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Political payoffs by the pound

THE BALTIMORE SUN

SANTA CLAUS no doubt wishes he had it as easy as the favor-seekers and special pleaders who used to -- and maybe even now -- see Christmas as a good opportunity to worm their way into a politician's good graces.

Rather than wriggle down a sooty chimney, these mysterious fellows -- I like to think of them as the three kings of the lobbying profession -- strode boldly, and I trust reverently, up my family's walkway early on Christmas morning, while the reputable citizens of Baltimore were still snug in their beds, and left their offerings by the front door.

Or at least that's how it worked from 1947 to 1951, when I was enrolled at Gilman School and my father, Warren Buckler Jr., represented Roland Park and adjoining areas of North Baltimore in the City Council.

Christmas Day always began in our house with the announcement that no presents were to be opened until my father had eaten his breakfast and read the morning paper. We protested loud, long and in vain. This little spectacle became a family ritual, scrupulously observed year after year.

My father's original purpose was to torment the rest of us, especially the kids. But also for him, a leisurely breakfast was a rare luxury, and he relished every bite of his typical Christmas breakfast: poached eggs, waffles, kidney stew, scrapple, kippered herring, grapefruit and toast drenched in butter. He had little time for such delicacies on workdays.

But his edict about not opening presents didn't apply to the goodies on the front porch. For as soon as he began to grumble about Sun editorials (which invariably urged against any precipitate rocking-of-the-boat), we children scrambled purposefully out the front door to inspect the loot.

We had quit believing in Santa by then, or had serious doubts. So the inexplicable appearance of gifts on the front stoop invested the day with a touch of mystery, compensating for what had been lost.

They always arrived sometime between our return from the midnight service at St. Thomas Episcopal Church way out in Greenspring Valley -- my father's annual concession to Christian conformity -- and first light.

The anonymous messengers who raced silently through the city in the pre-dawn hours to share their riches with political decision-makers seemed to me in my innocence the truest exemplars of the Christmas spirit.

Actually, any self-respecting politician today would laugh derisively at the meagerness of our special-interest bonanza.

Beating the bosses

My father was a good-government liberal who was often at odds with the bosses of Baltimore's Democratic machine -- "Back Buckler and Beat the Bosses" read the slogan on his campaign buttons. (Alas, they usually beat him.) Many of the gift bearers no doubt bypassed our house as a lost cause and left double the usual allotment elsewhere.

But we could always count on finding a couple of bottles of Maryland rye whiskey, a carton or two of cigarettes, a case of beer, boxes of candy, a tin of ham, each with a card identifying the individual, institution or cause in search of a sympathetic ear at City Hall.

For my mother, Patty Buckler, however, the biggest prize was the season pass to Pimlico Race Course. My father dismissed horse enthusiasts as no-account dandies in red hunting coats and jodhpurs who were too dull or insensitive to think about anything important, like decent housing and equal rights, let alone redistribution of wealth.

She, on the other hand, fancied herself a psychic, and nowhere did she practice her black art more profitably than at Pimlico or Laurel or Bowie race tracks. She had no "system," dismissed the Racing Form as part of a conspiracy to fleece the public and seldom heeded touts or tipsters. Indeed, they would have done well to look to her for advice.

With me at her heels, she seemed to cash every ticket, and we always went home with a wad of bills that would make any ward heeler proud. Thus did drear December offer a foretaste of summer's bounty.

Politics shaped the holiday in other ways. For instance, one year, my father, apparently hoping to give me a feel for life beyond the genteel embrace of Roland Park, took me to a bash that a big paving contractor staged in a cavernous equipment shed for elected officials, party autocrats, their retinues and hangers-on.

There amid acrid smoke and the medley of aromas wafting from tubs of some of Baltimore's favorite comestibles, I gazed in awe at the most celebrated political schemers of that or any era, smoking big black cigars, stroking their then-fashionable pot bellies, which were swathed in tightly stretched vests, catching ashes.

To qualify for public office in those days, a fellow had to be able to roll his cigar to one side of the mouth and discuss affairs of state out of the other side with a crony or accomplice. No hands could be used in this operation, except, of course, to grip the elbow of one's interlocutor. It was important to be able to pass along sensitive information in an audible whisper without sticking your cigar in the other guy's ear.

When a story had been told or secret shared, both parties laughed aloud and pounded each other's shoulders in glee. I imagined them telling each other: "To find the area of a circle, multiply pi times the radius squared." More likely it was: "What d'ye think of this weather?" Or: "The odds are looking better that O'Reilly will carry the Jewish vote."

Such conversations were the social mainstay of these occasions. My father could guffaw with the best of them, and enjoyed every moment of this bonding ritual. But nobody shared any pithy observations or intimate revelations with me, so I set out in search of other attractions.

Crab cake passion

A 12-year-old weary of political calculation could move on, for instance, to tables fashioned of plywood and sawhorses that groaned under the weight of crab cakes, Maryland fried chicken, potato salad, steaming sausages with a half-dozen different ethnic pedigrees, oyster stew, sauerkraut, hard rolls, pickles and other delectables. (I seldom got past the crab cakes.)

And a youngster who had eaten his fill and was feeling a bit queasy from the malty fumes of National Bohemian or Gunther's (the brewery that then awarded Baltimore Oriole batters a case of beer for each home run) could then sample the entertainment, provided mainly by demure "dancing" girls from The Block, the city's most renowned cultural treasure. They did their bump-and-grind more or less in time to jazzy versions of "Away In a Manger" and other seasonal melodies.

Lest child welfare advocates target me for counseling, let me stress that the ladies wore springs of artificial holly in strategic places, since in that uptight era total nudity would have been considered blasphemous at a Christmas celebration.

I watched, feeling very grown up, until it was time to leave. And that meant I watched until late on those winter evenings, because my father was famously reluctant to leave any social event until, literally, the last crab cake had been consumed, the last joke cracked and the last keg drained.

Then there was the year my electric train was politicized.

Few things mattered more to me at Christmas time than my Lionel train layout, complete with lighted houses, moaning whistle, wagging semaphore, a beautiful gray locomotive, fashionably streamlined, and a car that, at the touch of a button, dumped miniature logs into a waiting bin.

My father gamely assembled it year after year, though, having no mechanical sense and being nearly blind, he had trouble fitting the three-pronged tracks together and was never sure which end of which copper wire the electric current entered and from which end it exited.

Usually, there were too many sections of track on one side of the oval and too few on the other, and switches that led nowhere. After a day of agonizing labor, we usually couldn't get the thing to work.

This annual project, like most family undertakings, was invariably interrupted by reporters calling to learn the councilman's views on some vital matter or other.

But one particular morning a more ominous call intervened. My father was urgently needed at City Hall to help nail down the final details on a sewer extension.

He balked. He told the caller that he had promised to assemble my train. After some hurried consultations on the other end, the caller said: "Don't worry. The boy's train will be taken care of. Trust me . . ." -- dangerous words coming from a Baltimore politician.

Of course, my father was much more interested in the legal negotiations that would lead to construction of an urgently needed new sewer than in the infuriating complexity of a Lionel electric train layout. As I choked back my disappointment, he headed downtown, assuring me sheepishly that somehow things would work out.

As indeed they did. Within the hour, a man who identified himself as a city electrician rang the doorbell. Some 45 minutes later, he had the train running, the lights blinking, the logs rolling into the bin, the switches actually leading to another piece of track. Seldom has a boy been so pleased. I long suspected that the man was no electrician but an angel come to assure that both my personal needs and the larger goal of civic betterment -- the sewer, too was a great success, I recall -- were properly served. If he was indeed a city employee, I remain grateful to the taxpayers of Baltimore.

Yet even today, as I glance at the doorstep half expecting to find that some juicy tidbit materialized magically overnight, I'm struck by a terrible paradox: If government had been half as upright as my father fervently believed it ought to be, Christmas would have been a lot less pleasurable -- for both of us.

Warren Buckler, a Baltimore native, writes from Valparaiso, Ind.

Pub Date: 12/25/98

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