O'Malley's first speech was too ordinary

January 18, 2007|By DAN RODRICKS

Martin O'Malley gave a very ordinary inaugural address yesterday, but it was blessedly short, and that counts for something. It was the coldest day of the year, and I'm sure everyone assembled in front of the State House sighed when the new governor ended his rap at about 1,400 words, with 206 of them devoted to thank-yous.

Still, in every important speech, there should be at least one memorable line.

This had none.

My eyes started to glaze at the part about George Washington resigning his command.

Next time maybe O'Malley should sing, or he could hire a better writer - or perhaps he could just explain, once and for all, in his own words, off the cuff, why he wanted to be governor in the first place.

Was it because polls showed he could beat Bob Ehrlich, or was it because he wants to bring a more progressive, activist-style of leadership back to the executive branch?

You almost get that message from O'Malley, but almost is not enough. He hasn't quite nailed it yet.

O'Malley is speaking to a population that does not remember the New Deal and barely remembers the Great Society. If you are in your 30s or 40s today, the major political themes of your time were written during the Reagan Revolution: Government bad, greed good. You were presented, several times over the years, with government as the enemy of capitalism instead of the vigilant watchdog of the public interest.

O'Malley is a 44-year-old Democrat - nearly 20 years younger than Bill Clinton - but we're still not sure what kind of Democrat. (He's been called a "loony left-wing liberal" on talk radio, but that hardly fits a man whose time as mayor of Baltimore was marked by zero-tolerance crime-fighting and thousands of street-corner arrests of dubious legitimacy.)

Hopefully, O'Malley isn't the baloney-progressive, middling, poll-watching Clinton kind. Hopefully, he won't be taking all his cues from the Democratic Leadership Council, which in the Reagan era pulled the party's traditionally populist positions far enough to the right to make them almost indistinguishable from what Republicans had to offer.

O'Malley was elected here as Democrats regained leadership in Congress, and as voters rejected the Bush administration's handling of the war in Iraq.

It should be a perfect time for him to define himself. He has been presented with a fabulous opportunity to accomplish great things and to articulate a new kind of Democratic ideal that builds on the accomplishments of an earlier generation - his father-in-law Joe Curran's generation - that believed in progressive government as a way to make a good society a great society.

We have not heard that kind of ideal expressed in a long time.

In fact, we have heard just the opposite, to the point that many Americans see public or government service as a bastion for slackers and scoundrels instead of a calling with noble purpose.

O'Malley represents a generation of politicians - he's one year younger than Barack Obama - who can take a fresh approach to things, who can set high ideals and dare the states and the nation to achieve them.

But - and I never thought I'd be saying this - in some respects, it appears O'Malley has become too cautious in his approach. His inaugural speech was another example.

One of the attractive qualities of this guy was his impatience.

I had to laugh for a moment yesterday when the chief judge of Maryland's Court of Appeals, Robert Bell, stood in his red robe to administer the oath of office. There he was, face to face with O'Malley who, as the new mayor of Baltimore in 2000, visited Annapolis, heard Bell claim "remarkable" progress in criminal justice reforms, then told the House of Delegates: "I'd like to throw up when I hear sworn judicial officers of this state saying we should have a celebration."

O'Malley doesn't have to resort to pub-crawl rhetoric to make his points, but it would be nice to hear him sound some brass in Annapolis again.

Why not?

What has he got to lose?

Maryland is one of the richest states in the nation; it should also be one of the most decent and humane. I'd like to hear O' Malley challenge his "One Maryland" to the high ambition of wiping out the poverty that fuels so much social dysfunction in Baltimore and that has lingered too long in our midst.

It's not favoritism toward Baltimore; it's speaking truth to power.

Let's hear O'Malley say he wants to wipe out drug addiction in our time and foster a new culture in public safety that prevents juvenile crime and reforms adult criminals instead of feeding the same old cycle of incarceration that leads to more crime and more incarceration.

You know, for a change, it would be nice to hear such lofty goals announced by a public leader. We've been downsizing our ambitions as a society for too long.

For too long, most men and women in public leadership have been unwilling to say anything too bold, edgy or challenging. It's why we have such a mess in Iraq, why we are still addicted to fossil fuels, why we don't push global warming to the top of the agenda, why we have growing millions of Americans without health insurance.

Maybe we'll get more from O'Malley on Jan. 31, when he gives his first State of the State address. Here's hoping he sounds some brass. It is not a time to be ordinary.dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

Hear Dan Rodricks from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays on "The Buzz" on WBAL Radio (1090 AM).

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