Sunday, October 31, 2010

Rallying for Sanity

All the crowd's a stage at Sanity rally. (Photo by David Ettlin)

View from the crowd
at Stewart/Colbert rally

'Moderation in Defense of Liberty is No Vice'

We traveled by train to Washington Saturday for the Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear.

You might have seen us there, if you were looking down from a helicopter. We were the couple sitting on a bench near an oval of parked bicycles, close to half a mile from the stage.

But we didn’t see much of anything on stage. We were so far back, even the TV monitors and sound system set up for the nearly impenetrable crowd packing the National Mall, between Third and Seventh streets, did not reach us.

Still, it was worth every minute of a very long day, from the wait at the BWI station for our delayed, fully-booked 9:30 a.m. Amtrak train, to the mob scene at Union Station and the 5:20 p.m. return trip. At the stations and the hours between was the real celebration – people of all sorts, race, gender, religion, national origin, calling for a little sanity in a world more often depicted as out-of-control crazy and scary.

They came from across the country. We met and chatted with folks who traveled from the states of Washington, Vermont, Connecticut and New Jersey, among others, to be part of the mob of reasonable people.

Not that all of them looked that reasonable, of course. There was a gorilla in a dark business suit, carrying a briefcase; there was a young woman costumed as a multi-fear combination vampire, witch and overzealous Christian; folks with painted bodies; a guy in a Captain Crunch outfit worthy of his own cereal box; a couple of red-and-white-dressed Waldos; an Army paratrooper (with a cleverly modified umbrella) accompanied by a curvaciously dressed red hotline phone; and witches galore spoofing Delaware’s Tea Party-Republican Senate candidate.

The signs many carried were a tribute to American creativity. Here’s a few:

God Hates Idealogues.

Fear Me / I Vote

We have nothing to fear but fear itself AND BEARS

Objective Journalism is Sexy

Moderation in Defense of Liberty is No Vice

Trickledown Economics is a Golden Shower

Palin Snookie 2012

No, I’m Hitler

Right-wing extremists should be killed … but in a nice way

Ich Habe Angst

All we are saying is give thought a chance. After 8 years, NOW you’re mad?

Colbert = Wit; Beck = Half-Wit

Go With Know/ Not No

On the train back to BWI, we met an elderly sex educator from New Jersey (Sex Educators for Sanity) who told of seeing this sign: Abstinence makes the church grow fondlers.

We arrived at the Mall about 10:30 a.m., and the rally viewing area was already jammed. So we kept walking, our backs to the Capitol and toward the Washington Monument. For more than an hour, people continued to stream into the Mall, from side streets and from the direction of the monument. By the thousands they came, a mist of sandy dust from unpaved paths rising from their marching feet. It was an unending parade of costumes, signs, and humanity.

Estimating crowd size is just that -- an estimate. My best guess is that it numbered in the hundreds of thousands, maybe approaching half a million. Call it the 400,000-Hippie March. Strangers talked to strangers. People made new friends. Lovers kissed. Two men walked hand-in-hand. A costumed couple carried their three-month-old twins… future social activists, one might guess, should they follow parental example. A woman in her 50s held up a sign for legalizing pot.

After we got home, we watched the rally on television – I had recorded the live Comedy Central production on our high-def DVR system.

Highlights? Who knew that Kid Rock could pen so moving a song, performing publicly for the first time, with Sheryl Crow, his lyrics about how we may not be able to solve the world’s pressing problems, but we can care.

And after much comedy, there was Jon Stewart’s closing speech -- which had its light moments, such as acknowledging some may have come to visit the nearby Smithsonian Air and Space Museum “and just got royally screwed.” But he had some serious points to make about the reasons underlying the event

"This was not a rally to ridicule people of faith, or people of activism, or to look down our noses at the heartland or passionate argument, or to suggest that times are not difficult and that we have nothing to fear. They are and we do. But we live now in hard times, not end times."

Where in most of his Comedy Central “Daily Show” episodes Stewart skewers the media with sarcasm and satire, he admonished it at the rally.

“The country's 24-hour political pundit, perpetual panic conflictinator did not cause our problems. But its existence makes solving them that much harder," he said. "If we amplify everything, we hear nothing."

Ordinary folks in America work every today to solve problems, he said, contrasting that with the failures to do likewise in the Capitol behind his stage and on cable television.

“Sanity will always be and has always been in the eye of the beholder,” he concluded, looking across the sea of people stretching far back along the Mall. “To see you here today and the kind of people that you are has restored mine.”

For our little part, two people invisible in the crowd, the pleasure was ours.

His entire speech is well worth reading – or hearing. Doubtless it will be posted soon on his Web site. It’s easy enough to find in a Google search for “Jon Stewart rally speech.”

For more rally photos, visit Bonnie’s Journeys blog. (The squirrel was really there.)

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Maryland politics: Does time heal?

Harry Hughes, left, and Marvin Mandel shake hands at Maryland Inn gathering. (Photo by Bonnie J. Schupp)

Mandel, Hughes meet
socially, and sociably,
at press group reunion

Ex-governors not exactly friends decades ago

It was, many believed, an unlikely moment: The handshake, smiles, pleasantries.

Even the sight of these two men in the same small party room seemed unlikely – and some members of the old-timers’ press corps had expressed fears weeks ago that it would not go well.

The setting was the periodic gathering of the “Vintage Press Irregulars” – folks who had covered political news in Maryland’s capital city of Annapolis, some of them for decades. Many are retired now, as are some of the politicians and state officials joining in the low-key reunions.

Thursday afternoon, the mix included as guests two former governors who, since the 1970s, have been viewed as far less than friends: Marvin Mandel and Harry Hughes.

Hughes had been Secretary of Transportation under Mandel, and resigned in 1977 citing issues of integrity and alleging interference by a politically-connected contractor in the award of work on Baltimore’s subway project.

A few months later, Mandel was convicted on charges of mail fraud and racketeering centering on secret deals involving racetrack ownership and the award of racing dates. He served some 19 months in federal prison before President Ronald Reagan commuted his sentence, and in 1987 Mandel’s conviction was overturned by a federal judge on the basis of a Supreme Court decision in another case.

Were it not for Mandel’s legal controversies, Hughes might never have become governor. He faced off with three other major contenders in the 1978 Democratic primary, including the man who had served as acting governor during Mandel’s imprisonment. An influential state senator from Baltimore, the late Harry J. “Soft Shoes” McGuirk, famously described the Hughes candidacy as “a ball lost in tall grass.”

But in a strange twist, polling by the Baltimore Sun newspapers, which had endorsed Hughes, showed that people would vote for him if they thought he had a chance of winning -- and with that, his numbers rose rapidly and the polling pretty much became self-fulfilling prophecy on election day.

The Sun’s endorsement said the election would give voters a chance to break away from past political corruption that had included criminal convictions of the previous two elected governors – Democrat Mandel and Republican Spiro T. Agnew, whose 1969 departure to become vice president had paved the way for Mandel’s appointment and subsequent election to two full terms. (Agnew pleaded no contest to tax evasion in 1973, and resigned the vice-presidency.)

So that’s pretty much the background.

Mandel, the Baltimore native who rose to become speaker of the House of Delegates and by political happenstance and acumen, Maryland’s only Jewish governor. Hughes, a native of the state’s Eastern Shore and former legislator who upset what was portrayed as a rotten political applecart in succeeding him.

Thursday, when we arrived at the historic Maryland Inn meeting site within view of the State House dome, Hughes was sitting in the bar chatting with a few friends. Mandel arrived and sat in the party room across the hall, chatting with a couple of his friends. For about an hour, they were both in the party room, as close as 10 feet from each other and engaging in separate chats.

My wife, photographer Bonnie Schupp, was taking pictures of them and others, and wondering how and if the two governors might be brought together at least for a photo so she could pack away the Nikon D700 and flash weighing heavily on her sore wrist. I stood next to Hughes, looking for an opportunity, a break in his conversation… and there was a pause, just long enough, for me to ask: “Mr. Hughes, could you take just a minute for a picture of two governors together?”

He smiled, walked a few steps over to Mandel’s side and offered a hello. Then they shook hands, talked briefly, as Bonnie fired away. Click, flash, click, flash….

Joining the conversation, I learned about something else they had in common – besides politics and having been Maryland’s 56th and 57th governors, respectively. They had both played baseball as young men – Mandel in college, Hughes, as I had already known, in the Class D minor league. Both were pitchers. Both ended up going to law school. (According to the Web site, Hughes appeared in 16 games in 1949 with his local Federalsburg team, and had an 0-4 record and 5.54 earned run average; he hit .227 with 5 singles in 22 at-bats. Law school clearly was the right choice.)

And they’re both following the World Series when not working.

Mandel, 90, who won back his law license after the criminal case was overturned, remains engaged in his law practice.

Hughes, 84, chairs a state commission bringing together agricultural and environmental interests to improve the health of the Chesapeake Bay.

Last week, heading home from a weekend near Ocean City, we rode across a bridge named for him along Route 404 at the Choptank River, an important Bay tributary through farming country.

Did time melt away their differences?

Probably not. But at least they were polite.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Election 2010: A view from the crowd

Bill Clinton, speaking Thursday evening at a big-donors affair in the Baltimore Museum of Industry. (photo by Bonnie J. Schupp)

Clinton, O’Malley rally
features speeches
by the ‘gazillions’

In my four decades of daily journalism, I cannot recall a bigger turnout at a political rally – of politicians.

Four of Maryland’s eight members in the House of Representatives, both U.S. senators, Baltimore’s mayor, two suburban county executives (and a county councilman running for the top job), and the state’s comptroller, attorney general and governor.

Did I leave out anyone?

Oh, Bill Clinton. After these 13 folks had their turns, shortish and longish, at the microphone, the 42nd president of the United States was the keynote speaker.

Democrats all, they had assembled atop Baltimore’s historic Federal Hill park Thursday afternoon for a rally to turn out the vote on Nov. 2 – or sooner, since Maryland’s “early voting” opens today, Friday Oct. 22.

Most of the speakers are on the general election ballot, but they gathered under the banner slogan of “Move Maryland Forward” and the umbrella campaign of incumbent Gov. Martin O’Malley, who is facing a nasty challenge from the Republican he ousted from the job four years ago, Robert Ehrlich. (O’Malley and Ehrlich don’t like each other very much.)

About a thousand people, mostly supporters, turned out for the public rally – perhaps fewer than one might expect to see Clinton up close on a picture-perfect autumn afternoon, partly sunny, temperatures in the 60s, and a breeze strong enough to keep a giant Star-Spangled Banner (estimate, 16 by 24 feet) rippling and fully extended.

A few impressions from my notebook:

* Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot declaring that Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski “will stand up against the forces that are running this country.” (Whoops! The Democrats are in power right now, Pete – and the popular Mikulski is among the most senior in the Upper Chamber. Must have been post-traumatric stress from when the Republicans, or at least King George the Younger, were running the ship of state over the edge.)

* State Attorney General Doug Gansler (unopposed for reelection), looking much like a clone of the slain Sen. Robert F. Kennedy -- onetime U.S. attorney general. (Maybe it was the hair.)

* The brief but strident remarks of freshman Rep. Donna Edwards, a community and peace activist who two years ago ousted a longtime Democratic incumbent to represent her suburban Washington district. Young, lean, pretty – and, largely unknown in Baltimore, wise enough to know there was a long line of speakers behind her. (My favorite line was her admonition, “You can’t vote often, but you can vote early!”)

* Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a former Baltimore County executive seeking his fifth term on Capitol Hill, who movingly recalled serving as a Democratic National Convention delegate with his now-late father. I like father-son stories. (Dutch looks a bit slimmer, but still has a huge neck – not much different than when he served as Sergeant-at-Arms for my 1963 high school graduating class at Baltimore City College. He’s a big guy.)

* Speaking of father-son stories, Rep. John Sarbanes looks a lot like his father, former Sen. Paul Sarbanes, but sounds more exciting as a speaker. (“We started a great journey two years ago with our new president,” the younger Sarbanes declared.)

I could go on, but better to cut to my favorite of the day -- Rep. Elijah Cummings, the latest to hold title to what has been a historically black district since the election of the late Parren J. Mitchell as Maryland’s first African-American congressman in 1970.

“Look around you,” Cummings told the crowd. “This is a diverse group of folks. Diversity is not our problem. Diversity is our promise!”

Cummings spoke of his roots, one of seven children born to a couple who moved to Baltimore from South Carolina and settled on nearby West Cross Street – which I note is within a mile of the speakers’ platform and the scenic backdrop of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor skyline.

They came here, Cummings said, to have good schools for their future children and for his father to get a “union job” – not “work in the fields of Manning, S.C., for 15 cents a day.”

“Think about what I said – Daddy got a job. If you don’t have a job, it’s hard to take care of your family.”

He digressed from the family tale, saying, “We need to understand where we have come from so we can understand what we have achieved.” And that the Bush administration had not only put the country into a ditch, but one lined with quicksand.

Then it was back to family.

“No. 2, Daddy got some healthcare for his family – seven of us, that’s a lot of kids.”

So, Cummings said, his vote in Congress for healthcare was his most important. “I had one prayer, ‘Lord, don’t let me die before I vote for healthcare.”

“There are too many people dying because they cannot get healthcare,” Cummings continued. “We cannot let the Republicans take us back. There are too many people depending on us.”

Next up for Cummings, No. 3, was education, which he said, with growing evangelical fervor, “can transform a person, a family, a neighborhood – can transform generations.”

Cummings said he has concerns about the threat of Osama bin Laden and terrorism, but, “The greatest threat to our national security is the failure to educate every one of our children.”

Behind me, throughout, stood one of society’s failures – an African-American woman shouting out, louder than rally organizers felt comfortable with, a mantra of agreement with every declaration, but mostly fixated on numbers… whenever budget deficits, big banks, or Wall Street run amok were mentioned.

“Gazillions!” she’d holler out. “Gazillions!”

As the crowd waited nearly half an hour between the opening speeches and the arrival of the top entourage of Mikulski, O’Malley and Clinton, the woman sang out at the very top of her lungs with every rousing musical number piped over the sound system. Gospel, hip-hop, pop… she knew them all. And she was loud.

People were edging away from her, but I turned around trying to be friendly.

“I agree with a lot of what you were saying,” I told her, referring to her occasional shout-outs toward the speakers’ platform. “Do you vote?”

No. Not even registered. “They just put in whoever they want,” she said of the political system, adding that her son got “put away” for 27 years for drug dealing.

She just wanted to see Bill Clinton. She said she loved Clinton. He was the best. Then she gave me a big, smoky hug.

Somehow, it was just a big disconnect in her head between voting, participating, and adoring Clinton – who, along with Governor O’Malley and Senator Mikulski, seemed to notice with slight discomfort her intermittent shouts of “Oh yeah!” and “Trillions! Gazillions! Gazillions!”

Clinton spoke at length of Maryland being a leader in the national recovery from the recession, but mentions of numbers in any statistics he’d mention only seemed to incite another shout from the Gazillions Lady.

On safer ground, he offered parallels between television coverage of sports -- how the facts of what went on in baseball or football games are the basis of subsequent commentary by analysts, unlike commentary on matters of national importance.

“How much of this stuff you see on TV has anything to do with facts?” Clinton declared.

So one might presume he prefers Fox Sports over Fox News.

Clinton also spoke of the need for young people to be energized and participate in the election less than two weeks away.

“You are tomorrow’s America, and you need to show up on Nov. 2!”

Minutes later, Clinton, O’Malley & Co. were being whisked away in a motorcade to the Baltimore Museum of Industry for a big-donor affair – and where my wife, Bonnie Schupp, had been waiting for two hours as a volunteer to take photos for use by the museum.

I took a few pictures with my not-smart phone of Clinton speaking amid the crowd of office-holders on Federal Hill, but he’s just a tiny white hair-dot on the platform from my vantage point some 120 feet away.

Bonnie got a little closer at the museum with her Nikon D-700, and that’s one of her pictures up at the top. She even managed to get a glass of wine.