January 15, 2009
Dear Miss Manners:
I am - I mean, a friend of mine is - a newly elected public official. As part of the celebration marking the start of his term, he is whistle-stopping through a couple of cities this Saturday en route to Washington. Unfortunately, in one of those cities, the mayor recently was indicted on criminal charges. Pity my poor pal, who already has worn out all his pick and roll moves avoiding a similarly sullied governor from his home state. Should I - I mean, he - just stay on the train to keep his distance from someone who now seems to be known, at least in the headlines, as "Mayor Indicted?"
- Baltimore, or High-tail it Out?
I don't know if B.H.O. was any more successful in reaching Miss Manners than I was, but this surely is a case for the mistress of political etiquette.
Mayor Sheila Dixon normally would be proudly front and center Saturday, welcoming President-elect Barack Obama to town when he stops by on his way to Washington for his inauguration next week. But coming as it does a week after she was indicted on theft, misconduct-in-office and other criminal charges, the Baltimore stop now is fraught with intrigue.
Does Dixon, an early supporter of Obama, stand with him before the cheering crowd and the many cameras expected at War Memorial Plaza on Saturday? Or does she find a way to be suddenly indisposed - it is cold and flu season, after all - and spare the president-elect from being photographed with her, an image that would quickly make its way to the sneering likes of the Drudge Report and its ilk?
Dixon seemed subdued and even a little sad when the subject came up at a news conference at City Hall yesterday, perhaps already resigned to a less-than-starring role in preinaugural hoopla. It's sort of a shame, when you think about it, given that the first African-American to become president and the first woman of any race to serve as Baltimore mayor hold overlapping pieces of this majority-black city's heart.
What a picture for Dixon's glory wall, the two of them, beaming before a crowd of equally delighted Baltimoreans, the dome of City Hall glowing in the background. But now, even City Hall itself must be erased from the picture, to keep whatever political cooties may be coursing through there from infecting Obama - instead, plans call for him to be positioned with the War Memorial Building rather than City Hall behind him.
Dixon said that she has not discussed with Obama's people what her role in the event would be and that the talks instead have focused on the usual security, transportation and logistical support that the city will be providing for the visit. She gamely tried to explain the selection of the memorial building as the backdrop - something about linking Obama's visit to President Lincoln's journey to his inauguration. If so, maybe all the better for Obama; Lincoln sneaked through town in the dead of night, although to avoid not so much the mayor as the Southern sympathizers here.
But as far as how an indicted mayor should act in the event of a visit from a president-elect, there is, not surprisingly, little precedent.
Stephen Hess, the Brookings Institution scholar, covered a lot of turf in The Little Book of Campaign Etiquette, an A-to-Z guide he wrote that includes chapters on everything from Anonymous Sources to Debates to Sex Scandals. But alas for Baltimore, it includes nothing on how to navigate the tricky terrain we currently face, so Hess offered an on-the-spot addendum when I called him.
"Obviously, she hasn't been convicted of anything, and neither has Governor [Rod] Blagojevich," Hess mused, referring to Obama's home-state pol. "But by the same token, it would be very gracious of her to choose not to be there.
"It is a distraction. This is a wonderful moment in history as the first African-American president makes his way to Washington in the same way as Abraham Lincoln did and stops in Baltimore. That should be the focus."
Hess says Dixon should spare Obama from having to "back-channel" so indelicate a request as dis-inviting the mayor of her own city from attending such a high-profile gathering.
"It's very hard to tell someone not to be there," he said. "But given what had happened with Blagojevich and the awkward position it put Barack Obama in, you wouldn't really want to expose him to another set of questions."
But Dixon would find a kinder approach with Letitia Baldrige, the so-called doyenne of Washington manners dating from her days as social secretary in the Kennedy White House.
"Who are we to judge people so harshly?" Baldrige said, pooh-poohing the notion that Dixon should find something else to do on Saturday. "We are not a tribunal."
To listen to Baldrige, the situation is no stickier and no harder to finesse than a dinner party where the host might want to put some space between two guests who for whatever reason don't want to bump elbows.
"She can just be two, three people away from him," Baldrige said, "and the press person can handle that."
In the end, it may not really matter. The whole guilt-by-association thing doesn't seem to apply to Obama, as the campaign proved. Associations with any number of controversial figures, from the Rev. Jeremiah Wright to William Ayres, were thrown at him only to leave him largely unscathed. He is, as John Heilemann wrote in New York magazine this week, "a party of one," someone with a direct relationship with his supporters - those 13 million e-mail pals gathered during the campaign - that has allowed him to bypass the usual partisan bickering.
Baldrige advises everyone to just relax and enjoy the Saturday event.
"I hope he just goes to Baltimore and has a good time," she said.
As for Dixon, no need to hide away, even if she probably shouldn't grab too much of the spotlight.
"Hold your chin up, and quietly stay in the background," Baldrige advised. "But be there."
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