Deciphering O'Malley's rhetoric


At a $2 million fund-raiser at M&T; Bank Stadium on Monday night, Mayor Martin O'Malley gave the kind of speech many observers have come to expect -- full of dramatic imagery, high ideals, more than a little hyperbole and occasionally tortured syntax.

Calling Maryland "a potential powerhouse of a state," he added that its future "is threatened by the icy, minimalist indifference of those who say to a free, a diverse, and to a courageous people, 'This far can you go, and no further.'"

If the words had the lilt of a J.F.K., the imagery of a William Butler Yeats and the grammatical reversibility of a Yoda, they also gave his audience an earful of the oratorical strengths and weaknesses Marylanders are likely to encounter as Baltimore's mayor gears up for his all-but-certain run for the governorship next year.

Grandiloquent rhetoric can inspire, say the experts, but it can also leave speakers vulnerable to misstatement, overstatement and unexpected forays into purpleness.

O'Malley has "extraordinary confidence in his ability to communicate on a higher public stage," says Keith Haller, president of Potomac Inc., a nonpartisan Bethesda polling firm. "You certainly put a big star next to his name for oratorical skills. But he has run into trouble on occasion when he has pushed the envelope and some people saw it as going a bit far."

Backers and critics agree that O'Malley's oratory is potentially among his most valuable assets.

"The mayor's gaze, his presence, his charisma, can all leave an audience rapt," says Arthur W. Murphy, a pro-O'Malley political consultant at the Democracy Group in Annapolis. "He's always passionate, which connects him with listeners. The flourishes help him speak to what he sees as greater values, as better directions for the state."

Those flourishes include familiar techniques -- both spoken and written -- such as the use of repeating phrases and gradually escalating tone to build his points.

"He's not choppy," says Thomas F. Schaller, a University of Maryland, Baltimore County political science professor who backs O'Malley, a man known to write most of his own speeches. "His sentences can be long and elliptical and have a metaphorical twist. He weaves his themes as he goes. He's more Faulkner than Hemingway."

Few music critics will likely remember O'Malley's March, the Irish bar band O'Malley fronted for 25 years, for its lyrics, but the many ballads he wrote for the group do seem to shape the tone and imagery of his speeches.

How far is it, after all, from Will you come with me to the bower/ Will you walk upon the sand/ Will you dream of a new tomorrow/Will you take me by the hand? (the chorus of his "Song For Justice") to a 1999 inauguration speech in which he emoted: "If there is no wind, you have to row. The best days are those when ... you feel alive with the promise of what might be."

And Schaller points out a paradoxical speaking trait. "Most politicians, when they build to a point, increase their volume, sometimes 'til they're practically shouting. The mayor has a way of lowering his. That can be very dramatic."

Such skills will likely prove important for a politician trying to make the jump from city hall to statehouse. But at times, the mayor's penchant for the grand gesture has been costly.

In 2003, when he wanted to argue that the Bush administration could do more to help cities in the fight against terror, he drew on references to the War of 1812 to illustrate his city's history of independent resolve. But a year later, at a John Kerry fund-raiser , poetry morphed into polemics. "I remember, after the attacks of Sept. 11, as mayor of the city, I was very, very worried about al-Qaida, and still am," the mayor said. "But I'm even more worried about the actions and inactions of the Bush administration."

The remarks left him vulnerable to charges of disrespect to the president during a time of war. Maryland Comptroller William Donald Schaefer -- a man O'Malley has jokingly called "my mentor and tormentor" -- may have engaged in a bit of hyperbole of his own, labeling the remarks as "treason." But the mayor found himself having to address such reactions instead of elaborating on his point.

The prospect of overreaching might well tempt a mayor whose city, while it has made some measurable strides during his tenure, is still widely known for violent crime, urban blight and other problems.

Richard Vatz, a professor of communications studies at Towson University who is a frequent O'Malley critic, says it's "the classic question: do you look at the relative improvement of a city, or do you look at its absolute status?"

O'Malley has accomplishments to boast of, Vatz says, including improvement in elementary-school test scores. But foes will still be able to point out that Baltimore's schools are the lowest-performing in the state.

When O'Malley calls city students' test-score improvements "one of the biggest turnaround stories of any urban school system in the United States of America" -- or dubs Baltimore, with its second-highest murder rate in the nation, "the Greatest City in America" -- is he creating helpful spin, or painfully accentuating the gap between the real and the ideal?

"It's smart strategy to brand your city in the most positive way. If the voters hear nothing else, they'll hear that," Haller says. "But you want to make sure that what you say for public consumption is factually defensible."

James G. Gimpel, a University of Maryland, College Park political science professor, grants the mayor's eloquence. But he wonders whether O'Malley's language bespeaks the insecurity of a man whose city -- which Gimpel describes as "a rust-belt town that has been in decline for years" -- is hardly something to boast about, or of a politician who, however talented, has "never really had a serious opponent" until now.

On hearing the "icy indifference" passage, Gimpel pauses. "What did all that mean?" he asks. "If the last 40 years of voter research have shown anything, it's that the voters who use that kind of language have generally made up their minds already. The people in the middle, the ones still open to persuasion, tend to be less educated. I don't think you appeal to those voters by trying to sound like an intellectual."

In the end, O'Malley's challenge might be to draw his considerable skills -- the poetry, the pauses, the rock-star presence -- into rhetoric that elevates the public's thoughts, while never losing sight of his city's realities.

It's a tricky balance to strike.

"There are certain ... disturbances during his tenure in Baltimore that cannot be ignored," says Haller. "But at the same time, the mayor does have positive stories to tell, and he should remember that. He'll want to find ways of showing that the glass is genuinely half full. That's what you call smart politics."

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