Documentary shows the arc of a career


March 29, 2009|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,

Telling the story of a remarkable 50-year political career in 60 minutes is no easy task. But Maryland Public Television pulls it off with energy and style in Citizen Schaefer, a political biography of former Baltimore mayor and Maryland governor William Donald Schaefer premiering Monday night.

A one-hour documentary cannot be all things to all people, of course. But this is a rich enough production that it should leave several different audiences feeling satisfied as the credits roll.

For longtime Baltimore and Maryland residents, the film vividly brings back a sense of the 1960s' political tumult and urban unrest from which Schaefer, the political figure, emerged. From his days as City Council president, to his incredible hold on Baltimore as mayor, this first leg of his journey could more than warrant a one-hour treatment on its own.

This slice of Schaefer's career is brought back to life through compelling archival imagery. A mayoral TV campaign ad shows Schaefer walking out the front door of his rowhouse, watering a flower on his porch and then bouncing down the steps, presumably on his way to work at City Hall. It delivers both a pleasurable burst of nostalgia and an instant sense of how drastically the world of politics has changed since those pre-attack-ad days of slash-and-burn TV campaigns.

For more recent arrivals to the area, the film will help explain the peculiar politics of this city, state and region. Again, the images best tell the story - as well it should be in a visual medium.

One of my favorite bits of videotape shows Schaefer boarding a ship that would take him from the Inner Harbor to Annapolis for his first day of work after being elected governor. He is inside a large wooden box wrapped with a ribbon. (The concept: He is Baltimore's gift to Annapolis).

Arriving in the state capital, he pops out of the box in a bogus admiral's outfit. He looks like a cartoon rendering of a South American dictator as he delivers a cockeyed salute to citizens on the pier. But the voters seem to love it.

The best thing about the film: As much of an appreciation of Schaefer as it is, and as much as it sidesteps the darker side of closed-doors politics in places like Baltimore in the 1960s, the production is not a one-dimensional whitewash of the man or his career. Here the words are what matter most.

The "talking head" experts were chosen wisely by MPT producers Michael English and Robin Lloyd, and a couple of them do an especially fine job to make sure the film is not unduly flattering. C. Fraser Smith, Schaefer biographer and senior political analyst at WYPR, and Dan Rodricks, Baltimore Sun columnist and midday talk show host at WYPR, deliver a keen historical perspective and balanced view of the man.

Smith provides an in-the-know sense of the arc of Schaefer's career, while Rodricks serves up chapter and verse of what he describes as moments of "irrational" behavior by the man. There was no shortage of such moments near the end of Schaefer's career, while he was state comptroller - including a particularly offensive display of sexism.

Speaking of present and former Sun colleagues, the work of Kevin (KAL) Kallaugher, former editorial cartoonist at the newspaper, is skillfully used to provide breaks and introduce segments in the documentary. His animated drawings are a clever choice on the part of the producers.

The film is hardly perfect, and it does pull some punches.

Talking about the early days of Schaefer's career, a time when the actions of Spiro T. Agnew alone offer ample evidence of political corruption, all that is said about Schaefer is that he was a politician "who knew when it was time to leave the room." The suggestion: He kept himself "clean" by keeping some distance between himself and any money that was changing hands.

For some viewers that will not be enough.

Others will surely have questions about the list of donors who made this film possible - a virtual who's who of Maryland's powerful, including some folks who surely did business with or benefited from Schaefer's power. But, at least, MPT listed them at the start of the film, so that viewers could judge for themselves.

Don't come looking for an expose tomorrow night, and you won't be disappointed with Citizen Schaefer.

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