But over there, you don't take them off your back before someone snatches them from you ... to the laundry."

In a place where the capacity to put together complete sentences seems constantly elusive, Lee was a rare gem. But there was more to the man than his humor and his eloquence. He was a public servant in the tradition of his forefathers, devoted to helping Maryland.

He was not elected governor but, as his son reminded me last week, "Even though he never won, he never gave away his integrity."

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