Hughes' laid-back integrity made him the right man for Maryland

May 20, 2007|By C. Fraser Smith

The autobiography of Harry R. Hughes, 57th governor of Maryland, is a testament to the power of media and image in modern America - and to the ability of one person to achieve profound change.

Though he had made an extraordinary witness for integrity in government - resigning as state secretary of transportation to protest bid rigging - Mr. Hughes may be best remembered today for a description of the style he adopted in the governor's office.

"Laid back" was the label du jour. It suggested a languid, devil-may-care approach to anything in life. Harry Hughes cared, but he thought a more aggressive style had taken Maryland in the wrong direction.

In his forthright autobiography, written engagingly with the veteran former Sun reporter John W. Frece, Mr. Hughes protests what he sees as an indictment of his approach to the office. He did far more to improve the quality of life - and the quality of government in Maryland - than he got credit for. He's got a point, but he made a choice that led to the result he dislikes.

When he decided to run for governor, he and his advisers unaccountably missed the best argument for choosing him over a field of aspiring and ambitious young contenders: his act of conscience at a time when corruption was pulling the state into a vortex of self-dealing and shame.

For offenses allegedly committed while he was Baltimore County executive, Spiro T. Agnew had been forced to resign as Richard M. Nixon's vice president. Former governor Marvin Mandel was on trial for depriving Marylanders of honest government - charges that were later overturned but not in time to save the state's good name. Indictments of county officials followed.

Maryland had undergone what former state attorney general Stephen H. Sachs called "a political nervous breakdown."

Harry Hughes might have stayed the course as transportation secretary, ignoring a process he suspected was fraught with insider dealing. He didn't. Editorial writers immediately speculated he would run for governor.

He did, but - in a judgment that foreshadowed his governing style - he chose to make economic development his theme. The issue of integrity in government lay moldering in the back of his mind. He got no traction.

Famously in Maryland political circles, he was called "a ball lost in tall grass," a description he does not contest. It took The Sun and The Evening Sun to rescue him. He gives credit to the newspapers for catapulting him over a two-week span from the tall grass to the close-cut fairways of a frontrunner. He won going away.

Mr. Hughes proceeded to govern in a way that was consistent with his campaign. Few states confer as much power on their governors as does Maryland, but Mr. Hughes used it sparingly.

He made a decision to rule somewhat remotely. He had been a legislator and had deep respect for lawmaking. The state Senate president and House speaker appeared to be moving into a gubernatorial leadership vacuum. Mr. Hughes did not see it that way. He thought the system had been over-weighted toward the executive - particularly during the period of top-to-bottom self-dealing that preceded him - and he wished to restore balance.

The press, he says in his book, loves high-handed power brokers. There's no question that scandal and acts of conscience - such as the one that made him gubernatorial timber - attract coverage. And, of course, without it long-shot reformers like Mr. Hughes don't get elected.

This is not at all intended to minimize the importance of the former governor's disquisition. It's a lively account of what it's like to campaign for high office - for example, the utterly maddening frustration that must deflate good candidates who can't seem to get started. Mr. Hughes, at one point, tried to join on as the lieutenant governor candidate with the campaign of gubernatorial hopeful Blair Lee III. Mr. Lee ran with Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, now majority leader in the House of Representatives.

The book also shows that lightning of one sort or another - a newspaper editorial, an indictment or something even more unforeseen - can uncover lost balls. Virtue is not always its own reward.

This book is also a splendid story of growing up on Maryland's Eastern Shore, told engagingly and thoroughly. Mr. Hughes' voice, with its understated humor, comes across nicely. There's good storytelling and plenty of minute-to-minute drama from inside the bubble of government - all of it given in historical context.

Whatever the press or the former governor may say about his style in the governor's office, there would be a consensus on this point: Harry Roe Hughes was precisely the man Maryland required at the time. Laid-back was the tonic we needed.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. His e-mail is fsmith@wypr.org.

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