From 'Mr. Smith' To Smart Politician


Don't let all that talk about hurrying home to tend the bull calf jTC fool you. Beneath Wayne Gilchrest's rumpled suits and aw-shucks manner lies a politician, after all.

One of the things I always liked about Mr. Gilchrest was that he was who he was -- a low-cost, low-key house painter-teacher-turned-congressman -- and he didn't care if his persona was fashionable or not.

Mr. Gilchrest certainly was not in vogue when he filed to run in his first campaign five years ago. The Reagan regime of sophistication and pseudo-political royalty still held sway, but he showed no interest in conforming to it. He won the 1988 congressional primary with a $300 campaign, then refused to budge when shocked Republican Party officials urged him to step aside because he wasn't the right kind of candidate to beat Democratic Rep. Roy Dyson.

With the winds of political fashion blowing against him, he braced himself and dug in, refusing to pretend to be anyone but an ordinary man who wanted to go to Washington. A true "Mr. Smith," he was; the analogy to Jimmy Stewart's immortal naive, good-hearted senator was inevitable, and it found its way into every news story.

Two years have passed since Mr. Gilchrest went to Washington, and the world has turned upside down. A rotten economy, rampant unemployment, rising deficits, the House banking scandal -- they've made people think that the guy down the street could do a better job. Now, it's the smooth, polished politicians -- the Tom McMillens, the Steny Hoyers -- who find themselves out of fashion. Wayne Gilchrest is suddenly hip.

Is there anything wrong with that? Of course not. But the public's newfound taste for "regular guy" leaders, for folksiness and log cabin upbringings, has changed the kind of candidate Mr. Gilchrest is. No longer does he merely present himself, honestly and without embellishment, as Wayne Gilchrest, former teacher and house painter. Now he capitalizes on his image. Knowing his ordinariness has become an advantage, he wastes no opportunity to remind us how very ordinary he is.

In a recent interview, Mr. Gilchrest mentioned at least three times that he'd "rather stay home and feed the bull calf" back in Kennedyville than campaign or fight battles on Capitol Hill. Earlier, he talked longingly about Turner Creek, a "sacred place" where he goes fishing with his children. Then he went on:

"The only reason any sane person would do this is to be a public servant. To gain power, prestige -- you throw your life away. I don't have any power. I don't even know where I'm going tonight. I get thrown around like a wet rag."

Mr. Gilchrest is just as likable as ever. I want to believe what he says, and I do -- some of it. I'm convinced he loves his home and family, and that he'll never be one of those glitzy Washingtonians wearing "$1,000 suits and alligator shoes," as Ross Perot puts it.

But no one who despises Washington as much as he claims to would be trying so hard to stay there.

People still think of Mr. Gilchrest as a political innocent, a novice. In fact, he is a seasoned campaigner. His current race against Mr. McMillen in the newly redrawn 1st District reflects that. If money counts, as it almost always does, the heavily financed Mr. McMillen should be killing Mr. Gilchrest. But this is the tightest race in the state. Most pundits believe it's still too close to call, but concede that if anyone has an advantage, Mr. Gilchrest does.

He has put Mr. McMillen on the defensive with several ads that exploit the latter's image as a wealthy basketball player out of touch with the needs of ordinary Marylanders. The best-known radio commercial depicts a stewardess saying: "Fluff your pillow, Mr. McMillen? More champagne, Mr. McMillen? More sushi, Mr. McMillen?"

Ads like this prove Mr. Gilchrest knows the value of his image. They show he's smart. But they also show he's not quite as nice a guy as he'd like us to believe.

When Mr. McMillen countered with his own radio ad featuring a parrot who derided Mr. Gilchrest by squawking, "He's a politician, he's a politician," the Republican professed horror and regret that the campaign had stooped so low. He said, with wide-eyed naivete, "My children will never think of a parrot the same way again." Let us remember, too, how much nerve Mr. Gilchrest has shown in getting this far. It's easy to gloss over his 1990 victory because Mr. Dyson was so damaged by ethics controversies. But remember, before he ever got to Mr. Dyson, Mr. Gilchrest had to beat a full slate of seven GOP candidates in the primary. More astonishingly, he very nearly defeated Mr. Dyson in 1988, before the latter's negatives had taken their toll. I had coffee with Mr. Gilchrest recently at the Pasadena Dunkin' Donuts. He was talking about how horrible Washington is and how wonderful Kennedyville is and reminiscing about the days when he used to be home on evenings and weekends. I asked him why he's doing this if he hates it so much.

He said, "For a very short period in my life, I feel a sense of urgency about some critical issues."

A good answer. He should have left it at that. Instead, he went on:

"I can go home now and not miss any of this. Ten or 12 years, and I'm out of here."

Ten or 12 years? Maybe he's not so anxious to get back to the bull calf, after all.

Elise Armacost is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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