Schaefer's view flies in the face of the American way

May 07, 2004|By MICHAEL OLESKER

IT'S GETTING a little late in the game to deliver civics lessons to William Donald Schaefer, but here goes: We live in a place called America, which opens its arms to people from the whole wide world. Some of them arrive here speaking English, but some of them no hablan ingles. The state comptroller's remarks about this apparently distressing fact are beneath him, but not beneath criticism.

Maybe you read about this in yesterday's newspaper. At Wednesday's meeting of the state Board of Public Works, on which Schaefer serves, he unburdened himself of the trauma suffered during a recent trip to McDonald's, where the service did not measure up to Schaefer's expectations of the true fine dining experience.

"The person who was waiting on me didn't speak English," Schaefer complained.

For regulars at the twice-a-month board meetings, this was a clear signal: Schaefer was about to go off on a toot. It is what he does. In the life of staid state politics, Schaefer is what passes for local color. Some find it amusing, and some find it annoying. Sometimes it's about public business, and sometimes not. Maybe he'll reach into the past to slap Parris Glendening around, or maybe he's got some new gripe with Martin O'Malley. If nothing else, it gets Schaefer the one thing in life he cannot do without.

Attention.

But, a blast at some minimum-wage immigrant who took an extra moment or two because she couldn't figure if Schaefer wanted fries with his Happy Meal?

"I had to go through a long process of trying to order something," Schaefer said. "Then I got a bag, and instead of having English on it, it had Spanish and German and every other [language]. I think it's about time we started thinking about the people who are coming into our country, learn what English is all about."

Around him at the Board of Public Works, people shifted uncomfortably in their seats but said nothing. State Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp later said she regretted keeping quiet. Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, sitting in for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., stayed mum when he should have roared.

And Schaefer, oblivious to the discomfort spreading across the room, went on.

"I don't want to adjust to another language," he said, as though someone had suggested a semester in remedial Spanish. "This is the United States. I think they ought to adjust to us. Now I'm not going back to that McDonald's again, because I didn't like the fact that I couldn't get an order to them, what I wanted. Second of all, reading the bag that has every language on there except English, that's not right.

"We need to stop talking about it. We're such a great country, we don't think we should do anything like that. We should emphasize English, and we should. The people who come here should become part of American [sic], Americanized and speak the language."

Such a tirade not only ignores American history -- it ignores Schaefer's own history. It ignores that as mayor of Baltimore, he took a divided city and helped calm it across all racial and ethnic edginess. And it ignores that as governor, he knew a piece of veiled intolerance when he spotted it.

Ten years ago, as governor, Schaefer vetoed a controversial bill that would have made English the official language of Maryland. Proponents saw it as symbolic and harmless. Immigrants and minorities saw it as a potential threat.

Back then, Schaefer declared: "It's a divisive bill. We don't need that type of bill right now."

Are we to assume, in retrospect, that his emphasis was on "right now" -- rather than "that type of bill?"

Because what his new outburst does is send a signal. It signals that small, dark place in the heart of bigots that it's all right to put down one group at the expense of another. That it's all right to call one group American and one group Not Quite American. And that it's all right to deny the very heart of the national experience, if it suits your mood of the moment.

Don, Don, Don.

Doesn't he remember? We all come from someplace else. Our whole history is about people arriving here who do not speak the language and do not understand the customs, but work hard and hope for the full America for their children.

Long ago, Schaefer's own people went through this. In the American way, the first generation holds on to the security of the old country -- including the language -- while trying to learn the strange new ways, and watching the immersion of their children into the fuller national mosaic, and hoping that strangers will understand.

That's not only the American way. It's the way that Schaefer made his mark in public life: as a man who drew strength and support from all communities, and gave it back to them all, because he never forgot his own family history.

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