Francis (Bill) Burch likes to say he has "never been one of the boys" that he is too independent, and yes, sometimes too brusque to have many friends in Maryland politics. It was with pride the he told a large audience recently, "I'm a mean, ornery sonuvabitch".
Yet one night last week, Burch was treated more like a beloved grandfather than the pricky, unpopular politician he says he is. He was the guest of honor at a lavish testimonial - called "a last hurrah for Bill Burch" - marking his retirement as attorney general of Maryland.
The man who often brags of never doing a favor for a politician in his 12 years in office was now being tasted by the state's political establisment, past and present, including the former governor, the suspended governor, the acting governor the governor-elect.
For five hours, he was affectionately teased, warmly praised and weighted down with gifts. The shimmering grand hallroom of Baltimore's Belvedere Hotel was buzzing with born-again Burch admirers, hundreds of political and government figures and even some old foes.
That is the way things are done in Maryland, the way politicians and officials say goodbye to one of their own, even a self-styled curmudgeon. Testimonials are part of the lore, a rite of passage for those who pay their dues, who serve their state and their party well.
"You come out of obligation," explained one of Burch's guests who never considered a friend of the attorney general. "It's like going to a funeral of someone you don't especially like. You go because of appearances."
Many of the guests who paid $25 each to honor Burch stopped by the Belvedere tow nights eralier to pay homage to the retiring state lottery director, and a week before then, to give a sendoff to the state insurance commissioner's secretary who left the government.
Nothing stimulates testimonial fever more than a general election, and this year's politicial wars produced dozens of retirements. John Hanson Briscoe, the outgoing speaker of the House of Delegates, was bade farewell last summer, and the staff of retiring Senate president Steny H. Hoyer Threw a goodbye party for itself on Wednesday.
However, former Gov. J. MillardTawes, who left office in 1966, is the only Maryland politician privileged enough to be celebrated annually. The J. Millard Tawes Crab and Clan Feast draws hundreds of guests every summer to the former governor's hometown of Crisfield on the Eastern Shore.
"Is there no end to these bloody things?" joked Acting Gov. Blair Lee III after the Burch gala. Lee is a regular on the testimonial circuit who often bears official proclamations dignified by the Maryland seal at his contribution.
Not everyone enjoys the spotlight, even if it comes as a tribute. Lee, who is serving out the final days of a 25-year career in state government, said he prefers "to fade quietly into the sunset." Nevertheless, he said, he may host a fund-raiser next year for reasons more practical than mere self-indulgence; he needs money to help pay large debts remaining from his unsuccessful campaign for governor is last summer's primary.
Such modesty's is rare among politicians and for those who relish the attention, there is nothing like a testimonial to feel appreciated. "Everyone likes the recognition," said Briscoe, "especially those losing candidates. It makes them feel like they aren't yesterday's newspaper. It's a psychological lift."
The idea for the Burch dinner originated with members of his staff. But once the three-term attorney general learned of the plans, he began taking a special interest in the preparations, even asking one of his closet aides to make sure the dinner would be "a first-class affair.
As it turned out, few decisions were left to the staff sponsors. Burch chose the toastmaster and asked that Baltimore Cardinal Lawrence Joseph Shehan, the revered, 80-year-old chruchman, give the benediction He suggesteda seating plan for the head table, assuring that he would be surrounded by Maryland's three chief judges, the acting governor (Lee), the former governor (Tawes) and the suspended governor (Marvin Mandel).
The governor-elect, Harry R. Hughes, joined his three predecessors during the cocktail hour preceding the filet mignon dinner (the menu was approved by Burch), and all four chief executives encircled the guest of honor for the benefit of photographers.
Not even the gift was left to chance. Deputy Attorney General Jon F. Oster asked Burch's secretary to have him peruse a variety of catalogues from stores like Nieman-Marcus and Dunhill's to gauge his interests. But she reported back that nothing in the catalogues caught his fancy.
"Many attempt to try an element of surprise was not achieved," recalled Oster. "He (Burch) just played dead. I was getting nowhere, so I finally told (Burch's secretary) to find out what he was interested in. She said he'd like a video tape recorder so he could play back old movies and football games on TV."