An autograph seeker from Paw Paw, Mich., stopped Maryland's Acting Gov. Blair Lee III during the National Governors' Conference here last week and asked for a dated signature.
As Lee penned his name onto the back of an invitation, the autograph collector asked, "Is it for sure that you're going to be a governor?"
Slightly annoyed, Lee handed over the slip of paper - signed without his title -shrugged his shoulders with indifference and walked off.
"I guess I'm the closest thing to a museum piece around here," he observed later.
The three-day National Governors' Conference provided Lee with his first opportunity to escape Maryland's State House and the touchy political questions that have daily confronted him since Gov. Marvin Mandel was convicted of political corruption charges nearly three weeks ago.
But the recent nationwide press coverage of Mandel's trial and curiosity about Maryland's recent history of political corruption made it impossible for Lee to avoid many of the questions about his own and Mandel's future that confront him daily back home.
Mandel was a popular figure among his fellow governors - he was elected chairman of the National Governors Conference in 1972 - and Lee and his staff found themselves fielding questions about Mandel's well-being almost as soon as they arrived at the Detroit Plaza.
In the course of meeting other governors Wednesday night at a posh, invitation-only dinner hosted by Henry Ford II, several governors who know Mandel "were very sentimental about old Marvin," Lee said later. "They don't condone (his actions). But they're not happy."
Although there was no official mention of Mandel during the conference, the short biographies of governors contained in conference materials continued to list Mandel. This prompted such questions as "Blair who?" when he was introduced at one of the early social functions.
During his first out-of-state trip since Mandel's conviction, Lee did far more answering than he did asking, an uncharacteristically reticent pose for a politician who has been accused of doing his talking before he does his thinking.
In a forum where the nation's governors posture for television cameras and gladly volunteer their views on a wide range of national issues, Lee generally withdrew from the front line, acting at times like a late-arriving guest trying not to draw attention to himself.
After checking into his hotel Wednesday afternoon, Lee was pursued all the way to the door of his 61st floor room by a persistent local newspaper reporter who was trying to elicit the acting governor's view on the nation's economy.
"I never really answered him," Lee said later. "I just duck and weave the best I can on those cosmic questions. I'm thinking about questions like where to live (when Mandel leaves the governor's mansion after his sentencing Oct. 7)." As acting governor, Lee is not required to live in the mansion.
As for his living accommodations here, when Lee learned that he was booked into a $170-a-day, two-bedroom suite at the luxurious Plaza in Detroit's Renaissance Center, he asked for a more modest single room for ont-third of the price.
Lee's retiring manner was also evident during, the conference's plenary sessions. He leaned back in a padded chair, puffed Alpine cigarettes and listened attentively, but participated just once.
Unlike Mandel, who socialized in clusters of other governors, Lee stayed within his small circle of staff aides, leading them on a tour of an auto plant and to a picnic at one of Detroit's parks.
"I'm trying to be as a quiet as a mouse," he said at one point. "I'm a new boy on the block."
As a 'new boy," he frequently was the topic of converstion among curious gubernatorial staff members, and there were inevitable comparisons between Lee, the scion of one of the nation's founding families, and Mandel, the son of a cloth cutter from Baltimore.
It's clear Blair Lee is a patrician," said one longtime conference observer. "It's also clear Marvin Mandel is not."
"It'll take Blair longer than it took Marvin to become part of the club," said one conference official who has known both men for years. "Blair's much more reserved than Marvin."
Although Mandel actively participated in the annual conferences since he became governor in 1969, and had close friends among the state executives, few of his colleagues were willing to discuss his legal problems or say they missed him at last week's meeting.
Former Wisconsin Gov. Patrivk Lucey, who now serves as U.S. ambassador to Mexico, attended a session last week and was one of the few participants willing to discuss Mandel's legal trouble in detail.
"I gather with the Agnew thing and all you had a pattern of that type of behavior in Maryland," he said. "Once that becomes public, you're never too surprised to find out that other people are involved.