American Joe Miedusiewski brought Barney Fife out of mothballs strictly by accident. Barney never had a bullet to call his own, and neither, it turns out, did Parris Glendening. But everybody who watched Andy Griffith knew about poor Barney's plight, while nobody around here knew the facts about Glendening.
Former police commissioner, Glendening was calling himself. He was saying this in the television commercials he launched several weeks back, geared specifically toward Baltimore voters who had never even heard of Glendening until he started running for governor.
Police commissioner: It sounded pretty impressive, unless you examined the details. Turns out, Glendening was talking about 20 years ago, when he sat on the Hyattsville City Council. Each council member oversaw a separate town agency. Glendening had the cops. There were 20 of them. He examined their budgets.
Miedusiewski, now the No. 2 contender in the Democratic gubernatorial polls, wondered how to cash in on this slight case of puffery. Tom Bass accidentally came to the rescue. Bass, current mayor of Hyattsville, was asked about the duties of the so-called police commissioner in his Prince George's County town.
Budget oversight, he said. Liaison between the police and the City Council, he said. Glendening, he said, had access to a badge and gun, but didn't use it.
"Sounds like Barney Fife," Miedusiewski muttered. By chance, he muttered it in the company of his campaign manager, Jim Brochin, and his media adviser, David Heller. Eyes lit up. Barney Fife, indeed. A radio campaign, a campaign of ridicule, was about to be born.
The ads started running this week, comparing Glendening to actor Don Knotts asking in a high-pitched whine, "Andy, how do you load this gosh-darned thing? Hey, Opie, gimme back my bullets."
Negative campaigning, a clearly miffed Glendening was saying over the telephone Tuesday.
Truth in advertising, a clearly pleased Miedusiewski contended.
What we have here is a need for a commissioner of language police.
"Is the claim overstated?" Glendening asked. "Absolutely not. This says to me [Miedusiewski] doesn't understand what local government is like in the state of Maryland. Deliberately, or out of lack of knowledge, he's comparing this to police commissioner of Baltimore. It's not. Nobody ever said it is."
"Come on," Miedusiewski said, when apprised of Glendening's defense. "You don't call yourself a police commissioner and not tell the whole story. It's not just what you say, it's what you don't say. You call yourself police commissioner to Baltimoreans, they think of Tom Frazier, commanding thousands of officers, directing a strike force, organizing raids. That's what's in people's minds."
"All over Maryland," Glendening contended, "we have the commissioner form of government. It's a name. I wasn't a professional law-enforcement person, but I oversaw the budget. I recommended hiring. I dealt with a chief, who reported to me and I reported to the City Council. This is very common practice throughout America. If this is unclear to [Miedusiewski], I'll be glad to hand him a textbook of Maryland government."
"Unconscionable exaggeration," Miedusiewski replied. "If anybody needs a textbook to read, it's him."
Miedusiewski has the unmistakable sound of delight in his voice. He's struck a nerve. Glendening, audibly annoyed, says he's called himself a former police commissioner in previous campaigns.
But those races were aimed at local voters who knew Hyattsville and understood the local jargon. In a statewide election, with TV spots geared toward strangers, this language feels as if it's employed to win easy points in a time of great concern about crime and fend off anyone wishing to tag Glendening a liberal. Glendening talks about increases he's made in county police, about a new county jail, about a county boot camp. He asks what has Miedusiewski done about crime? Voted against a bill curbing assault weapons.
On this, Miedusiewski cries foul. He's voted for big law-enforcement money, he says. Then he points to Glendening's home county: second-highest violent crime rate in the state. Second worst public schools. He sounds as if he's testing future commercials.
In the meantime, maybe Glendening could take those claims of being a police commissioner and place them under citizen's arrest.