Marvin Mandel, career attorney and politician, has had decades to refine his style of answering questions. Most Maryland political observers would say that the governor has a style that is one of a kind, although there is some disagreement as to what kind that is.
The reviews range from wife Jeanne Mandel, who says that her husband speaks "with precision - clear and sharp," to the assessment of Judge Thomas Hunter Lowe, a former colleague in the General Assembly, who says of Mandel: "You never get a direct answer from him."
These disparate viewpoints were put to the test over the last few days when Mandel spent 17 hours answering questions in his own defense at his political corruption retrial. Mandel's time on the stand was as much a lesson in his uses of language and logic as in the uses of money and power.
His finesse with the language was always apparent, and his techniques in coping witn difficult questions were varied. With his demeanor seldom changing Mandel at one point took 10 minutes to acknowledge a publicly listed phone number was indeed his; he needed five minutes of testifying to explain how state public disclosure requirements could be satisfied the moment a financial transaction was witnessed by a bank teller.
For Mandel, his ability to answer a question depends on how the question was asked. There is a right way and a wrong way to ask it, as he explained in a 1975 press conference. "If someone would ask the proper question, he said, "I could give them the right answer." But ask Mandel a question the wrong way, and you will not always get the answer you are looking for.
When this happens, questioners have accused Mandel of being evasive. He would prefer his wife's word - precise.
Here is one example:
Under questioning from prosecutor Barnet D. Skolnik, Mandel testified that the Pallottine Fathers religious order provided him $42,000 to refinance a loan that was used for alimony payments to Mandel's first wife. Mandel also testified that he learned of the Pallottine's role in the loan before he made two public statements that the Pallottines had nothing to do with the divorce.
Still, Mandel testified that he was correct in making those public statements. "That's right," he said. "They (the Pallottines) had nothing to do with my divorce." What this testimony implied was that the alimony payments - made possible by the religious order's loan - and the divorce were two totally unrelated matters.
Mandel and his questioner at times found that they had different definitions of words or phrases. For example, Skolnik asked Mandel whether he stopped receiving checks from one of his benefactors - W. Dale Hess - because he did not want to have to disclose them under a new financial disclosure law.
"The checks from Mr. Hess were a matter of public knowledge," already Mandel answered. "Due to the fact that they had to pass through three different banks . . . the tellers handled it - everyone handled it. There was no secret about it."
For Mandel, it seemed, public disclosure meant having the tellers at the bank see your checks.
The next step in Mandel's process of answering questions is to come to grips with the specifics in the question. Mandel sometimes does not deal with those specifics.
Example: Skolnik asked Mandel why he would hold checks from one of his political benefactors for a period of several months before depositing them, Mandel protested.
"That is not true, sir," he told Skolnik.
"Let's take a look at them, governor."
"The first check, dated May 15, 1972, was deposited, was it not, on July 20?"
"I can't read bank symbols, but if you say so, I will accept that. I don't know bank symbols."
"It says JUL 20. '72," said Skolnik.
"I will accept that," answered Mandel.
Other times, Marvin Mandel just took his time in answering. This is how it went when Skolnik asked him about a phone number at his office, the number his codefendants called 10 times on the day before they secretly purchased the race track:
"Governor, who had the phone number 267-5901?"
"Mrs. Grace Donald."
"And who else, sir?"
"Mrs. Grace Donald."
"Wasn't that your phone number, sir?"
"No, sir, that was Mrs. Grace Donald's phone number listed to the executive office."
"Let me show you a directory for the State of Maryland Executive Offices, sir, and let me show you the highlighted numbers. Is it not a fact that Marvin Mandel, Grace Donald and another secretary named Ethel Tigner (all had that number) - and aren't those the only three people in that office who had that phone number in those days, sir?
"No, that is not. There was one other person."
It came slowly, but the governor's answer had gone from Mrs. Grace Donald to four people, including Marvin Mandel. All had the phone number ending 5901.
Just as surely, Mandel can change his opinion that something he had ruled out as impossible moments before is, in fact, possible. This happened during questioning on the same subject - the telephone calls from his friends. The calls to his office phone lasted for three minutes each, a time span that Mandal initially claimed meant they could not possibly have gotten through to him.
"There is no way within that minimum (three-minute) call . . . that a call could come from there under a toll charge through two secretaries and into my office and have a conversation. It would not be possible."
Three minutes later, the answer was not quite that firm. "I would say it would be very difficult . . ." it began.
Then, three minutes later: "I would say it would be very unusual. Not impossible, but very unusual . . ."
Skolnik tried again in another few minutes. Would it be more than three minutese before you would be on the line?"
"No, sir," was the governor's answer.