Dirty tricks redux

February 10, 2005

GOV. ROBERT L. Ehrlich Jr., who has apologized for using the word "crap" in public, yesterday declined to apologize for the horse manure a top hatchet man has been spreading about Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley. And while it's all very good that the governor "is open" to investigating whether others on the state payroll are spreading vicious rumors for political gain, the task may fall to the underfunded and generally toothless state prosecutor's office. Mr. Ehrlich may find rumor-mongering "intolerable," but his behavior is reminiscent of Captain Renault, who is "shocked, shocked" to discover gambling in Casablanca.

This much is certain: Mr. Ehrlich knows when it's time to distance himself from a blown campaign operative. He disavowed the actions of longtime aide Joseph "NCPAC" Steffen as soon as the press got wind of them. Mr. Steffen repeatedly posted messages on a popular political Web site detailing some salacious (and untrue, but why would that stop a zealot?) rumors about the mayor. When confronted by a reporter, Mr. Steffen promptly resigned. Mr. Ehrlich now says he was fired.

But does anyone believe that the smear campaign against the popular Mr. O'Malley, a potential candidate for governor in 2006, isn't politically motivated? Here's what Mr. Steffen told The Washington Post when asked if his postings were part of an organized effort to keep anti-O'Malley rumors afloat: "No comment." What does this mean? Probably this: Mr. Steffen is willing to admit to his libelous postings; he's not ready to rat out others.

Doesn't that sound like Donald Segretti, who once faked a letter claiming Henry "Scoop" Jackson fathered an illegitimate child? In fact, doesn't Mr. Ehrlich's press-bashing and blacklisting, dirty tricks and ferreting out disloyal employees sound like Richard M. Nixon?

Granted, there's at least one profound difference between the two men -- Mr. Nixon got more done.

Last month, Mr. Ehrlich lectured the General Assembly about the need for greater civility and an end to "assassin" politics. Mr. Steffen's actions suggest Mr. Ehrlich was talking to the wrong group of people. He needs to lecture his own staff first. Maybe then he'll be more credible.

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