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The Tentacle


November 14, 2006

Hubris Once More

Roy Meachum

The existential difficulty I saw with Gov. Robert Ehrlich was he believed his charisma, skills and talents won the election four years ago.

This bred arrogance first noticed at a Weinberg Center incident nearly two years ago. I can no longer remember why we were solemnly gathered in the old movie theatre. The governor was invited; his wife showed up instead.

Being aware of my difficulty hearing in the cavernous old house, thoughtful Susan Miller managed to find a spot for me: I wound up directly behind Kendal Ehrlich.

Within moments, a rather fierce-looking man bore down, forcing me to take a quick exit into the aisle. His was one of those foreheads that had "COP" written large and bold. I didn't understand what was going on. He let a comment slip out the side of his mouth, and disappeared.

Later, I figured out he was riled because Susie had placed me in the "cordon sanitaire." An empty row reserved to keep strangers away from Maryland's first lady. There was nobody else between me and the next aisle.

Ms. Ehrlich's presented her well-tailored back through the entire program; she acknowledged only the state aide who sat by her side. In the event, while she may have been on a political mission, as the governor's surrogate, she chose not to act like a politician.

She did not acknowledge my existence. My ego was not hurt. In my long years in this journalistic trade, nothing a public figure does could possibly surprise. But I wondered why she lacked the manners to smile and offer her hand. I was no more than two feet away. We didn't know each other. I could have been a potential supporter.

I came away with the impression she suffered the same malady as her husband: a touch of arrogance. Let me add, mine was not a special case, except I was so close. If Ms. Ehrlich, a rather handsome woman, tried at all to "work the crowd" on her husband's behalf, I missed it.

Not confusing the wife with the husband, these observations were never made public while Mr. Ehrlich was still an active politician. After last week's thundering defeat, he said he would never run again.

In fairness to Maryland's lame-duck governor, he was simply following the national GOP line. George W. Bush entered the Oval Office with an even smaller margin of victory; but he claimed a total mandate, which he propped up by preaching fear of terrorists, among other scares.

Until voters took away his party's control of both houses of Congress, Mr. Bush could get away with his assertion that most of the American people supported his every move. Democratic protests vanished into the maw of the Republican Senate and House of Representatives. Whatever the White House wanted was delivered, signed and sealed with a GOP trademark.

Mr. Ehrlich's was a thornier patch. He could have no illusions that his was not the minority party. His victory four years ago came with lots of Democratic help. I've seen no statistics. When Spiro Agnew rode the GOP elephant into State House, the last time a Republican gubernatorial candidate was elected, estimates say he received some 88,000 votes from the other party.

During his first year, I commented several times on what I saw as his brazenly partisan moves. Mr. Ehrlich seemed to be picking fights with the very people who had helped him against their party's candidate, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. I never understood why, but was willing to concede the anti-Townsend coalition was a fragile thing, subject to instant implosion. The governor's moves insured it would happen sooner than later.

Till my dying day I'll never understand why Mr. Ehrlich and his advisors rejected the notion of building greater consensus; they were instead intent on revenging each questioning, real or imagined, by slashing two eyes for every eye offended. An example that comes quickly to mind is the state patronage system. Maryland's new rulers repeated the Newt Gingrich mistake.

When the Georgia congressman swept all before him, in 1994, his revolution reached only as far as the Capitol's elevator drivers and beauty parlor people. It did not succeed in putting a Republican in the White House; after impeaching Bill Clinton, it failed to convict him.

The highly publicized scrap over patronage inevitably made the Ehrlich administration appear petty, and arguments didn't help that they were only doing what the Democrats had pulled off for years. They managed to weaken and in some cases destroy the bipartisan mood that had won in 2002.

In sticking labels the Ehrlich forces labeled themselves.

As his mentor, President Bush, the governor seemed to operate on the premise that he had been elected for life. That is to say he acted as if there would be no day of reckoning. He violated the first principle of politics: the electorate wants only to hear good things from politicians between campaigns. Bob Ehrlich kept the stew boiling at a high pitch.

His attempt to "punish" Baltimore's Sun for printing stories he did not like, by barring reporters from state sources, fell flat on its nose. He won support only among the Baltimore talk show hosts who are righter than Attila the Hun. He got no sympathy from the rest of the media, even from those jealous of the Sun's premier status.

At the final count, the vote wasn't really close. Even the given advantage of incumbency, despite all those state-paid commercials that "sold" the governor, Bob Ehrlich received less than 48 percent; Martin O'Malley came out four points ahead. No blow out, but a significant blow to a man who seemed to run on ego.

If not ego, then certainly the hubris that the Greeks described as the pride that must come before a great man's fall. We know it also as arrogance.



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