They're mad optimists even as they are cunning cynics. They are politically impolitic. Even their misdeeds make us feel good about the places we call home.

William Donald Schaefer, Doug Wilder and Marion Barry are old now, but they've still got the magic.

My editor calls them the holy trinity of Metro news, and those of us in the headlines business have a symbiotic relationship with each of them.

They're figures of our past, yet they are ever with us: the former Maryland governor, 81, now using his perch as state comptroller to mouth off on the inadequacies of his successors and the difficulty of finding a speaker of English to sell him a Big Mac; the former Virginia governor, 73, who pushed for his home town of Richmond to adopt an elected mayor form of government and now, of course, wants that job for himself; and the former District mayor, 68, defeated once and again by personal demons, now running for a D.C. Council seat from which he can better mock his nerdy successor.

They're baaaaack. Talk shows can't get enough of them. Politicos are abuzz. You might see Wilder and Barry as welcome saviors or as washed-up has-beens, but deep down, everybody loves a rogue, even if what we love is hating them.

These men say and do pretty much what they want to, and in an age of consultant-driven, focus group-tested politicians, they therefore stand out as refreshing and honest. When Schaefer let loose on immigrants who work the counter at McDonald's and can't understand a basic order, Gov. Bobby Haircut was foolish enough to think he could score points by endorsing Willie Don's populist rage. But Bob Ehrlich found himself pilloried for speaking sacrilege in the church of multiculturalism, even as Schaefer unveiled a new bumper sticker: "Schaefer: He says what you think."

Any of our holy trio could use that slogan. Their blunt speech made them darlings of the press corps. (I cherish my "Get Over It" T-shirt from Barry's election night victory party in 1994, when he won his post-prison mayoral term.) Their zest for popular contact elicited smirks from jealous political professionals, but it also won them a bye from voters only too happy to excuse misdeeds.

Our trio has a penchant for the grandiose: As governor, Schaefer proposed building Maryland's own underground bunker from which he could operate during a nuclear event. He was known as the "prince of perks" for his state yacht, luxury skybox at the ballpark and huge security detail.

Barry, who occasionally compared himself to Gandhi and Jesus when pesky reporters criticized corruption in his administration, wanted to build city workers a health spa and retreat with 100 bedrooms and two saunas. The eternal mayor actually did spend city money to take 200 D.C. employees on a moonlight cruise on the Potomac to thank them for organizing a Riverfest that was canceled for lack of funds.

Wilder had to repay the state for using its helicopters on personal visits to friends and contributors.

But if they are rogues, they also have a knack for focusing on issues that people really cared about. Schaefer signed a law requiring new buildings to include as many stalls in women's bathrooms as stalls and urinals combined in men's rooms. Barry is still revered in many neighborhoods for his summer jobs program for teenagers. Wilder is admired more for winning -- the grandson of slaves, he is the first and only black American to be elected governor of a state -- than for what he did in office. Still, he will likely be the only Virginia governor of our times remembered in history books.

A common flexibility also explains the staying power of the region's titanic three. Schaefer stepped down to an office that few Marylanders had ever heard of, and he used it to undermine his successor, turning Gov. Parris Glendening into a laughingstock. Wilder broke with blacks who wanted him to join their battle against Confederate symbols: "The past is a reminder of what was, not what is," he said.

Barry, the ultimate situationist, is back in form. Two years ago, Barry endorsed the Rev. Willie Wilson in his failed campaign to oust Mayor Tony Williams; last week, fishing for votes on WOL, Barry was asked if he could deal with the city's new demographic and political realities. The Mayor for Life didn't miss a beat: "I brought Tony Williams to Washington," he said, and you could hear his smile.