My first day on the job as a City Hall reporter for The Evening Sun in 1984, I sat in the front seat of the Board of Estimates chamber, waiting for city officials to march in. All the key officials were there, and I was anxious to meet them.
Most of all, after living in Baltimore for a couple of years, I wanted to watch Mayor William Donald Schaefer in action. Could he possibly live up to his public image?
He sure did.
The door swung open and Schaefer stalked out of an adjoining room, a sheaf of papers in his hand, shuffling in that odd way, wagging his big freckled head, pale and brooding about something. We’d never met, but he started to stare at me the instant he sat down, glaring with those icy blue eyes.
I looked around to see if there was someone else next to me, but the only other person in the front row was a city finance official. When I looked up again, Schaefer had sat down and put on his reading glasses, shaking his head, seething with some personal pain, bearing the weight of the world on his shoulders.
One of the first items on the agenda was a project by the city housing authority. Joan Jacobson, the crackerjack Evening Sun reporter, had written an article which appeared in that day’s paper revealing that Schaefer had used federal housing money to help turn a Mount Vernon rowhouse into guest quarters for distinguished city visitors.
The article questioned whether the project followed federal rules. Other politicians might have tried to challenge the report’s accuracy on some technicality or dismissed the report with a sneer, but I soon discovered that Schaefer took such things – in fact, he took everything – personally.
“I hope Joanie Dearest doesn’t mind if we spend this money,” he said. “I hope she approves. I wouldn’t want to upset Joanie Dearest!”
Schaefer started out in a low growl, but gradually he started to shout. I was scribbling notes, trying to stay focused. But when I looked up, I realized that he wasn’t just mad at Joan, federal housing grant rules and the news media in general. He was shouting at me, The New Guy.
“You! You’re with the Evening Sun, aren’t you?”
“Tell Joanie Dearest that I wouldn’t want to violate any of the rules. No, no! Can you tell her that? Can you?” The room turned silent, and everyone was staring at me. I was confused and unsure how to react, so I sat smiling like an idiot, which only made Schaefer madder.
“Can you tell her that? Write that down! ARE YOU LISTENING TO ME, YOUNG MAN?”
“Sure,” I said, my face burning. I should have handled it more smoothly, but it was my first day on the job for crying out loud. I didn’t expect Schaefer to take me aside and shake my hand, welcoming me to City Hall, but I sure didn’t expect to be the target of a tirade. So, to my shame, I just sat there: “Sure, I will.”
City Comptroller Hyman Pressman, a longtime Schaefer rival, looked at me and winked as if to say, “Welcome to my world.”
A Method to the Madness
Over the next decade or so, first in City Hall and then the State House in Annapolis, Schaefer became my tormentor, my nemesis, my exasperating tutor in the art of managing unmanageable bureaucracies.
He was a rambling speaker, an instinctive politician, a relentless scold and a brooding control freak who sent reporters hand-scrawled notes complaining about coverage.
When I looked at the cost of putting up hundreds of signs emblazoned with “William Donald Schaefer, Mayor” on city buildings, vehicles, road projects and bus benches, Schaefer fired off a note to my publisher, which said, as best I can recall: “I work so hard, for so long, to get something DONE! And now you send BIRCH to tear it all down. WHY OH WHY?”
The publisher brought me the note and handed it to me. “Good work,” he said.
Pressman privately sent me a note as well, in the form of one of his poems.
He’s here, he’s there, he’s EVERYWHERE,
Our William Donald Schaefer, Mayor.
And if you ask why should we care,
Our tax dollars put him there.
The performance was classic Schaefer: eager to bare his big, wounded ego; seeing everything in personal terms; saying what I’m sure thousands of other politicians thought, but never said.
Little Things Mean a Lot
I had been covering city councils and county government for a few years before coming to Baltimore, so I thought I knew my way around a city neighborhood story. Schaefer seemed determined to prove me wrong.
My second story, I think, was about the eviction of a junkyard in the city’s Pigtown neighborhood. There was a dispute over who should haul the stuff away, so neighbors were left with a small mountain of greasy car parts sitting at the end of their dead-end block.
It didn’t seem like a big deal to anyone except the people living there, and I wondered whether the story would get much attention. Did it ever. Shortly after the Evening Sun’s bulldog edition hit the newsstands, Schaefer was on the phone to the Department of Public Works, where, as I recall, longtime boss Marco “Buddy” Palughi dispatched his big yellow trucks to haul away the junk.
Following the fireworks at the Board of Estimates meeting, it was my second lesson from the master of municipal politics: if you can’t fix the little things, no one will trust you to fix the big ones.
A Knack for the Outrageous
Covering Schaefer was like working for the fire department: alarm bells were always ringing. Schaefer is at the World Trade Center, meeting with the Greater Baltimore Committee! Get there right away! Schaefer is meeting with pastors in the Northeast! Schaefer is dedicating a pink-painted curb for Pink Positive Day!
I drew the line at that. Pink Positive Day? Give me a break. And wouldn’t you know it, when Esquire magazine ran a long and wonderful profile of Schaefer by Richard Ben Cramer, calling him “America’s best mayor,” what event got some of the most attention? I had blown a great story.
Schaefer had a knack for street theater, for saying outrageous things, for making news on the fly, all the while teasing reporters, calling them “little girls,” (especially when all the reporters were male), dropping hints, playing coy, reveling in the sheer sport of it.
He was on the front pages of three newspapers almost every day. The only politician I have ever covered who got more coverage was Vladimir Putin. Thank God Schaefer didn’t have a KGB.
If I blew off an event, I risked picking up The Sun or the News American the next day and reading about a major new city initiative. Once I came back from a press conference where Schaefer had talked about wanting to see ducks back in the Inner Harbor, a laughable goal at the time.
I didn’t write about it, and the next day kicked myself when the News American ran a story with the headline: “Make Way for Donald’s Ducks.”
It took years, but I learned to get along with the politician I once referred to, in print, as “Genghis Don.” (I’m not sure how I got away with that.)
I ate soft-shelled crabs with Schaefer in Ocean City when he was running for governor, rode on the trolley with him the day of his “farewell” tour of Baltimore after his election, chased him around the State House.
Generally, the crowds loved Schaefer, especially when he had them one-on-one, putting his arm on shoulders, poking fun at the reporters nearby. People ate it up, and he adored the adoration.
But his mood could turn black in an instant. During his farewell tour, I recall, he waved woodenly at his supporters but focused relentlessly on one guy holding up a sign that read: “Farewell, You Pompous Clown.”
A Visit to Schaefer’s Home
A lot has been written about Schaefer. Almost everyone who has lived in Baltimore in the past couple of decades knows about his prickly personality, his stubborn inferiority complex – which drove him to work himself relentlessly and treat every election as though he were a 40-point underdog – and his passionate belief in his staff, who in return were almost fanatically loyal to the Boss.
I saw him, perhaps, at his most ridiculous, popping out of a box on the deck of a ship in the Inner Harbor, Baltimore’s “gift” to Annapolis after his election. And at his most serious – in an interview sitting in his mother’s rowhouse off of Edmondson Ave., where he lived while he was mayor.
Given how passionate Schaefer was about street cleaning and fixing potholes, it was no surprise to me the house was immaculately maintained and as clean as an operating room.
One of the most striking things to me was that there were lots of campaign buttons and other political paraphernalia displayed on the walls, but I don’t recall seeing a single personal photograph.
He absolutely, completely identified with Baltimore. Once when he hired a terrorism consultant, I asked him if he really thought Baltimore was in any danger. Wouldn’t terrorists be more likely to strike New York? (This was a decade and a half before the Sept. 11 attacks and 20 years before the emergence of homegrown terrorism.)
“You! You don’t think Baltimore is worth it, do you?” he said, insulted by the thought that Baltimore wasn’t worth the attention of mass murderers.
Reporters used to roll their eyes when he would get into his “do it now,” or “people, caring” raps – his default speech at times when he wasn’t outraged by something. At least, I rolled my eyes. (There’s a photograph of me doing just that, taken by Schaefer’s personal photographer, buried somewhere in my attic archives.)
“People, that’s what’s important,” he would say, furiously pushing the mental buttons that meant most to him. “People … people … people, and caring.”
I may have rolled my eyes, but I stayed objective: I had to, that was my job. Also, most Baltimoreans seemed to love the guy. He was the closest thing to a celebrity the city had.
People stared in awe when he ambled past. Partly it was because he was always on the news, doing one goofy thing or other. Partly, I think, many Baltimoreans saw his insecurities, his outsized ego and bulldozing style, as evidence that he cared about his job, that he was ready to sacrifice anything in service of this struggling, big-hearted, ugly-duckling of a city.
And for that, they were ready to forgive him anything.
Doug Birch covered William Donald Schaefer for The Baltimore Sun off and on for 10 years, first in City Hall and then in the State House. He considers it excellent training for a subsequent tour of duty: covering Russia for The Sun (four years) and then for the Associated Press (three years). Birch now works out of the Associated Press’ Washington D.C. Bureau.