Recalling a time when Schaefer was a leader

October 17, 2004|By DAN RODRICKS

WILLIAM DONALD Schaefer and I have something in common - we're both nostalgic for the days when what he said and did mattered. As a public figure, he was a lot more productive, inspiring and amusing back in his Do-It-Now days as mayor of Baltimore and governor of Maryland. Those days are long gone. Now Schaefer is just the Say-It-Now state crank, uttering for the microphones whatever foolish, mean-spirited or ignorant thought pops into his head.

The latest: "As far as I'm concerned, people who have AIDS are a danger. They're a danger to spread AIDS. People should be able to know who has AIDS. ... They bring it on themselves. They don't get it by sitting on the toilet seat. ... A person who gives AIDS, who spreads AIDS, they're bad people."

These comments, of course, sparked controversy for a day or so with a reaction-seeking media contacting gay rights activists and health-care professionals so they could express dismay at such ignorance in an elected official and say why Schaefer's idea of a public registry of people infected with the AIDS virus - shot down three times by the legislature a decade ago - is counterproductive, probably based in bigotry, and unnecessary.

So it goes every time Schaefer decides to pop off at a Board of Public Works meeting, where, as the attention-seeking comptroller knows, reporters are forced to listen to him. Countless times, he used the meetings for personal attacks on his gubernatorial successor, Parris N. Glendening.

One time he even got into a snit with state treasurer Richard Dixon, who, during board consideration of a $2 million state grant to Johns Hopkins University, questioned JHU's efforts to recruit minority students from its own back yard, Baltimore. "I was there yesterday, and I saw many Afro-American students on the campus grounds," Schaefer said. When Dixon, who is black, noted that the proper phrase is "African-American," Schaefer said: "American, African-Americans, whatever you call it, because that's the only thing you seem to know."

Yeah, whatever.

And in May, Schaefer decided to spout off about how he had difficulty ordering food at a McDonald's because the person taking his order had trouble speaking English and this was some sort of huge inconvenience and outrage. Schaefer didn't even like that the greeting on a McDonald's bag appeared in several languages.

The ensuing controversy - reaction-seeking media getting comments from offended Latino and other immigrant groups - led Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to defend Schaefer in that great marketplace of angry opinion and invective, talk radio. That's where our eloquent governor was heard to utter two words that will stick to him the rest of his political life: "Multicultural crap."

Note that, after Schaefer's recent diatribe on people infected with AIDS, Ehrlich had no comment, other than to say he has "great respect" for the 82-year- old comptroller. Even Ehrlich is getting the message - WDS has a delicate condition and it's better to let the flare-ups pass without adding fuel.

At this point, we pay attention to his goofy outbursts because Schaefer still holds public office and has a vote, along with Ehrlich and the state treasurer, on the board of public works.

For the most part, though, Schaefer's opinions about anything beyond taxes and state contracts are irrelevant, and that's what gives his efforts at provoking controversy their pathetic pallor.

I was hoping it wouldn't come to this, in the way one hopes an aging relative enjoys a graceful sunset - vital and healthy, still contributing to society, being a positive influence, and not throwing chocolate pudding at the dining room wall.

Schaefer was a legend, an effective mayor who made a lot of great things happen in Baltimore over two decades before moving to Annapolis for one good term and one so-so term as governor. He was always quirky and testy, of course, and he could be tough as a pit bull. Back then, that toughness marked his leadership - he demanded a lot from the people who worked for him at City Hall and in Annapolis, and he expected fast results. Do It Now!

There was method to his madness.

He accomplished a great deal.

Then, going into his second term as governor, he turned bitter. A few years later, when he enjoyed a political comeback and became comptroller, Schaefer seemed to gain his old step. He even seemed to have mellowed a bit. His sense of humor returned.

But being the chief tax collector just isn't as much fun as being mayor or governor - you can't get mug time on TV every day and, aside from the board meetings, reporters don't pay much attention to you.

So that's probably why Schaefer has become such an embarrassment, a caricature of someone's bitter uncle who says outrageous and mean things because he hates being ignored or because he's envious of someone else - Kurt Schmoke, Martin O'Malley, Parris Glendening - or because he can't help himself.

A quiet but busy retirement, in which he championed great public causes - wiping out illiteracy or drug abuse in his native Baltimore, providing home health care for AIDS patients or homebound elderly - would have been a better choice for William Donald Schaefer. He could have been the model of the active senior statesman, promoting his city and his state, using the power of his personality to call the next generation to the same public spiritedness that marked his career.

Instead, he's just the state crank, and this act has gotten old.

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