Friday, May 14, 2010

My Dinner With Marvin

Better late than never,
longtime news reporter
meets long-ago governor

 At 90, Marvin Mandel seems sharp as a... rifle

In a newspaper career largely consisting of telephone journalism from the city desk, I interviewed and wrote about countless public officials but rarely met them face to face. I knew people more by voice than appearance – prosecutors, mayors, legislators, civic leaders, even an occasional governor.

But Marvin Mandel, the Jewish kid from East Baltimore who became Maryland’s most powerful politician as head of the state Democratic Party, speaker of the House of Delegates and then governor, was not one of them.

Doubtless I wrote many routine state government stories in the early 1970s quoting statements issued by the governor’s office, and worked on a few of the tales as his second elected term in office became mired in controversy – including a secret romance, sensational divorce, and eventual imprisonment on federal mail fraud and racketeering charges.

But meeting him? Well, that finally happened – Thursday evening, over dinner in Annapolis with a few of his media friends at the historic Treaty of Paris Restaurant after a reunion of former state house reporters to which we had both been invited.

He’s 90 now, still practicing law, but the great accomplishments as well as the crazy stuff that for many overshadowed them are all deep in the past.

His memories are rich, however, and over dinner vividly and entertainingly told.

The history is also rather entertaining:

Mandel, if you don’t know it, was chosen as governor by the General Assembly to succeed Republican Spiro T. Agnew when the latter was inaugurated as Richard Nixon’s vice president in January 1969. He won elections to keep the job in 1970 and 1974, when, amid his reelection campaign, Mandel announced he was divorcing his wife of 32 years to marry the much younger woman he loved.

His wife, whose nickname was “Bootsie,” pretty much booted him out of the governor’s mansion and Mandel moved into the Annapolis Hilton. The money ostensibly loaned to Mandel to settle his divorce became part of the pattern of favors federal prosecutors wove into the complicated corruption case that eventually ended his political career. He served 19 months in prison before President Ronald Reagan commuted his sentence, and a federal judge later overturned the conviction on grounds that the federal statutes had been too broadly applied.

So here, directly across the table from me, sits this slight, mostly bald guy with a hearing aid in his right ear, whose anecdotes flowed in and out of a wide-ranging, two-hour conversation, stuff like:

-- Imploring perennial candidate George P. Mahoney, who won the Democratic nomination for governor in 1966, to abandon his powerful, but racially-divisive, campaign slogan of “Your home is your castle: Protect it.” Mandel said he was chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party at the time, and warned Mahoney that the slogan could cost him support. The slogan was banished, but two days before the general election, Mandel said, it was back – and in revulsion, many Democrats turned away and helped vote Agnew into office.

(Agnew’s eventual criticism of black leaders for failing to stem the 1968 King assassination rioting in Baltimore brought him to Nixon’s attention. Agnew attained historical infamy in 1973, resigning the vice presidency as part of a no-contest plea to tax evasion stemming from bribes he took as an elected official in Maryland.)

Mahoney, by the way, never won political office despite many attempts.

But the kind of rhetoric his slogan encouraged, at a time of swift demographic change in Baltimore neighborhoods, lived on in Maryland in other voices, including the 1972 presidential primary won by Alabama’s segregationist Gov. George C. Wallace a day after he was shot and paralyzed by would-be assassin Arthur Herman Bremer on the Laurel Shopping Center parking lot.

-- Mandel said he was notified by phone minutes after the shooting, and immediately called R Adams Cowley, founder of the pioneering Maryland Shock Trauma Center, to assure that Wallace was taken to the best available hospital in the area. (Two days later, Wallace was photographed in his bed at Holy Cross Hospital outside Washington, holding up a newspaper headlined with his election victory.)

Cowley’s Shock Trauma facility was developed and expanded with the support of Mandel and, along with a major reorganization of state government, was among his lasting accomplishments as governor.

Ground had just been broken earlier Thursday on a $160 million, nine-story expansion of the R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center in downtown Baltimore, and I wondered aloud about my longstanding feeling that many of its patients are unnecessarily brought there with far lesser injuries than it was established to handle.

Mandel said he had encountered opposition to establishing the trauma center from only one group – the state medical society, which saw it as making emergency care increasingly expensive. (It also posed a threat to the emergency business of other area hospitals.)

“Do you want to make that decision?” the former governor asked me, on the issue of where to take an accident victim – as he said he had also told the opposing doctors. “What if it’s your wife, or your daughter, who needs treatment?”

Indeed, Shock Trauma is the best. But as a reporter and editor, I’ve observed a lot of patients being released the day after being flown there by helicopter.

Still, Mandel makes a compelling point. Who can make with any certainty the decision on taking a bleeding patient on an ambulance trip to the nearest hospital or calling in the helicopter for the flight to Baltimore or other designated trauma centers now part of a coordinated statewide emergency medicine network.

-- Mandel discussed his trip to prison – no, not the federal one, but the Maryland Penitentiary in Baltimore in 1972 to negotiate with inmates holding correctional officers hostage. According to news accounts (my memory bank is only so big), it was his second prison negotiation in a matter of days, following an uprising at the Maryland House of Correction in Jessup.

Inmates were holding a prison captain in a tower, Mandel recalled, and he asked what they wanted to accomplish. He was told they were already serving life terms, and had nothing to lose if they killed the man. The issues were poor conditions, bad food, predictable inmate complaints.

Mandel said he assured the inmates that if they killed the man, he would call a special session of the General Assembly and win speedy passage of a law calling for them to be put to death.

“Can he do that?” one of the convicts said.

Years later, Mandel said, he was attending a public event when a young man approached and thanked him for saving the life of the prison officer – his father.

There was no discussion of Mandel’s own trip to prison, in Florida, the corruption case or the divorce hoo-hah – save for a mention one of our dining companions made of Baltimore attorney Arnold Weiner.

“He was my lawyer,” Mandel responded, smiling.

And I noted, adding to the very small talk, the long career of Weiner’s daughter Deborah as a TV news anchor in the city.

-- Mandel had a lot to say about gambling, and trips to Las Vegas, and explained his strategy: Taking $1,000 to gamble and, if it’s gone, to spend the rest of the trip in activities like relaxing poolside at the hotel. He mentioned one trip with late buddy Irv Kovens, a businessman friend (some say ‘crony’) who was among the group of alleged co-conspirators convicted with Mandel in the case that included supposed political maneuvering to add racing dates for a horse track secretly owned by the governor’s friends.

Mandel said he was $5,000 ahead on the Vegas trip, and handed the money to Kovens with instructions to give it back “when we’re on the plane.”

On another trip, he introduced to a casino manager he knew a man purporting to have devised a way to beat the games – and the manager, not all that impressed at such systems, offered that the only way to end up way ahead is to win big early and walk away from the table. Those who stay on invariably end up losers.

In Maryland, slot machine gambling -- once legal in only a few counties and then outlawed – is legal again under state legislation, but a couple of battles are raging over where the slots parlors will be located and who wins the potentially lucrative prize of operating them.

But while Maryland sat on the sidelines with its legislative fights on passing a law and the ensuing battles for a share of the action, the neighboring states of West Virginia, Delaware and Pennsylvania have joined Atlantic City, N.J., in the Middle Atlantic region’s expansion of government-licensed slots and other forms of gambling – beyond the innumerable state and multi-state lotteries that years ago largely put the illegal numbers game to rest.

Mandel said in the days when slot machines were legal in Southern Maryland, a study was done on where the customers came from – by examining automobile license plates on the parking lots. Close to three-quarters of the patrons came from other states, Mandel said.

The question that raises is where the patrons will come from for Maryland’s slot machines, some 15,000 of them, which Mandel said are projected to make $400 a day each. His view: With legal gambling available in neighboring states, it will be more like $200, and the cash-starved local and state governments’ share of the profits will amount to far less than they expect.

-- On Army service in Europe during World War II, teaching soldiers “how to kill” in preparation for the North African campaign, and how his departure was briefly deferred so he could take and pass the Maryland bar exam. “If I had waited until I came back, I would not have passed it,” he said.

As his discharge from the service neared, Mandel said, he dismantled his Army rifle and shipped the parts home – reassembling it on his return.

“I still have it, I keep it in a closet,” Mandel said. “I took it out last week, and it still works.”

Something to keep in mind for any burglars in his neighborhood near Annapolis, the state capital.

He still lives in the eight-room house he shared with the woman he truly loved, second wife Jeanne Blackistone Dorsey Mandel, who died in 2001 after a long fight against degenerative amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s disease.

“I only use two rooms,” said Mandel, “the bedroom and the TV room.”

At night, he reads until falling asleep.

May the dreams be as rich as the stories.

More on the media
Just over a year after the Baltimore Sun Massacre in which a third of the newsroom staff was fired without notice, the Writers Guild of America, East announced this week the launch of the Web site “Telling Our Stories: The Days of the Baltimore Sun.”

It contains memoirs written by those who were so rudely sent packing, some of them bitter accounts but others remembering the good times.

The announcement states:

Telling Our Stories is the culmination of a fellowship program funded by the Writers Guild of America, East Foundation and implemented with the collaboration of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild. The Foundation’s mission is to perpetuate the art and craft of storytelling.

The fellowship program gives the laid-off Sun employees an opportunity to process their difficult experiences through creative work, asking them simply “to tell a story arising out of their personal experiences during their time at The Baltimore Sun.”

Some recall the pain of being fired; others recollect the challenges, joys, and spirit of newspaper work. Participating fellows include reporters, editors, critics, copy editors, photographers, designers, advertising salespeople and market researchers. In addition to the essays, poems, photos and videos featured on the site, former Sun employees also designed the website and edited the submissions.

“I think the important thing about this site is that it puts real people behind the numbers. It will let the readers of Baltimore know what they’ve lost,” said Steve Auerweck, a 24-year Sun employee who first worked as an editor on the business desk and then as a manager of newsroom technology. Auerweck contributed the piece on “Newsroom Humor” in addition to designing and building the site.

“The Baltimore Sun fellowship embodies the Foundation’s mission – to perpetuate the art and craft of storytelling. By publishing their personal stories on this site, the fellows’ voices can now be heard loud and clear by people not only in Baltimore but around the world. As writers, we understand the power of words. We’re happy this fellowship program and new website are helping these fellows harness the power of words to get through this difficult time,” said Tom Fontana, president of the Writers Guild of America, East Foundation.

The Baltimore Sun Fellowship was established in 2009 and funded by an anonymous grant to the Writers Guild of America, East Foundation. The Foundation partnered with the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild to establish the program and recruit the fellows. The collaboration included a mentoring session held in the late fall between the fellows and Foundation members, including Fontana, Barry Levinson, David Simon, WGAE President Michael Winship, Julie Martin, David Bianculli, and WGAE Foundation Executive Director Marsha Manns.

“Collectively, the fellows’ imaginative retelling of their days at The Baltimore Sun brings perspective to a difficult human experience and helps define and preserve a significant moment in American cultural history,” said Manns.

Fellows participating in the program also include: Paul Bendel-Simso, Chiquita Bolden-Heath, Danielle Bradley, Phyllis Brill, Tyeesha Dixon, Doug Donovan, Deborah Lakowicz-Dramby, Ray Frager, Patrick Gutierrez, Beth Hughes, Fe Fung Hung, Doug Kapustin, Chiaki Kawajiri, Jiho Kim, Fay Lande, Linda L. Linley, Monica Lopossay, Elizabeth Malby, John E. McIntyre, Sandra Nash, Rashod D. Ollison, Ebony Page-Harvey, Alan Perry, Gene Russell, Denise Sanders, Norine Schiller, Franz Schneiderman, Matt Tustison, Charles H. Weiss, Linda White, and Teresa Wilson.

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