Remembering Marvin Mandel, an amiable pipe-smoker in a real-life soap opera

Governor Marvin Mandel at press conference in 1977.
Governor Marvin Mandel at press conference in 1977. (Walter McCardell/Baltimore Sun)
If you are too young to remember the trials of Marvin Mandel, let me provide a highlight from that political soap-opera: Pipe-puffing Jewish-American governor from Baltimore leaves his wife of 32 years for a younger woman from southern Maryland gentry; the spurned First Lady, known as “Bootsie,” refuses to leave the governor’s mansion; the governor moves into an Annapolis hotel. Making only $25,000 a year at the time -- “He loved beyond his means,” quipped the late columnist Mary McGrory --  the governor turns to friends and an order of Roman Catholic priests for help financing his divorce.
A year later, the governor wins re-election in a landslide.
A year after that, he gets indicted by a federal grand jury.
A little more context: The Mandel Soap Opera came during a breathtaking run of political corruption in Maryland. In 1973, Spiro T. Agnew, Mandel’s predecessor, resigned as Richard Nixon’s vice-president after pleading no contest to tax evasion stemming from kickbacks he’d taken as governor and as Baltimore County executive. Then, two county executives, Dale Anderson in Baltimore and Joe Alton in Anne Arundel, went down on federal corruption charges. Of course, Nixon resigned the presidency because of the Watergate scandal in August 1974.
When I arrived in Baltimore in 1976, I found it abundant with news. The governor’s corruption trials -- there were two; the first ended in mistrial after a guy from New Jersey tried to tamper with the jury -- generated front-page stories day after day, week after week, until the convictions of Mandel and his five co-defendants in August 1977.
Mandel, who died on Sunday at 95, is being remembered today as a competent governor who modernized Maryland government in many ways. Significant reforms of the state courts occurred on his watch, and I’ve often heard attorneys and judges credit -- some of them ironically -- Mandel with building public confidence in the system.
Mandel was an old-school Democrat who believed in good government. But he was of the smoke-filled room, too, backed by political bosses and buoyed by friends whose business interests were greatly influenced by the government he controlled.
“His ever-present pipe gave him an aura of wisdom and amiability,” said Gilbert Sandler, longtime chronicler of Baltimore. “He served the state well and I was saddened to see him embroiled in messy matters that sullied his otherwise pretty good reputation. His career parallels the rise of the old political machines in Baltimore and, for me, his death brings that same, and colorful, era to an end.”
But a lot of what was once considered “colorful” was, by the 1970s, considered corrupt.

The way prosecutors presented the case, Mandel was a powerful governor who quietly did things that increased the value a thoroughbred race track in Prince George’s County, benefiting friends who had secretly purchased it. And the friends showered him with gifts; one of them even got the Pallotine Fathers to loan Mandel $42,000 toward his divorce, a good trick when you consider the Catholic Church’s belief in the indissolubility of marriage.

Marylanders who lived through the Mandel era can be forgiven if they were confused by what followed the trial -- a reversal of the mail fraud and racketeering convictions, followed by affirmation, followed by Mandel serving 19 months in a federal prison camp in Florida, followed by a presidential commutation of his sentence, followed several years later by a Supreme Court ruling that led, later still, to the convictions of Mandel and his co-defendants being thrown out. The courts essentially said that the feds had overreached.

Clearly Mandel and his pals were up to something dishonest back in the day. But did that negate his work as a progressive governor in the 1970s?
Matthew Crenson, emeritus professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University, said: “Marvin Mandel built his career as a low-profile politician, a deal-maker and conciliator. He concentrated on issues not likely to draw much public attention -- the reorganization of the executive branch and the courts. And yet he ended his career with a soap-opera-sized scandal that seemed completely out of joint with everything that had gone before.”
Said Lee Baylin, a Baltimore attorney and former reporter who covered the trials for the old Evening Sun: “Measured by his accomplishments in office, Marvin was the best governor in my memory. It's a shame that he was unable to rise above the shadow of ‘business as usual’ that darkened the Maryland politics of his time.”
As always, reflections on Marvin Mandel take us into the gray areas, the result of the confusing post-conviction court decisions and efforts over the years to rehabilitate his public image.
Montaigne, the 16th Century French philosopher and statesman, argued that human virtue is never clean, never constant; a good leader must be of men, not necessarily above them. “He who walks in the crowd,” Montaigne wrote, “must step aside, keep his elbows in, step back or advance, even leave the straight way, according to others, not according to what he proposes to himself but according to what others propose to him, according to the time, according to the men . . .”

Attorney Gerard Martin, who was an assistant U.S. Attorney during the Mandel era, seemed to echo this. "I always felt that maybe we in federal law enforcement were pushing the envelope on what kind of conduct was acceptable," he said. "I was never comfortable with the lines that were drawn in that case. I later had occasion to meet Marvin Mandel and could not reconcile the old image of him as a corrupt guy with the nice guy who I was talking to. Sometimes I think we would all be better off if there were more public officials like him who knew how to get things done."

Recommended on Baltimore Sun