Remember `Old Schaefer' for service, compassion

September 14, 2006|By DAN RODRICKS

Before he said all those ridiculous and offensive things that defined him for a new generation of Democrats, William Donald Schaefer was the most popular, effective and entertaining public official in Maryland, and those of us who cringed at his behavior in recent years will no doubt remember him that way.

I've said it before: It's almost too hard to write about Recent Schaefer because his disparaging remarks were sufficiently self-destructive and because we remember Old Schaefer - the one who was cantankerous in a positive way - and because he's 84 years old and put forth long, good service to the people of Baltimore and Maryland.

The thing is, a significant number of those who voted in the Democratic primary Tuesday don't know from Old Schaefer, the one who could be really ornery and demanding of his staff and municipal workers, the one who was cheerleading for Baltimore while thousands of its citizens were running away from it.

A lot of you know what I'm talking about; you remember all those years, the post-riot years, the 1970s and into the 1980s, when Schaefer seemed to be the only one standing, literally, in the middle of abandoned streets to proclaim, "This is a great day for the city of Baltimore."

Long before his political identity became murky - remember him going off in a pout to endorse First President Bush in 1992? - here was a classic New Deal Democrat who believed in an essential truth: that government, and those in it, could actually do some good. As a matter of fact, for Schaefer, even with his barge-size ego, that's what marked his career - service to people. It sounds corny, but it's true.

"You have to wonder why some of these people want to run for public office," a friend from Montgomery County said on Election Night while listening to election results on his car radio.

A lot of people wonder about that.

Let's face it, we are suspicious, cynical and jaded when it comes to government and those who want to get their hands in it. And the idea of public service - men and women passing up the fast track and the big bucks to serve a demanding and often ungrateful constituency - seems almost quaint in the post-Me Generation.

It has been a long time since a president said, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."

Schaefer entered political life in a different era, when public service was considered noble, when government was seen as a vehicle for progress and a vigilant protector of the rights of little people, not just the hand servant of special interests and big business.

Schaefer was always a fan of big business - he likes developers, people who want to invest money in his city, his state - but he was always pushing that "people thing." He talked about it all the time, to the cringe point. He still talks about it. His most effective campaign spot aired on radio and reminded everyone that he had always been honest and, as state comptroller, had always looked out for the people's money. With Schaefer, you chisel away the Rushmore ego and you find a selfless public servant who was married to his job.

It's hard, but the 20-somethings and 30-somethings and 40-somethings out there - particularly those who have moved to Maryland and Baltimore in recent years - just need to know, as Schaefer reaches the end of his political road, what the man gave this city and this state.

Esquire magazine once proclaimed him he greatest mayor in America. Go to Harborplace or a game at Camden Yards and look around - that's all him.

There's more to his record than that, of course, and his full epitaph will be written another day.

For now, I want to offer him a quiet, private style of public service. (Unless he's really serious about running for mayor of Ocean City.)

See, I remember the Old Schaefer and a not-for-publication letter he wrote to me in the 1980s, during the recession that followed Ronald Reagan's election. Unemployment was high, and the president wondered openly why that was so when there were abundant help-wanted ads in the Sunday classifieds.

Schaefer understood what Reagan couldn't comprehend: that many of the ads were for jobs that required an education or advanced degree, and that the people who were collecting unemployment had worked in factories that had closed.

As mayor of Baltimore, which had suffered through the decline of industry and a significant loss of population and tax base, Schaefer knew that intimately. I wrote a column blasting Reagan for his cluelessness, and Schaefer wrote me a note with agreement and thanks. (The only one ever!) He was quite familiar with the recession's effect on working people, and he believed government leaders needed to help them rather than dismiss them to "market forces." That was Old Schaefer.

So, as soon as he gets more time on his hands, Schaefer can help me answer the phone messages of the dozens of men and women, ex-offenders and recovering drug addicts, who call here looking for some help in finding jobs. I think he'd be good at it - we can work on his "telephone presence" a little, if necessary - and I think he'd find it rewarding. He can even be a mentor to some of them.

Call 410-332-6166 when you're ready, sir.

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

Hear Dan Rodricks Tuesday and Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. on WBAL Radio and read his blog at www.baltimoresun. com/rodricks.

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