Why we put up with Schaefer

February 22, 2006|By C. FRASER SMITH

Ever hear the one about the man who thought he was a chicken? We'd send him to a psychiatrist, his friends say, but we need the eggs.

Which brings me to the matter of William Donald Schaefer, former mayor of Baltimore, former governor and now comptroller of Maryland.

Over the years, shrinking Mr. Schaefer has been a favorite parlor game of Maryland politics.

"The man needs professional help" has been the head-shaking verdict of many friends and allies and others.

And, no doubt, his friends would have gotten it for him long since, except for one thing: We need the eggs.

We tolerate what looks like sexism, bullying and crass behavior because we need what comes along with it. Truly compassionate government, selfless public service, a city to be proud of and many other things we know could not have been achieved by the usual political and bureaucratic means.

Moreover, these eggs include pioneering efforts on behalf of women. William Donald Schaefer gave women real responsibility before that was cool or required by law.

Which brings us to the current controversy created and even sustained by Mr. Schaefer. During a meeting of the state's Board of Public Works - turned into a stage by Mr. Schaefer, who is the consummate political actor - he asked a young woman to "walk again." She had poured him a cup of tea and retired to the side of the crowded meeting room.

He called her back. A bit bewildered by the request, she complied. "Walk again," he said.

By this time, the room was in on the joke, although the young women - having grown up in a less openly chauvinist society - was not. But she complied. Many Marylanders gathered in this great hall of government laughed.

There he goes again. Oh you Don.

The whole thing was captured on TV because TV has learned that Mr. Schaefer is likely to provide some entertainment. Probably controversial. Maybe outrageous. He did not disappoint.

Unless you think young women are not obliged to be the foils for a public official's fun and games. At best, the comptroller used the aide as a prop for his weekly play.

But this was not a mayor swimming with seals, as he did in 1981 - before the aide was born. This moment had no overarching public purpose. This was all about indulging in something Mr. Schaefer thought was funny - and something he thought his audience would enjoy. Judging by the reaction in the room, his instincts were correct. People laughed.

Most of them know the comptroller very well. They knew his mood, his likes and his peeves. Many of them probably look forward to the meetings because, like the TV stations, they know they may be in for a show. They might think some of the displays are a bit zany - or absolutely nuts - but they're like the junior high school class waiting for the cutup to cut up. They want the eggs.

Mr. Schaefer wrote the young lady a note. He didn't exactly apologize, but he said he had not meant to embarrass her. Certainly not. But he was willing to risk it.

The former governor's friends do not think this puts him at risk of losing his next election, this year's Democratic primary. They do worry about what one of them called the three requisite paragraphs that will now accompany stories about him - the paragraphs that remind readers of his "walk again" request and various other episodes in his impromptu soap operas: The Days of Don's Lives.

He's writing his own epitaph, as we all do. And of course we are all helping him. It's been part of his genius.

There's just one question left: Fried or scrambled, hon?

C. Fraser Smith, senior news analyst for WYPR-FM, is the author of "William Donald Schaefer: A Political Biography." His column usually appears Sundays. His e-mail address is fsmith@wypr.org.

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