Question: What public official has had only two regularly scheduled, full-blown press conferences since June 18? Answer: President Reagan.
Question: What public official has had only three regularly scheduled, full-blown press conferences since June 19? Answer: Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes.
Judging by the number of times Hughes has emerged from his State House office to greet reporters since summer, one could conclude it has been an uneventful six months in Maryland government.
Not so, of course: the state's protracted savings and loan crisis has made it the newsiest time of Hughes' seven years in office.
Why, then, has the governor largely disappeared from view, particularly in recent weeks?
Hughes did respond to reporters' inquiries Oct. 25, when he signed into law legislation permitting Chase Manhattan to acquire three Maryland thrifts, and again Nov. 26, when he announced a crackdown on drunken drivers. But his last regular news conference was more than two months ago, on Oct. 9, a major departure from his usual practice of meeting with the State House press corps every two weeks.
Perhaps Hughes and his aides see little benefit in public exposure during a particularly trying time. In recent weeks, the news has not been particularly favorable for a man who won reelection with 62 percent of the vote in 1982 and who wants to be elected to the U.S. Senate next year.
First came the revelation that the governor had been warned of looming problems in the thrift industry as early as October 1984, when a trusted consultant named George Liebmann wrote to him about extensive self-dealing within the thrift industry.
Then came a public demonstration by irate savings and loan depositors who characterized Hughes as no better than some of his infamous predecessors.
That was followed by the governor's precipitous decline in the political polls. In the wake of news accounts about Liebmann's memo, surveys by The Baltimore Sun and News American about the popularity of potential senatorial candidates have shown him trailing far behind Rep. Barbara Mikulski.
In a reaction that is more understandable than it is politically astute, the governor and his aides have responded to this series of blows by taking cover.
The governor's press secretary, Lou Panos, now deflects requests for interviews about the thrift crisis, saying the press ought to lay off the story until a special counsel's investigation of the crisis is completed in January. And the governor and his aides have been privately accusing the press of using the thrift crisis to do Hughes in politically.
That kind of bunker mentality does not serve Hughes well. When Panos, a man who has spent most of his adult life in the news business, suggests that the press "give government a decent interval to do its job" before continuing to pursue the savings and loan story, it says something about the current state of siege in the Hughes administration.
By now, the governor and his aides should have learned something about the value of full disclosure and the down side of shielding the truth.
Certainly the Liebmann memo would have been far less damaging had the governor voluntarily owned up to it in the early months of the crisis rather than allow the press to uncover it in October after the full fury of depositors had coalesced.
Certainly the information about Merritt Commercial Savings and Loan and Chase's plan to acquire it would have been less damaging had the administration itself presented it to the public rather than have it leak piecemeal in the press during the special session of the legislature in October.
Certainly had the governor acknowledged having some responsibility for the crisis rather than blaming it all on the high rollers and regulators, it might have gained him a measure of public respect.
But those lessons seem lost on the governor and his advisers, who now waste their energies searching out the sources of leaks -- and hinting that they originate with people who have ties to the disgraced former governor, Marvin Mandel.
The irony of all this is that Hughes could probably begin to reverse some of the recent damage by raising his profile. Ducking questions on the savings and loan crisis does not make them go away; it only begets more questions.
Despite the recent polls, Hughes is not an unpopular politician, for his calm demeanor has inspired in the past considerable confidence. He may not be much of an orator, but he has the ability to make his case to the people. However, he cannot do it from behind his desk.
Why, for example, doesn't Hughes counter the shrill anger of the depositors by rallying Maryland taxpayers whose dollars he is protecting with his methodical approach to solving the thrift crisis?
Why not directly confront the depositors at one of their public meetings? There are far more taxpayers than depositors, yet Hughes has not mobilized them.
Panos argues that Hughes has been accessible, if not at regular news conferences, at least in occasional private interviews and impromptu meetings with the press. "He's been a little busier this year than in the past," says Panos of the lack of formal press conferences.
He may have been busier, but that message isn't getting out.