A Friday night in June has just slipped into Saturday morning. The Prince of Darkness is at his computer, a familiar battle station. He does some of his best writing at the computer.
An emotional scene is replaying in his mind, and he feels like sharing. He joins a discussion taking place on a Web site devoted to conservative political chatter. The discussion is about how people felt on that melancholy drumbeat day of Ronald Reagan's funeral.
Joe Steffen, right, with Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich, before Steffen got fired because of his postings on the Free Republic Web site.
(WMAR-TV2 via AP)
"I sniffed all throughout," he types, "then started crying during the playing of Taps -- and absolutely lost it when Nancy broke down after she was given the flag and all but collapsed on her husband's casket."
The Prince of Darkness wept for the Gipper.
That's his soft side, the side his friends talk about.
But he also has an edge. The next month, on a Saturday near midnight, he writes: "My nicknames in GOP campaign circles are A) The Prince of Darkness, and B) Doctor Death. I can't even discuss a lot of what I've done/written/managed/initiated/executed because A) Most of the candidates I helped were elected and are still in office and, B) These office holders have NO IDEA of what actually helped elect them (Plausible Deniability -- a MUST in politics and psy-ops)."
A week later, breakfast time on a Sunday: "I work in professional politics for a living. Part of my unwritten job description is to hurt people. It's the nature of the beast."
Just who is this Prince of Darkness?
The short answer is, Joseph F. Steffen Jr., 46, longtime aide of Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich. He was spokesman for the state insurance administration when the governor fired him last month after he posted comments on that Web site, FreeRepublic.com, about rumors that Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley had had an extramarital affair. "A few folks put in a lot of effort to ensure the MO'M story got some real float," he wrote. "A lot of what everyone knows about [O'Malley] is because of work that has occurred."
O'Malley, a Democratic rival of the Republican Ehrlich, denied the rumors. Steffen apologized to the mayor via e-mail. Since then, the controversy has veered into a broader question of Steffen's possible role in purging state agencies of bureaucrats not loyal to Ehrlich. The governor denies Steffen wielded such clout; Democrats cite Steffen's comments on hiring and firing culled from e-mails he wrote at work.
Steffen is the silent, absent center of a sudden, violent political storm. With two investigations looming -- one by the governor's office, one by the General Assembly -- it looks fierce enough to blow clear into next year's governor's race. Ehrlich interprets the heavy weather as fresh evidence that Democrats will use any excuse to foil the first GOP governor in a generation -- and Democrats see it as proof that Ehrlich places politics and partisanship above governance.
But what does it mean to be a Prince of Darkness?
Steffen was proud of his nickname. He dressed the part. He favored black jackets and flamboyantly macabre ties -- his friends called one the hungry-like-the-wolf tie. He put a Grim Reaper figurine on his desk.
Two years ago, Steffen told friends via e-mail that it was Ehrlich himself who dubbed him the Prince of Darkness during Ehrlich's first run for Congress in 1994. Steffen didn't explain how he had earned the name.
"When the Governor and his Secretary of Appointments . . . shout out 'Prince of Darkness!' you know the deal -- especially when half the room looks around to see to whom the respective Honorable was referring," Steffen wrote.
However, he added, the moniker "does have its burdens, one of which is to perpetuate the myth."
Interesting choice of words: "Myth." A myth can be true, or it can be false. It dwells on the frontier where image becomes reality.
Did Steffen's myth mean anything real, or was it just . . . rumor?
In the end, true or false, a myth is powerful. It has power today in Maryland politics because so many of us are ready to believe in the existence of a Prince of Darkness. We are certain that in the shadows there is always a Dick Tuck or a Lee Atwater or a Karl Rove, working dark magic. His existence would explain bruises, defeats that don't otherwise comport with our sunny worldview. He is why Kennedy beat Nixon, or, if you like, Bush beat Gore. We hate to be naive, so we believe in the Prince of Darkness.
We might be right.