Should Helen Bentley Have Saved Face?


So Helen Delich Bentley has softened her face with a nip here and a tuck there now that she's running for governor.

What next?

Will Barbara Mikulski make herself tall and thin?

Will Paul Sarbanes become bold and outspoken?

Will Don Schaefer begin speaking in complete sentences?

Will Kurt Schmoke get angry??

Will Mary Pat Clarke become demure?

Will Louie Goldstein stop blessing everybody he meets?

Of course not. It would be completely out of character. Which is what the Republican congresswoman once known as "Tugboat Helen" seems to be trying to do by turning her face into something less touched by time, experience, the harshness of childhood poverty, the roughness of the waterfront she covered as a journalist, and, later, the mean exercises of political ambition.

This was the face that scowled while she bashed a Japanese product to smithereens. It was the face that frightened a hefty process server a couple of years ago. It was the face that liked to holler.

Like her or not, agree with her or not, this is what makes Helen Bentley what she is today, at age 70. That face stood for something. Changing it is a little like switching a vote at the last minute.

(Come to think of it, maybe the face change is in character after all.)

Mrs. Bentley certainly isn't the first gubernatorial candidate to try foisting a softer image on the electorate.

Attorney General Francis B. Burch used the ploy in his 1978 campaign for governor. Mr. Burch's nickname was Bill. It had nothing to do with his middle name, which was Boucher. Nor, if you asked some people who knew him, did it have anything to do with Mr. Burch being a soft-hearted person as one tends to think of people named Bill. (He actually took the nickname from a dog he had loved as a child).

Once he decided to make the run for the Governor's Mansion 16 years ago, Attorney General Burch thought he might get more votes if his name appeared on the ballot as Francis B. (Bill) Burch. He even went to court to formally change his name to (Bill).

One of the great gadflies of the Maryland Bar, Baltimore lawyer Leonard J. Kerpelman, filed suit to prevent Mr. Burch from calling himself Bill. "Bill," Mr. Kerpelman complained in his suit, "conjures up a vision of a cuddly, friendly, down-to-earth, palsy, All-American-boy type of fellow who is easy to get along with, comradely, and possessed of the common touch." To attach such qualities to Mr. Burch's character would be to inflict fraud on the Maryland electorate, Mr. Kerpelman asserted.

Mr. Burch won the court battle, but he lost elsewhere.

Paul Banker, managing editor of The Sun at the time, shared the Kerpelman view enough to rule that Mr. Burch would never be referred to as Bill in The Sun's news columns. The Evening Sun's managing editor was more charitable. (So was the passage of time. By the time Mr. Burch staged an unsuccessful bid to recapture the AG's office in 1986, Mr. Banker was no longer managing editor and Mr. Burch got his "Bill." His obituary in 1987 called him Francis B. "Bill" Burch.)

Paul Banker and Leonard Kerpelman were not the only enemies of name-change Mr. Burch had to contend with in 1978. The state supervisor of elections, who favored another candidate for governor, refused to go along with the inclusion of a name in parentheses on the ballot.

Later, the matter became moot because Mr. Burch pulled out of the race. He considered changing his name back to what it had been. But that would have confirmed a lot of people's darkest suspicions, and court records indicate he never got around to it.

Helen Delich Bentley has an advantage that Mr. Burch did not have, of course. The ballot will not have photos of candidates, so there's little the elections board can do to get in her face, as it were. The editor of The Sun could insist that we run only photos of Mrs. Bentley before she softened her face, but he is unlikely to do that. (There are no more separate managing editors of The Sun and The Evening Sun, but that's another story).

But what will Mrs. Bentley do after her present campaign for governor reaches its conclusion? Will she get a surgeon to put her face back to what it was?

Win or lose, I sure hope so. It was not a pretty face. It was not a warm face. But it had character. It had determination. It was the face of "The Fighting Lady" as she likes to call herself. Love it or bTC hate it, that was a splendid face.

G. Jefferson Price III, foreign editor of The Baltimore Sun, covered the 1978 gubernatorial campaign for The Sun.

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