A bit of freestyle in speech

Address: Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. might have strayed from his notes, but he stayed on point.

January 30, 2004|By Kimberly A.C. Wilson | Kimberly A.C. Wilson,SUN STAFF

Standing at the dais before a packed State House crowd of delegates, senators, members of Congress, Cabinet members, family and friends, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. lopped off a third of the speech that took three months to write.

He interrupted himself to point out old friends and introduce new Cabinet members. He cracked a few jokes, turned serious, then forceful, then conciliatory and drew applause on more than a dozen occasions.

And 31 minutes after it began yesterday, the governor's State of the State address was over.

By tradition, the governor's speech, an annual heads-up on policies and plans, successes and snags, is rarely gripping oration. But among some pundits and communications experts, Ehrlich's address was just that. Or anything but. Take your pick.

Not `off message'

Trevor Parry-Giles, a professor of political communication at the University of Maryland, College Park, called the governor's style "part frat boy, part football coach," but he credited Ehrlich with rigidly staying on message.

"I think Ehrlich gave a better State of the State speech than President Bush gave with the State of the Union speech. I mean steroids, gay marriage: that's off message for Bush. His message is tax cuts and safety and the war on Iraq. Ehrlich didn't make that mistake, I think. He stayed on point."

The governor didn't stray from the five keystones of his administration: fiscal responsibility, educational excellence, health and the environment, public safety and commerce. He gave scant mention to slots - a pillar of his year-old administration - touching on gambling just once.

Still, delivering a familiar catalog of plans and achievements without straying into divisive subjects might have strengthened his impact, said Parry-Giles, who co-wrote a 2002 book about the image Bill Clinton projected through his public speaking and off-the-cuff remarks.

"You see these five pillars, they're generic enough to be totally uncontroversial. I mean, who doesn't believe in commerce?" Parry-Giles said.

"It wasn't very sound biteable - and there is nothing wrong with a sound bite. I don't think this speech will go down in the annals of great gubernatorial oratory - but then what speeches do?"

Ehrlich's should, according to Richard E. Vatz, Towson University's professor of political rhetoric and communication.

"It was really Reagan-esque," said Vatz, who is frequently in the audience at the governor's speeches. Since 1994, Ehrlich has spoken to Vatz's advanced rhetoric classes 26 times.

"William Donald Schaefer used to criticize his own rhetoric; but I thought he had a genuine quality that really reached across audiences. I don't think Governor Glendening had it, but I think Governor Ehrlich does.

"The style was good and the substance was good," Vatz added.

`Effort of futility'

Ehrlich began to tailor his remarks in November, finalizing the text last week, according to his spokeswoman, Shareese N. DeLeaver. But because the governor typically strays from prepared remarks, staffers didn't distribute copies of his speech beforehand.

"It would be an effort of futility to give him a speech and expect him to stay to it," DeLeaver said. "Last year, he got to about the fifth word before changing the text."

Working from an outline of a prepared speech, Ehrlich was at turns bureaucratic, as when he pointed out, "Our poultry action team and nutrient summit generated a number of substantive ideas on ways to address the need for flexibility in nutrient management reporting, right of entry reform, reduction of administrative burden and compliance assistance for farmers."

For opponents of the proposed Intercounty Connector, a superhighway linking Montgomery County's Interstate-270 corridor to the Baltimore-Washington Interstate-95 corridor, he had these unyielding words: "Your efforts will fail."

At other moments, the governor was colloquial, speaking of "brownfields," and tongue tied, stumbling over the word "unique."

Whole paragraphs and some sentences were either discarded or altered from the final draft yesterday, but the governor's message held firm even if the wording did not.

For instance, in the prepared text, a sentence about cleaning the Chesapeake Bay that read, "Oysters serve as natural filters that help keep the bay clean," became: "Oysters play a vital role in filtering our bay."

Sitting at her desk on the House floor, fellow Republican Adelaide C. Eckardt, a delegate from Dorchester County, heard power and bipartisanship in Ehrlich's words.

"I thought he very clearly set forth the visionary projects that he wants to see accomplished," Eckardt said.

But Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr., a Democrat grappling with millions less this year in state aid, was not impressed.

"I don't think he really addressed the budget at all. There were no answers in what he had to say today," Smith said.

Sun staff writer Bill McCauley contributed to this article.

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