THAT MORNING of Jan. 18, 1976, I sat in a dusty city-room corner of the now-departed News American and hit the keyboard of an old Royal typewriter. Marvin Mandel, governor of Maryland back then, was on his way to federal court. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., governor now, was on his way to freshman classes at Princeton. And I was beginning what has become nearly 29 years of writing newspaper columns.
A columnist's job is different from a reporter's. A reporter says: Here are the facts. A columnist says: Here are the facts - and here's what I think about them. A columnist is a reporter with a visible opinion.
But the opinions are based on an unchanging foundation: of facts, of the best available version of the truth. They are not based on falsehood, not based on made-up quotes, not based on bending fact to support bias.
Now we come to Governor Ehrlich, accusing this newspaper of "failing to objectively report stories," and ordering state officials not to talk to Sun State House Bureau Chief David Nitkin or me.
No one is supposed to notice that Nitkin has been writing articles about questionable land deals proposed by this administration. Instead, he is held accountable for a map of public land that ran in this newspaper, which he had nothing to do with. The map was wrong; the paper corrected the mistake the next day.
In my case, nobody is supposed to remember the overriding theme of a column I wrote mocking Ehrlich's current TV commercials - that he's so busy taking care of everybody's yard work and bathroom caulking, as depicted in the TV spots allegedly promoting Maryland tourism, that he's let the real-life issues slip right past him, such as juvenile justice, and these land proposals, and slot machines.
Instead, I am specifically taken to task for describing an Ehrlich spokesman, Paul Schurick, as "struggling mightily to keep a straight face" while claiming there was no political intent behind the commercials. No one is supposed to notice that, in the very next sentence, I intentionally describe a Democrat "trying just as mightily to keep a straight face" to describe his own party leaders' ads of previous years.
Was I there to see Schurick's expression? No. Was I there to see the Democrat's? No. If I misled anyone into thinking I was there, that's my fault - but not my intent. I'm sorry for any misunderstanding. My intent was to use shorthand to indicate the sheer absurdity - by both political parties - in pretending that political gain isn't the intent of these commercials, which are paid for with taxpayers' money.
The administration's response has all the earmarks of making enough noise about the "straight face" line to keep everybody from noticing the $2.7 million they've spent producing these "nonpolitical" promos.
But the complaint is part of a larger, weirder pattern.
Two years ago, as political payoff for endorsing his gubernatorial bid, Ehrlich handed Clarence M. Mitchell IV a $92,000 government job. It lasted a few weeks, and Mitchell left. It was unclear if he quit or was fired. In either case, I telephoned Schurick to inquire if the quid pro quo had been satisfied, or did the administration feel the need to offer Mitchell a second job?
"We have no plans whatsoever for Mitchell," said Schurick. "The favor has been paid. You try to help the people that help you. We did that. End of story. We do not feel the obligation to help him get another job."
We spoke for several more minutes, all of it civil, all of it reasonable, which I quoted in the next day's paper.
But then, a few days later, I'm confronted in the newsroom by Sandy Banisky, The Sun's deputy managing editor. She says Schurick claims he never talked to me. I'm astonished. I'm furious. Immediately, I want dueling lie detector tests at high noon. Banisky says she'll call Schurick back and request a meeting. We're still waiting for that meeting.
Until now, when the incident is recalled to reinforce the "reasoning" behind the ban. And then they add one more item. Lt. Gov. Michael Steele says he does not recall talking to me in May, outside Pimlico Race Course, when I quoted him in the next day's column.
Isn't that convenient? It's taken Steele six months to realize he has retroactive amnesia. Well, I remember it, because it followed Ehrlich's insensitive broadcast remarks about multiculturalism. "Crap," he called it. "Bunk," he added.
And here, days later, was the African-American Steele standing there with two Chinese horse breeders. "This looks like multiculturalism to me," I said.
Steele laughed, and then he kept laughing. I described the scene in the newspaper because he kept laughing so long that everybody started staring at him. He knew what I was getting at, and didn't want to deal with it. Finally, all the laughter exhausted, he said, "So, what's your question?"
"Are you comfortable," I asked, "with the governor's remarks about multiculturalism?"
"I'm comfortable," said Steele, "with my governor."