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July 28, 2006

Taking It Back

Roy Meachum

If memory serves, my column "Endorsing Michael Steele" may have been a first: and not because he is a Republican and an African American.

Lieutenant Governor Steele's endorsement here was the earliest given in any election season. Since my memory cannot tell me where I put down my toothbrush at times, I could be wrong. The likeliest contender for the "earliest" title was another lieutenant governor: Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. That column appeared also in July.

In the event, Mrs. Townsend gave me no reason to change my mind, although I thought her political campaign stank to high heaven. Showing up at my house after a Hagerstown election year rally, she heard directly that I thought the consultant's strategy and tactics did nothing for her chances. She smiled and assured me everything was on track.

Mr. Steele has never been on my block of North Market, as far as I know; since the Democrats have lately set up their county headquarters almost directly across the street, I somehow doubt he will ever knock on the yellow door. But if he did, I would give the lieutenant governor an earful to match the sermon preached to his predecessor.

My discontent springs directly from the business this week about a lunch held with reporters in Washington, where the ground rule was established: Mr. Steele could be quoted but only as an anonymous senatorial candidate, and a Republican. Since he has admitted all the media quotes were true, my gripe with "nice guy" Steele is why he put himself in that impossible situation.

The nature of the quotes, as printed first in The Washington Post, narrowed "anonymous" down to a precious few; that didn't take long. Before dusk turned to dawn the next day everybody (The French say "all the world) knew exactly who the unnamed source was.

Since Mr. Steele does not have deep saber cuts from previous political wars, apologists may claim he didn't know; that he didn't understand the game. This denotes a naiveté that seems totally foreign to anyone who grew up in the highly political Catholic Church. It also cuts against the grain of his other statements on such matters as abortion and stem cell research.

He knew.

Much more likely than protests the media didn't quote him in context was the probability that neither Mr. Steele, nor his campaign staff, were fully prepared for the heat turned up by leaders of his embattled party. Among other matters, the "unnamed candidate" said running as a Republican was like wearing a scarlet letter on the chest.

When this "not for attribution" lunch was set up neither the lieutenant governor, nor his handlers, could have known the White House would have been under fierce bombardment over the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, making a sticky situation for George W. Bush even stickier.

It can be assumed, moreover, that neither the president - nor folks like political guru Karl Rove - had been tipped in advance. Mr. Rove, in particular, was dispatched from his Oval Office chores to husband GOP candidates through the campaign trenches this year.

In terms of the Maryland electorate, what he was quoted as saying makes all kinds of sense, if the name of the game is to put Michael Steele in the Congress's upper house. These days neither Mr. Bush, nor his party, own bragging rights in this highly-Democratic state. Iraq has pushed many normally conservative voters over to the left side of the fence.

Quite apart from the heavyweight political games that characterize every election in Maryland, outside forces conspired to give a red tint to this normally true blue state.

Indeed, Gov. Robert Ehrlich runs for re-election in an atmosphere totally different from four years ago. In 2002 the nation - and Maryland - breathed the post 9/11 air. The Trade World Towers had been destroyed only the year before. In that time, Mr. Bush was revered as the free-world's strong champion. Democrats were reviled as having been "soft" on Arab tyrants like Saddam Hussein.

Mr. Steele's various quotes this week, which he has admitted, let me repeat, could not have played well in Peoria, or other cities where the GOP is fighting for its life: the control of Capitol Hill. In the byways of liberal Montgomery County, the highways of minority rich Prince George's County and the meanest streets of Baltimore City, all Democratic strongholds, however, the putative senator made all kinds of points.

But that was on Tuesday morning, reinforced by the spread of the political gospel according to Michael Steele, as unmasked in a Post column; by the next day he staged his John Kerry routine. Confirming that he had said what he said but claiming there were all sorts of extenuating circumstances, notably the media did not report everything he had said. True.

But the Post columnist who first "leaked" the juicy quotes allowed as how Mr. Steele's public relations person had authorized the quick segments printed the day after the lunch.

The senatorial wannabe, meanwhile, was putting on his just-joshing cap and "rapped" away about how Mr. Bush was really his "homeboy," a word that does not trip easily off the intellectual ex-seminarian's tongue.

For the sake of national party unity, and maybe with the hope of a Washington job, if the Maryland re-election effort goes awry. He took it all back. The fresh breeze he brought to this year's political sludge was stuck in a bottle by Tuesday's nightfall.

And that's a shame.

One of the reasons I went on record July 14 endorsing Michael Steele was his confirmed status as a non-political politician - in most ways that remains true. I'm sick to my stomach of petty partisanship. He's still my man in this year's senatorial race.

But I suspect this week's quick reversal, tantamount to groveling to the GOP chiefs, cost him votes among willing Democrats.

And as I said before: That's a shame.

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