Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
February 5, 2012
The thought of Ron Smith leaving us so soon is still difficult to fathom. Up to and including his last show on Nov. 28, he was as entertaining, opinionated and combative as ever. He was the self-proclaimed "Voice of Reason," firmly entrenched in the WBAL saddle, issuing quick-witted responses to those who had the guts to engage him on the airwaves. Even with the looming and unwelcome specter of a grave prognosis, when Ron was behind the mic, life temporarily resumed its regular order for him and his loyal listeners.
"Regular order" for Ron was being (not playing) the conservative/libertarian antagonist smack dab in the middle of arguably the country's most liberal state. He relished the role. It meant daily defenses of the Second and 10th amendments, and a persistent opposition to the never-ending desire of both political parties to grow government. It included playing competitive golf at his beloved Bon Air Club in Shrewsbury, and pretending not to laugh out loud whenever "Mrs. Reason" let loose with a decidedly funny but "un-P.C." joke. (Humor was always a staple of the Smith family's approach to life, and never more evident than in the weeks preceding Ron's death.) Most of all, it was soaking up information from any and all sources in order to help him communicate his message to a hungry audience.
Ron often remarked that he liked me despite my chosen profession. Maybe it was our mutual passion for golf (we shared the view that true character is revealed on the links), or the irony that our two rather strong personalities had married women with equally strong personas. Whatever the reason, the friendship lasted over 20 years, with plenty of laughs, bogeys and election days to keep us entertained.
We would argue at times, too. No surprise here: Ron loved the art of debate. When it came to politics, however, Ron always suspected ulterior motives whenever an elected official did or said anything. In this respect, his commentary could cross the line from skeptical to cynical, not always a productive approach for those in the business of interpreting public events, but easy material for a distrustful audience more than ready to pounce on the latest politician's misdeed(s). When I would respond that not every pol was a no-good liar or con artist, he would typically brush off the impassioned defense of my profession. On rare occasions, I might get the long-stare treatment, as though I had just uttered an opinion of first impression that required time to digest. I like to think these periodic episodes signaled a bit of progress in my long campaign to (partially) rehabilitate the political class in the eyes of Ron Smith.
Ron's lack of formal education gave him a huge chip on the shoulder that was massaged through a voracious appetite for reading and a Marine's disciplined approach to daily preparation. And he was always prepared for his show.
In many ways, Ron reminded me of another friend and monumental personality who passed in 2011: William Donald Schaefer. Each was iconoclastic, iron willed and gruff — yet both maintained a sustained popularity over decades. Ironically, both had barks far worse than their bite, and not a great deal of patience when it came to suffering fools. In an age of robotic political correctness, these two cut their own way. They demanded to be heard, even when being heard meant public disapproval. And we grew to love them for it.
Regularly, Marylanders of all stripes will approach me with a sorrowful look and say, "I really miss Ron." My response is at the ready: "We all do."
In golf, a first tee tradition is to shake hands and wish your opponent well, with the admonition, "Hit 'em straight." In Ron Smith, we had no such concerns; he hit 'em all straight. What a wonderful legacy.
God only made one "Talk Show Man." We sure do miss him.
Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s column appears Sundays. The former Maryland governor and member of Congress is a partner at the law firm King & Spalding and the author of "Turn this Car Around," a book about national politics. His email is email@example.com.
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