Probing the rhetorical limits in Md. and beyond


SEN. JOHN KERRY may have gotten an inadvertent assist last week from Mayor Martin O'Malley. And we're not talking about the $1.2 million raised during a fund-raiser at the Ravens' stadium.

No shrinking candidate himself, Senator Kerry moved boldly along the fault line of what's acceptable to say in criticism of a sitting president in a time of war.

The mayor of Baltimore made him seem carefully measured.

While introducing the senator, Mr. O'Malley said President Bush and his administration worry him more than the terrorists of al-Qaida. Foul! cried the conservative talk-show hosts. Once again, the mayor of Baltimore had crossed the line, their line at least. This time, the national conservative team piled on. How could an American mayor be more afraid of an American president than he was of Osama bin Laden?

It's a good question - and someone could turn it back on the critics. Isn't it a shame that so many solid thinkers - including several who once served in the Bush Cabinet - are saying essentially the same thing? They worry that the world is a more dangerous place with al-Qaida emboldened by the possibility of America sinking into the sandy quagmire of Iraq.

The smooth-talking, take-no-prisoners mayor has made a political career of pushing the rhetorical envelope, provoking appeals court judges, Kennedys, state's attorneys, governors, former governors and baseball team owners.

He's been in the proverbial hot water before, but he's often more than survived by saying what others thought but feared to voice.

What he and Senator Kerry feel free to charge, of course, is a measure of how much trouble Mr. Bush is in - at this stage of the campaign. Polls showed last week that the president's approval rating was at 42 percent, an all-time low.

Mayor O'Malley stuck gamely to his rhetorical guns even as some Democrats wondered about his judgment. His hard work and his solid support was credited with raising the big Kerry campaign money. It was a measure of the mayor's own popularity in Maryland - and recognition of the belief that a mayor of Baltimore remains a big player in Maryland, still 2-to-1 Democratic in voter registration.

His fundamental appeal will always be his willingness to offer unvarnished views. He's still the Irish band guitar-playing matinee idol who remains a good bet to unseat a sitting Republican governor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. Here again, he may simply have said something others thought and felt.

As for Senator Kerry, he may be happy it was Martin O'Malley who said the president is less of a threat than the man whose minions took nearly 3,000 lives at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

At the same time, he got off a few volleys of his own. President Bush, he said, has failed an important test, the one that comes when a grieving mother wonders if a president has done everything he might have done to keep her son out of harm's way. The United States, Mr. Kerry said, should go to war only when it has to - not when it wants to. It's a challenging plan of attack for him to take since he voted for the war Mr. Bush has waged against Iraq.

This is not to say anything the mayor or the presidential candidate said was unpatriotic. Quite the contrary. Patriotism includes vigorous debate between individuals seeking the right course for the country.

And, yet, politically, there's probably a line.

Candidates of every stripe need to find out where it's drawn.

C. Fraser Smith is news director for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays.

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