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The Ron Smith legacy: How to write, how to live, how to die

ElectionsTalk Shows (genre)RadioRobert L. Ehrlich Jr.Republican Party

For virtually all the time I spent in politics, my main function was to craft words for someone else.

And, for a long time, I was pretty good at it. In fact, I got so good at it that, when I finally decided I wanted to start opining under my own name again, it took some adjustment.

The biggest change was learning how to resist the urge to self-edit, to choose my words against an internal calculus weighted in favor of what I should say at the expense of what I wanted to say.

But once I learned how to do it, I felt liberated. Helping me transition from the purely partisan to the analytical were the examples set by those who have done it successfully over the years.

Specifically, I have always been intrigued by people whose ability to provide fair analysis is uncompromised by ideology or political leanings.

I'm thinking of people like one-time libertarian Boston radio talk show host David Brudnoy. Or pundits like David Gergen, Barry Rascovar and Tim Russert.

Or Ron Smith.

I first tuned into Ron's radio show on WBAL in 1991, during the time of the first Gulf War. His conservative views, which I shared, impressed me. But his thoughtfulness and willingness to engage people who disagreed with him impressed me more.

Too many talk show hosts relish denigrating or shouting over the voices of people with whom they disagree. Ron never did. The only thing he ever asked of his callers was that they be able to defend their views, not that they agree with his.

Ron did not mind flaming liberals. He just didn't care for flaming idiots.

I was also immediately impressed by the complete absence of hesitancy with which Ron was willing to criticize the status quo — including the GOP status quo — when justified.

During the 1992 election cycle, Ron openly criticized President George H.W. Bush, stating on the air that he did not deserve reelection. I must admit, this upset me at the time.

It wasn't that I disagreed with Ron's specific criticisms. I just felt the alternative was worse than the status quo. Why lend aid and comfort to the other side? I wondered.

Two decades later, I fully understand Ron's actions.

As I since learned through my own political journey, reform is only possible when problems are addressed. And tight-lipped loyalty at the expense of the truth is ultimately destructive.

When I worked on Capitol Hill, I got to know Ron and his staff in the context of being press secretary to an ambitious, publicity-friendly boss. They were always gracious, no matter how spontaneous or last-minute my requests for rush hour call-in time were.

Later, I met Ron's wife June during our mutual service to the Ehrlich administration. Things kind of came full-circle for me when I appeared on Ron's show a couple of times. I really enjoyed the experiences, but I especially liked our comparing of notes about local politics and players during commercial breaks.

As a conservative, Ron was a thoughtful, nuanced, sometimes critical voice. As a talk show host, his independent-mindedness is what defined him.

There's one more thing that deserves mentioning. If you're lucky in life, you meet a lot of people who play a role in educating you on how to live. But dying is something most of us have to figure out on our own.

Many people have taught me various aspects of living during my life. But Ron Smith is the person who showed me how someone should die — with honor, candor, and uncompromising honesty.

In other words, Ron died the way he lived.

Richard J. Cross III is a former press secretary and speechwriter to Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. He resides in Baltimore and blogs at http://rjc-crosspurposes.blogspot.com. His email is rcrossiii@comcast.net.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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