Politicians rising to the challenge -- in other states

Myth may be the "kudzu of history," as Stacy Schiff writes in her 2010 biography, "Cleopatra: A Life." But truth matters — and the words that express it.

Actor Colin Firth just won an Oscar for portraying King George VI in "The King's Speech," a man who overcame a debilitating stutter to fulfill his duty to country during war.

Martin Luther King Jr.'s April 16, 1963, "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" passionately argued for equal justice under the law in simple, exact prose, igniting the civil rights movement and inspiring generations to create a more inclusive "City on a Hill."

"Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" will always echo in my mind when I think of President Ronald Reagan. Those living in Berlin on June 12, 1987, when he delivered that speech at the Brandenburg Gate will not forget it. Two years later, the Berlin Wall opened, and it was destroyed altogether in 1990 with the collapse of communism.

To read and to listen to the words cited above is to be transported to a higher vision of self, state and country. They were conceived at moments not dissimilar to one we share now, plagued by great turmoil at home and abroad.

Great leaders arise, Phoenix-like, from the ashes in these times. Winston Churchill spent eight years in the wilderness before being called to lead England during World War II. Harriet Tubman, who was born a slave in Dorchester County in 1822 (and whose statue may soon grace the U.S. Capitol), risked her life in Civil War times to bring dozens of captives to freedom through the Underground Railroad, later leading the civil rights and women's suffrage movements.

Republicans hope for a president to appear in the clashes pitting public labor unions, taxpayers who fund their wages, benefits and political campaigns, and financial reality.

At the very least, they are getting rousing, visionary speeches, often delivered with verve. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie verbally boxes with residents of his state, recording his rounds on YouTube. As he told one reporter, "Nobody in New Jersey is going to have to wonder where I am on an issue." Harley-riding Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels recently delivered a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference that commentator George Will described as an "elegant presentation of conservatism for grown-ups."

I liked this line the best: "Our main task is not to see that people of great wealth add to it but that those without much money have a greater chance to earn some."

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker talks to that state's residents as if he were lost in the woods, surrounded by members of his former Boy Scout troop. His words are plain and his tone optimistic, despite the circumstances. In his state of the state speech, he said, "During the present downturn, Wisconsin's proud tradition of responsible budgeting gave way to repeated raids on segregated funds, excessive borrowing for operations and an addiction to one-time federal dollars. These are no longer options, and their use has only delayed and worsened the difficult decisions we must now make. …Each time it looked like we might falter and lose our way, we turned our back to our Constitution's call for frugality and moderation and marched forward."

His use of the word "forward" is probably the only common thread he shares with Gov. Martin O'Malley, whose greatness will be limited by his happy surrender of Maryland to the federal government. To return to "Cleopatra: A Life," Mr. O'Malley is one of the many forgettable client kings of Rome.

It shows in his speeches, which lobotomize instead of inspire. They are filled with vague calls to create "One Maryland" and rely on meaningless words and phrases, including "progress," "right choices" and "spurring innovation." In his state of the state speech this year, he told Marylanders, "The best option for our most important priorities is to defend them by level-funding them."

Really? It's deflating to copy those words. They reflect a man caught in the mire of politics, not one rising to history's prerogatives.

Worse, they help to delay making choices to resolve Maryland's ongoing budget deficit and obscure the logical outcome of his policies: chronically higher taxes. Ultimately, they will put Maryland on the sidelines of history as Messrs. Christie, Daniels and Walker rewrite it.

Marta H. Mossburg is a senior fellow at the Maryland Public Policy Institute and a fellow at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. Her column appears every other Wednesday in The Baltimore Sun. Her e-mail is martamossburg@gmail.com.

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