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As Long as We Remember...

October 10, 2006

Fallen Michael Steele

Roy Meachum

My youngest lives in Wheaton. He rides ambulances through the District's mean streets. Conversations with the senior paramedic always touch off surprises.

Michael Andrew Meachum started his call last week by proclaiming Senate hopeful Michael Steele's ad consultants deserve a special award. (That's the first thing I heard out of his mouth after days of non-communication. Typical, as every parent knows.)

But, as usual, my son could be right.

The answer could very well be who picks up the statue. There are apparently several claimants, although the actual production apparently was handled by OnMessageInc.

An internet search shows the clever spots have churned up a national flap. They apparently are not the only off-beat approach to selling candidates that might not get elected conventionally. In this season of Iraq war disenchantment, Republicans seem to lead the off-beat crowd but Democratic wannabes are in there too.

Mr. Steele's "hip" messages, set on sets of stark design, mean to communicate he's not the average politico; and that's right. Nobody else I know manages to move through life so redolent of a Catholic seminary; and that's one thing I like about the lieutenant governor. In a profession beset with moral scandals, the quality sets him apart, in the best possible sense.

That's the reason I published an early endorsement of Michael Steele's race for the U.S. Senate, much to my own surprise as well as readers who know how rarely I make a public choice; at least so openly. In addition to the proliferation of Catholics, Maryland shares with my native Louisiana a tradition of political greed and skullduggery. I suspect folks around here are probably little better Catholics than those I left behind with their Christianity emblazoned on their foreheads, so to speak.

In my several exposures to Mr. Steele, I cannot recall that he really tried to trade on his religious convictions; moreover, I am an individual who can accept that public figures must stick to the tenets of their faith. In this candidate's case, that means accepting the stricture against birth control and for the elimination of capital punishment. His acceptance of both teachings he has affirmed on campaign appearances. No problem. Despite his campaign promise, a junior senator makes little difference on Capitol Hill.

Those much acclaimed television spots started out with the purpose, it seemed to me, that Mr. Steele would be sold on his own virtues, quite apart from his Republican Party's. His disclaimer about wanting to take on the mess in Washington meant taking on the GOP, which has enjoyed majority status the last dozen years. Or so I assumed.

A certain amount of snuggling with the White House and the current power structure could be countenanced as realpolitik, a necessary reality to get the dough to mount a credible bid for the traditionally Democrat Senate seat. He faces an uphill battle as a member of Maryland's Republican minority.

In the recent Democratic primary I made no choice, but pointed out each candidate's checkered past. Winner Ben Cardin was a product of his party's machine, back in the bad old days when approval or rejection came literally out of smoke-filled rooms. I did not like how Congressman Cardin owed his Capitol Hill office to the bosses.

Exactly 20 years, he bought a deal to surrender his failing gubernatorial hopes; at the last minute stepping aside for Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer who upended Mr. Cardin's fellow Jew, Steve Sachs. Furthermore, the deal was brokered by a third Jew, Irv Kovens. Mr. Schaefer is not. His ascension to the governor's chair amounted to a victory for anti-Semites. Maryland's only Jewish governor, Marvin Mandel, had been sentenced to jail on a conviction, later reversed. Mr. Sachs' election could have gone far toward erasing that stain on the three men's faith.

The Democrat machine feared Attorney General Sachs and rightfully so; he would have brought about a cleansing in Annapolis' way of doing business.

But in reporting these facts about Mr. Cardin, I now believe, that I'm really pointing out the imperfection of any human being that exercises public powers. And since my early endorsement I've come reluctantly to accept Michael Steele is not the paragon of seminarian virtue I once had him. The bases for my change are those TV spots my youngest child so admires.

Inevitably, the first ad's message about the lieutenant governor being a non-politician politician strengthened my positive view. The second, confronting Mr. Cardin's response, was a mistake: it restored Mr. Steele's reality. He is a thorough Republican who once chaired the state party and took a salary to run on the successful Ehrlich slate four years ago. I'd forgotten none of these things but sought rather to champion him as a lesser evil. I no longer feel that way.

Stating firmly and aggressively that Mr. Cardin was wrong in stating he follows the Bush line, Mr. Steele insisted he does his own thinking, the very premise (and promise) that caused me to endorse him. I had hoped the GOP senatorial wannabe would look at Iraq and Afghanistan through seminarian moralistic eyes; he didn't.

If he's elected, Michael Steele assured you and me he will blindly support the administration's blind commitment to war, even though other Republicans have begun looking for an alternate approach, notably James Baker.

The elder President Bush's secretary of state announced Sunday that his congressionally mandated committee will seek talks with Syria and Iran, trying to find a way out of the wholesale killing and devastation brought by the war. The younger President Bush has flatly rejected the possibility of such discussions, leaving Mr. Steele's ringing endorsement sounding hollow.

At least, Ben Cardin shows signs he has become really his own man, as the firm embrace by his primary opponent loudly signifies. He may have grown into the politician for all seasons that the Senate job demands.

My object lesson? I learned once again making political choices early can be a big mistake.

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