The politics of humiliation and hurt spin nicely on Web

February 10, 2005|By DAN RODRICKS

ANYONE WHO breathes our substandard air, anyone who enjoys intimate speaking terms with a hairstylist, manicurist, snowball purveyor, tattoo artist or podiatrist - basically, any adult with a pulse and an ear for gossip--- heard (and probably repeated) the stories about Martin O'Malley that arrived here like a sulfuric cloud months ago.

From the start, it smelled like Baltimore's biggest urban legend, the one about Martin O'Malley's personal life, yet it would not go away. And the mayor's enemies probably liked it that way. Putting an end to such damaging rumors - in this age of mean-stream radio and the chatty free-for-all that is the Internet - is a daunting challenge for anyone who chooses a public life.

But Martin O'Malley and his wife did a pretty good job of that yesterday.

They did it, finally, side by side, on a mild winter morning in front of City Hall, affirming unequivocally the strength of their marriage, which would have been a wonderful thing on some other occasion, like Valentine's Day. What occasioned this announcement was the outing of the source of these rumors. He turned out to be a longtime pal of the Republican governor of Maryland. His name is Joe Steffen. Steffen resigned from his state job Tuesday as the press prepared to report his slurs about O'Malley on some conservative Web site, and he apparently went on that site as this was happening, to seek the consolation of like-minded gossipmongers and to declare to all concerned: "I will be fine - and finding work shouldn't be a problem."

He's probably right, which is the most pathetic statement about all of this - that a 45-year-old political operative who engages in a smear will probably be able to find some new station for his work. One appeal of the Internet is that it allows those who engage in this ugly brand of politics, which is as old as the hills, to perform for a mass audience from the shadows. In the world of smear politics, the only knock against Steffen is that he got caught.

As Steffen resigned, he made sure to cover for his old pal and boss, the governor of Maryland. "Believe me when I say I was lucky to work for the Governor as long as I did," Steffen, who uses the online handle "ncpac," blogged away Tuesday night. "He is a man of honor, and I couldn't let a man of honor take a hit for something he did not do and had no knowledge of."

That might be true. But it seems to me that while political operatives who do this stuff need to act secretly, they also need to get credit for their deeds; they need to make sure the right people know of their activities.

But, hey, that's me. I tend to be skeptical about these things.

The scene yesterday was all a bit dreary - the mayor and his wife, two people who have given many of their 40-something years to public service, standing in front of TV cameras, photographers and reporters to deny what some creeps said about them on the Internet and elsewhere.

As they stood there - O'Malley, taking time out from one of the toughest jobs in America, his wife, taking time off from her job as a District Court judge - one imagined thousands of bloggers blogging away, through the day and through the night, putting time and energy into political chat and gossip, but never really doing anything of consequence.

The Internet is wonderful, but it has created a vast diaspora of the unengaged, the isolated and the cynical. These are not people interested in building bridges or communities. They are about tearing down, and trashing anyone they don't like on some petty, personal level. They are the other side.

You can go on the Web site Joe Steffen fed with rumors about O'Malley, read the entries and feel your eyes glaze with boredom and with the weight of sad reality that so much human time and energy goes into divisive and hateful rhetoric and not enough into public service.

You watched O'Malley and his wife step away from the news conference, turn their backs to the cameras, hold hands and walk into City Hall, and you wondered why - or if - these kinds of young, progressive Americans would continue to serve when the rewards are humiliation and hurt. If the other side ever wins, we are cooked.

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