S---house of a Sideshow


It takes people's minds off of the war.

-- William Donald Schaefer

BY NOW, nearly everyone in Maryland has heard Governor Schaefer's scatological comment about the land east of the Chesapeake. ("How's that s---house of an Eastern Shore?") He has been condemned, defended and derided. He's been called profane, immature and a disgrace to his office.

The governor, claiming the remark was a jest aimed at a longtime friend from the shore, thinks the uproar is "one of the silliest things I have ever seen in my life."

He said he had "absolutely nothing to apologize about." Yet five days later, there he was publicly eating crow: "I am made a terrible mistake. . . I apologize."

Welcome to the State House circus, a three-ring spectacle where an occasional sideshow has been on display since Mr. Schaefer arrived in 1987. It is part of the governor's modus operandi. When times get tough, it's time for a good diversion.

Mr. Schaefer is famed for his tantrums, his mood swings, his not-so-funny public jests, his Quixotic behavior and, above all, for his iron will to succeed.

No governor has brought such intensity to the job. His "do it now" sloganeering is part of a stubborn, driven desire to build Rome in a day.

Yet there is a human element that is often overlooked. Don Schaefer wants to be liked. He is deeply hurt when people turn against him.

Even when 60 percent of the voters endorsed him for re-election last year, the governor wondered what he did to anger the other 40 percent. He's still stewing about it. This is one politician who hates rejection.

Donald Schaefer has led a charmed life. Since 1955, he has never had a close election. He is used to dominating the political arena. That's the way it worked in Baltimore when he was mayor.

In Baltimore, his "do it now" approach brought instant results. Potholes he spotted were filled, dirty alleys he toured were cleaned, and bureaucrats were hounded until they transformed the city.

This strategy doesn't work in Annapolis. The ship of state is bigger and harder to steer. The governor must share power with the legislature. He can't simply tour the state in search of potholes. "Do it now" often means "we'll get to it later."

During last year's campaign, Mr. Schaefer anticipated a second term filled with big achievements.

Then came the recession.

Now it appears the final Schaefer years will be marked by a scramble to hold things together. Maryland is deep in a fiscal hole. The bad revenue news of December and the $423 million in budget cuts are just the start. Revenue receipts remain in a free-fall. Unemployment lines are growing. The legislature is intent on making steep budget cuts.

This means painful cutbacks. And layoffs. Progress in education and social programs could be reversed. The governor may not have the cash even to fill in the potholes.

Everywhere the governor turns, there is bad news.

He is personified as the evil ogre by state workers furious over benefit cuts; groups furious over cuts in social programs; gun owners furious over the drive to ban assault weapons, and citizens furious over the governor's tax overhaul plan.

You can add Eastern Shore residents to that list. They're furious as well -- apology or no apology.

Mr. Schaefer has tried to cushion the pain, but he doesn't get any credit. He frequently has backed down from controversial stands when faced with strong criticism. That hasn't removed the bitterness felt by affected constituents.

No wonder the governor is frustrated. No wonder he takes out his anger on easy targets, such as letter writers to local newspapers who have criticized him. He strikes back by sending the writers blunt responses. He upbraids local columnists that way, too.

His underlying refrain: Why don't you love me? Why don't you appreciate the good things I have done? Why are you always criticizing me?

This is not normal. Governors aren't supposed to show their emotions. They aren't supposed to fly into a rage, use profanity or mockery or apologize for mistakes. Governors are our political heroes. And heroes aren't supposed to have feet of clay.

Donald Schaefer is not your average governor. His actions are indeed abnormal -- for a governor. But if you view Don Schaefer simply as a very human executive under enormous stress and constant public pressure, who wants desperately to be admired and appreciated, his actions are more understandable.

Besides, they do take people's minds off the war.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editor of The Sun's editorial pages.

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