Quick to anger, but with a softer side

April 19, 2011|By Ray Jenkins

Ernest Hemingway once had a Rolls Royce, but he got rid of it because people kept kicking the tires and saying, "They don't make 'em like that anymore."

Well, as trite as the old remark may be, it bears repeating once more: They don't make 'em like William Donald Schaefer anymore.

As a journalist who had the great privilege of covering politics for more than half a century, I learned pretty early on that the elements of political leadership are not really all that complicated. Three things are required: vision, courage, and tenacity — the capacity to see solutions to the problems that afflict mankind everywhere; the courage to stand before one's fellow citizens and say, "Let me lead you"; and an unflinching determination to see the job through. Once elected, a politician's constituents do not expect perfection, but they do expect two additional qualities: competence and honesty — sound judgment in performance, and a reasonable confidence that the leader always acts in the public interest and not out of some secret private gain.

Vision, courage, tenacity, competence and honesty. These are the qualities that William Donald Schaefer possessed, in abundance. He was already a legend when I got here in 1981. He was regarded by one and all as a force of nature, more to be feared than loved. And I quickly learned that you could arouse his ire in the most unexpected ways.

At least once a month, after I got home, I would get an angry call from Hizzoner, protesting some editorial that was only mildly critical of one of his pet projects. And yet he could be quite generous. I recall when I wrote an affectionate column on my first anniversary in Baltimore, Mr. Schaefer was on the phone the moment the paper hit his desk, and I think I detected tears in his voice.

I recall a similar experience when he made his last race for mayor, around 1983. There really was never any question as to whom the newspapers would endorse. I recalled hearing an interview with Mayor William Hudnut of Indianapolis, who was a Republican and was then the chairman of the National Conference of Mayors. Someone asked Mr. Hudnut who was the best mayor in the country. It was the kind of question any prudent politician would duck, but Mr. Hudnut responded without hesitation: "Schaefer of Baltimore." I used that quote as the lead of our endorsement editorial, and before the day was out, Mr. Schaefer was on the phone — for once, speechless in appreciation.

Needless to say, the euphoria lasted for about 24 hours.

Over the years, I detected a certain resemblance in Mr. Schaefer to Lyndon Johnson. Both were volcanic personalities who did not suffer fools gladly but who truly loved "the people." Johnson summed it up best in a word of advice to all those biographers who were lining up to pick his bones: "Say what you will about me, but I understand power, and I know how to use it." That pretty much sums up Mr. Schaefer as well.

Ray Jenkins is a retired Evening Sun editor and former aide to President Jimmy Carter. His email is rayj.balt@verizon.net.

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