Fitzgerald quote gives O'Malley early style points

October 02, 2005|By C. FRASER SMITH

So, was that it? Was that the tone-setter?

Just when you're hungry for the red meat of a bare knuckles, take-no-prisoner, brawling no-clichM-i-left-behind-campaign, one of the pugilists uncorks a bit of poesy.

Actually, I think he's onto something.

At the end of his announcement speech Wednesday in Rockville, Mayor Martin O'Malley offered us a famous line from F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of The Great Gatsby who is buried nearby.

"So," quoth the mayor, quoting Fitzgerald, "we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

Here, it was said immediately, was a new form of political misappropriation.

Various literati marked this announcement and found him guilty of misusing his famous townsman, Fitzgerald. Didn't the mayor know this line is full of despair? If he was hoping to inspire, tut-tutted the professoriate, this was not the line.

But wait. There is such a thing as context. Mr. O'Malley may have asked for controversy, but in context the Fitzgerald line may work pretty well. The newly announced candidate was talking about a past of accomplishment, a past of cooperation between the parties, a covenant with the people that gave Maryland an enviable quality of life.

The mayor's peroration might have been linked with his major point, the gravamen of his argument, the bedrock of his campaign: Maryland has been cast adrift, left rudderless in a sea of lethargy, sliding beneath the waves of mediocrity.

What he was saying, it seems, was anything but despairing. Maryland has done better, he said repeatedly, and can do better in the future.

Of course, a candidate never wants to spend a minute explaining what he meant to say. He'd better say it right the first time. What you want is clarity, not navel-gazing. But, oh well, if it was a gaffe it was a gaffe committed first in Montgomery County where navel-gazing is allowed because the murder rate is relatively low. Mr. Fitzgerald had a Baltimore connection, too, but lost his Baltimore Hon credential when he decided to spend eternity elsewhere.

Not to worry. We are not embarking on a seminar in American literature. There's plenty of potential for healthy conflict as Mr. O'Malley and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan square off in the Democratic primary.

At this early point, the scoring will be all about style. And there the mayor of Baltimore did not disappoint. Those in his party who are drawn to Mr. Duncan are prone to say, "I want an adult as my governor." It's a shot at Mr. O'Malley and at Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., both of whom have seemed happy to engage in bring-it-on politicking.

Mr. O'Malley knows what they're saying. Some people say he's been so pallid and quiescent lately that he seems to be on some sort of mood stabilizer. "On his meds again?" people say when the fireworks are unseen and the poetry flows.

So this campaign has begun with some rousing moments - and a hope that people want civility along with their controversy. Mr. Duncan's recent hand grenades of anti-O'Malley criticism may be his only hope of overcoming the mayor's lead in the polls. It's risky for him, though. People don't know him well beyond Montgomery and they may not like negativity as a first course. Poetry will go down better.

As for the mayor, he began his campaign with a measured presentation. It's going to be a marathon, uphill. Mr. Ehrlich has all the powers of incumbency - including the odd expensive bon-bon from the likes of Peter Angelos, principal owner of the Orioles. Mr. Angelos bought a full-page advertisement for Mr. Ehrlich, featuring the governor in a splendid orange and black O's jacket. Mr. Ehrlich has to hope he's not on the same trajectory as the Orioles.

Not surprisingly, the war of words turned back quickly to the war of sports imagery.

Mr. O'Malley spent the day after his announcement touring a new housing development with the charismatic basketball player-turned-developer Earvin "Magic" Johnson, who endorsed Mr. O'Malley for governor while investing $20 million or so in the promise of Baltimore.

C. Fraser Smith is news director for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays.

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