Barth's good - perhaps too good for politics

November 04, 2005|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Everybody I know can't believe the news about Andy Barth. He is the longtime television reporter who is now pondering a run for the U.S. Congress. I saw the item in Laura Vozzella's column the other day and immediately called Jack Bowden and Susan White Bowden, who go back to the beginning of all time in Baltimore TV news.

"You heard about Barth getting into politics?" I asked.

"We did," said Jack Bowden. He and his wife worked alongside Barth at WMAR-TV for about two decades.

"What do you think?" I asked.

"Andy's just a wonderful human being," said Susan White Bowden.

"He's one of the most decent, honorable people we've ever known," said Jack Bowden.

"In other words," I said, "he's got no shot in politics?"

FOR THE RECORD - Paula C. Hollinger's title was incorrect in Michael Olesker's column on Friday. Hollinger is a state senator representing Baltimore County.
The Sun regrets the error.

"Exactly," said Jack Bowden. "Far too much decency. Maybe he could hire Joseph Steffen as his campaign manager. To balance things out."

Well, enough levity. Steffen is the former hit man for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. who now says he's rediscovered his conscience. Barth is a TV newsman who's never lost his conscience - though, if he really wants to get into politics, he may have lost his marbles.

He's been a mainstay at WMAR for the past 35 years. He's a solid pro whose insights transcend the usual TV news boundaries of 90-second stories. He's covered political campaigns and courtroom dramas, but mostly looked for stories that lift the human spirit.

Nobody stays in one high-profile place for 35 years - particularly the fickle world of TV - without establishing several attributes: intelligence, character and considerable survival skills.

And nobody stays in television without gaining considerable name recognition, which is essential to any victorious political campaign.

"Oh, sure," Barth, 59, was saying the other day, from his home in Columbia, "people tell me all the time they grew up watching me. I like to think they also watched me grow up. Name recognition's one of the benefits of doing TV. People get to know you. I've been out there a long time, so I hope there's a bond. It's been 35 years of listening and learning and talking to people, and getting to know the strengths and the problems of the district."

That certainly sounds like a candidate talking - though Barth says he's still thinking things through. He'd be part of that political shake-up set off when Paul Sarbanes announced he was giving up his U.S. Senate seat and the current 3rd District congressman, Ben Cardin, announced he would run for the seat. It's opened up a parade of Democratic contenders for Cardin's open seat that includes: former Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. Peter Beilenson, Del. Paula Hollinger, attorney John Sarbanes, and investment banker Oz Bengur.

"I've been thinking about this," Barth said, "since high school."

His father, Alan Barth, was an editorial writer for The Washington Post who took on Sen. Joseph McCarthy half a century ago, when the antagonism was at its worst. His son watched, and learned. As a young man, Barth interned for a couple of congressmen.

"Just walking around the Capitol," he says, "I've always found thrilling. And I've always kept politics in the back of my mind."

All of this would be nice, but slightly naive, were it not for Barth's years of nightly public exposure. Television, by its very nature, involves intimacy. Viewers are inviting reporters into their homes every night. In a lot of minds, Barth's a known quantity. It's a fact that money alone cannot buy victory in a political race, and a fact known for years to political insiders.

Years ago, anchor Jerry Turner was asked to enter politics. He talked about it one night in a conversation in his little office just off the WJZ newsroom, when the station was a powerhouse and Turner's ratings astronomical.

"Some big-money guys," he said. "They got me in a room and laid out the whole thing. They said, `You get elected, and this guy becomes racing commissioner - if you're comfortable with that. And this guy gets the liquor board position - if you're comfortable with that.' That was the phrase they kept using. I was just a front man for their moves. I said, `I don't feel comfortable with any of this,' and I got up and walked out."

He shook his head in befuddlement. "Isn't that awful?" Turner said. "You know, I'd probably win. And the thing is, I don't know anything. I mean, what the hell do I do? I sit up here and look into the camera and read the news. But that's all I know." He sighed in wonder. "And that'd be enough."

The difference between Turner, who died in 1987, and Barth, though, is significant. Turner understood that, like all local anchors, he was more emcee than reporter. He came in every afternoon, and in the evening he read a script from a teleprompter. That was his job.

Barth's job has been to go out every day and interview people who live their lives here, and see how the world's changes affect them. It's given him a feel for politics, and given viewers a feel for him. Now he has to decide if that's enough foundation for a decent man to enter a business that's sometimes indecent.

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