William Donald Schaefer Always Made a Splash
Thursday, September 14, 2006
History may conclude that the sum of William Donald Schaefer's political career may be greater than its parts, but it's the parts we're going to remember.
All the triumphs and peccadilloes that piled up in his 51 years of public life, which ended yesterday with his defeat for renomination as Maryland comptroller. The words and deeds that left so many wagging their heads in wonderment and sputtering with outrage. The stuff that he did, the things that came out of his mouth. How to consider the service of a man who has at times championed the downtrodden, and at times afflicted his enemies with names like "little girls" and "rabbit brain"?
It is perhaps best, then, to let the words and deeds of the man stand on their own. And let history judge the arc of a man who once loved Happy Meals and considered getting a job at his local McDonald's, but then abruptly turned on his favorite fast-food chain when a Spanish-speaking employee had trouble understanding his order.
"People should speak English in Maryland and the United States," the then-82-year-old comptroller raged after his encounter two years ago. "If you are going to come to our country, you are going to be required to speak English."
It was a different voice, a more sullen tone, from the once-beloved pol who presented himself as the new governor, dressed in a white admiral's uniform with gold epaulets, packed in a crate labeled "Baltimore's Gift to Maryland." Who, 25 years ago, as mayor of Baltimore, forced city employees to spend the night in the house of a woman who complained that her streets were littered with garbage. Who once donned an old-time swimsuit and jumped into the seal pool of the Baltimore Aquarium to motivate the builders.
But he never was reluctant to employ colorful language and dramatic gestures to make his point. He once grabbed his crotch during a meeting with state legislators and challenged: "This is where you got me. Would you let go?"
He once told his mayoral aides: "I found an abandoned car today and I want that goddam thing removed." Where is it? they asked. "If I can find it," he responded, "you can find it."
He once broke the toe of an aide he had slammed the door on, after she declined to attend a meeting for him. On his way to a ceremony in 1991 in the House of Delegates, he asked the Eastern Shore delegation, which to his mind had not supported him, "How's that [expletive for outhouse] of an Eastern Shore?"
He wasn't above addressing his constituents any differently.
Once, after a woman in her car gestured to him with her middle finger, he tracked down her address through Motor Vehicle Administration records and wrote her: "Your action only exceeds the ugliness of your face. Have a nice day!"
After another voter wrote him a negative letter, he dispatched state troopers to the man's home to harass the man in person.
When he won election as governor in 1986, his longtime companion, Hilda Mae Snoops, became the official Maryland hostess. The two fought back after being roundly criticized for what was considered an extravagant $1.5 million makeover of the 54-room gubernatorial mansion.