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.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Maryland Film Festival weekend

Line forms for Friday films. (Photo by Bonnie Schupp)

Indie film 'Night Catches Us'
examines 1970s racial divide
from an urban Ground Zero

'Wire' stars cast in familiar roles

Maryland Film Festival director Jed Dietz introduced it as a story no one else was telling, but he might just as well have called “Night Catches Us” the essence of what his annual celebration of filmmaking is all about.

The story by writer-director Tanya Hamilton examines a tense period in urban race relations from the perspective of an extended African-American household caught in the epicenter of violence in the aftermath of the Black Panthers movement in urban America – with killings of Panther members by police, and vice-versa.

It was not an easy project to bring to the screen, having taken a decade from the time Hamilton began writing it. Likely taking the least time was the actual shooting last year. “We had 18 days and a very tiny budget,” she told the audience after a screening at this weekend’s 2010 festival.

And it may prove difficult to reach the big biracial audience that “Night Catches Us” deserves when the film has its national release – which could come this fall. Hamilton announced to applause that her film has been purchased by Magnolia Pictures and could be in theaters by November.

A generation younger than the characters and situations she depicts, Hamilton nonetheless captured the tearing social fabric of a time just past the Black Power movement’s heyday and before black voices began having a major impact on political power. Interestingly, the vocal backdrop for the opening scene is Jimmy Carter in a 1976 presidential campaign speech, about returning power to the people.

The setting is Philadelphia, but could just as well have been Baltimore, Detroit or any number of cities with large but marginalized black populations.

A police raid crashing into the home of the central characters after the killing of a white officer had the feel of the real-life raids in Baltimore in the 1964 manhunt for the black Veney brothers for the killing of a policeman after a liquor store robbery, and the suspicion and hatreds between black and white fit the backdrop of the 1970 tensions here when police and politicians worried about an incident – any incident – sparking a rerun of the 1968 King assassination rioting.

Fear is never a good basis for communication.

The Maryland Film Festival gave a helping hand to director Hamilton, with early financial support through a 2006 Maryland Filmmakers Fellowship grant. Her movie also was shown to an audience of festival members as a work in progress, for feedback before final editing.

Hamilton relied on friends and favors in assembling a top-notch cast, which includes Anthony Mackie (seen most recently in “The Hurt Locker” and “Notorious”), Kerry Washington (who portrayed the wives of Ray Charles and Idi Amin in “Ray” and “The Last King of Scotland,” respectively); and two stars from the Baltimore-filmed HBO series “The Wire” – Wendell Pierce and Jamie Hector.

Hector, who gave menace to the character of ruthless drug kingpin Marlo Stanfield in “The Wire,” is cast as a young black gangster. Here’s hoping he doesn’t get typecast – I’d love to see him in other kinds of roles.

Pierce… well, as in “The Wire,” he’s a police detective. But at least we’re seeing him now in his native New Orleans as a struggling, and hustling, musician in David Simon’s new HBO series, "Treme."

He also attended and fielded questions from the crowd at the weekend screenings of “Night Catches Us,” and was effusive in his praise for Hamilton – noting the shooting of many of the scenes in just one or two takes, without a videographer’s assistance. “She had a vision of what she wanted,” Pierce said.

Hamilton said she drew in part on the 1969 Chicago police killing of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in molding her story, and the film includes – seamlessly – related historical footage.

She said the tight shooting schedule frayed some nerves, as the light of day would give way to evening fireflies. Asked if that concern about losing the light was an underlying factor in naming the film, Hamilton said the title really was derived from a saying in her native Jamaica that she often heard from her grandmother: “Don’t let the night catch you.”

Darkness is a powerful metaphor for this very powerful film. And its depiction of a stark racial division in America is a reminder in a time of other, equally difficult divides in society today.

Other films we caught

Lacking the stamina to handle three intensive days of films from 11 in the morning to late at night, we opted this year to resist the temptation of all-access passes and instead took advantage of the festival membership first-day, 11-to-6, all-you-can-watch open house at the multi-screen Charles Theatre north of Baltimore's rail station.

We started with a packaged group of seven dramatic shorts, some of which we won’t regret never seeing again. But an Israeli tale, “On the Road to Tel Aviv,” was totally compelling. Its conflict, in the wake of a bus bombing, is born of fear as passengers balk at staying aboard a mini-bus out of suspicion that a woman in Arab garb is a terrorist.

The program included a guest appearance by young Australian filmmaker Patrick Maxwell, who fielded questions about his short, “Mrs. Wright,” a mid-life married woman who encounters, longs for, and ultimately backs away from having a relationship with a younger grocery store clerk. (Aha! A cougar in Sydney!)

After a quick lunch in the festival’s Tent Village across the street from the Charles, we caught two feature-length films, the comic road trip “Bass Ackwards” and the bizarre and unsettling, darkly comic subtitled, Greek-made “Dogtooth.”

The former was directed by and stars young filmmaker Linas Phillips, who also co-wrote the script, and he chatted with his festival audience about the year of work involved – first from shooting much of the cross-country journey, then three days based in a city of convenience, Minneapolis, when actor-friend Jim Fletcher had the time for some quickly-produced scenes that became key to the story.

Another star is the vehicle itself – a VW microbus that, at some time in its past, had its middle removed and the two ends welded together. Phillips said it was found and purchased through eBay, and is now sitting on his parents’ driveway in Massachusetts if anyone wants to make an offer for the tiny four-seater.

“Dogtooth” is the tale of a family of five, in which the wife, man-boy son and two na├»ve daughters grow up sheltered from the world on a private, fenced estate, their lives directed by a sometimes-dictatorial businessman father. He brings in a woman security guard from his industrial plant to provide sex for the son, but she also brings on calamity in exchanging gifts – including some video movies – for sex in seducing one of the daughters. The result is, in a word, disturbing.

(For another view from the festival, check out the Journeys blog by my wife Bonnie Schupp.)

On other topics

Remembering a baseball legend

I could not let the passing last week of longtime Detroit Tigers baseball broadcaster Ernie Harwell slip by without a mention.

I met the man once, briefly, nearly a decade ago at a patio lunch outside the Tigers’ spring training stadium in Lakeland, Fla. Harwell was kind enough to let me join him, giving me an opportunity to explain how his was the first baseball voice I could remember – from his 1954 broadcast work in Baltimore in the debut season of the modern-era Orioles.

Harwell was genuinely appreciative that close to half a century later, I could still remember and thank him for his Oriole radio broadcasts from a time when I was all of eight years old.

“We didn’t win a lot of games,” he recalled in that famous voice, smiling and pausing for a micro-second. “But we sure had a lot of fun.”

A nutcracker, sweetie!

Just in time for the occasion, I found the perfect Mother's Day gift for wife Bonnie: A dead man’s nutcracker.

I was driving home from the supermarket Saturday afternoon when I noticed a small sign at an intersection near our home: “Estate Sale.”

I drove down the long road toward some of the area’s finer waterfront homes, and it took about 15 minutes to track down the right driveway – almost at 3 p.m., as the sale was ending.

It was the home of a local business leader and electrical engineer who had died a month and a half ago from Lou Gehrig’s Disease. He was 64 – just a few months older than me – and judging from some of the oddities left after the picking-over by an earlier throng of buyers, had the kind of sense of humor I appreciate.

So I bought a couple of crazy gizmos, like a battery-powered device that scrambles an egg inside its shell, and a Rube Goldbergish egg cracker. His niece told me he had ordered them from a catalog shortly before his death, and never had a chance to see them in action.

Then there was the nutcracker: A long, hand-carved wooden figure of a nude woman, with a small depression high between the thighs where the nut is placed between the spreading legs. Then you squeeze them together and – crack!

It’s so twisted.

But the real gift is laughter.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Milestones: 40 years down the road

Kent State anniversary
brings back memories
of other front-page news

The anniversary had skipped my mind, but an NPR interview reminded me: Forty years ago this week, my first front-page byline appeared in The Baltimore Sun.

The NPR story had nothing to do with mine, except that its subject – the Kent State University massacre – made the front pages of Tuesday May 5, 1970, historic. Newspapers ran the photo of runaway 14-year-old Mary Ann Vecchio crying out in anguish over the body of Jeffrey Miller, one of 13 students shot by National Guard soldiers during an anti-war demonstration. Miller was one of the four who died.

Disturbances in the college town of Kent, Ohio, had prompted its mayor to declare a state of emergency and ask the governor to send in the Guard troops to restore order. The campus demonstration was one of many across the nation – including the University of Maryland – in response to an invasion of Cambodia ordered by the Nixon administration in what was perceived as an escalation of the Vietnam war.

My story was the result of a similar mindset in Baltimore, except that the issue was policing and race relations.

About the time of the noon-hour gunfire in Ohio, I was arriving at the city desk as a young reporter and being handed an assignment: A priest’s complaint about the refusal of the city police to respond to a call for help from his rectory a few nights earlier. A man had knocked on the door that Saturday night, seeking help because he was being “terrorized” by a band of teenagers.

The priest called the police, but after more than an hour no officer had arrived. He asked a fellow priest, the Rev. Richard Lawrence, who had experience in police-community relations, to check on the situation, and the latter priest told me how he called the Chief of Patrol’s office and was informed the department would not respond to the rectory because it was in “a gray area” with a “racial problem” and police were “afraid that the car would be hit with rocks or bottles or overturned.”

The church on Old York Road was around the corner from a house on Cator Avenue that was reportedly the headquarters of a group called Making a Nation – and one of half a dozen addresses that police had linked to black militant organizations. Police Commissioner Donald D. Pomerleau had issued an order that no patrol officer respond to those addresses without the presence of a supervisor, but the directive was misinterpreted to mean no response to the wider “sensitive” or “gray” areas around them.

Just a week earlier, city police had arrested a dozen members of the militant Black Panthers in connection with a killing, and the day I was working on the “gray areas” story, Commissioner Pomerleau was testifying at a court hearing in opposition to a civil libertarian motion seeking to dissolve a judge’s order that had banned the distribution of infammatory Panther literature.

Baltimore was just two years beyond the rioting that followed the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and Pomerleau, asked in court whether the arrests had the potential to spark comparable civil disorder, replied, “I say no,” according to a story by a Sun colleague appearing elsewhere in the same edition as my front-pager.

My story was the front-page lead, with a two-column headline at the top right. It was adjacent to the image of Mary Ann Vecchio that won then-student photographer John Filo a Pulitzer Prize and added fuel to the growing antiwar movement.

The Kent State account topped the middle of the front page, and under it was the story on the emergency declaration by Maryland Gov. Marvin Mandel that sent Guardsmen to the College Park campus. A downpage photo showed state troopers using tear gas to disperse demonstrators there.

Hardly anyone remembers my slightly overplayed story, which was clearly less important than the Kent State tragedy or troopers firing tear gas at Maryland student protesters who had blocked U.S. 1 in College Park for much of the day. (The war and race relations came together nine days later at Mississippi’s Jackson State, where city and state police gunfire on student protesters left two dead and 12 wounded.)

Forty years ago, Baltimore was a tense city just beginning to find its way in race relations and America was caught up in dissention over the Vietnam war. Much of the response on both fronts, as reflected in the front-page stories of May 5, 1970, seem in hindsight to have stemmed from fear.

Today, strangely, race still colors all too many aspects of life in Baltimore – including education, housing, health care, justice, politics.

And America is mired in yet another increasingly unpopular war.

There was a demonstration, of sorts, at College Park this year that brought a police response -- to quell the boistrous celebration after Maryland beat Duke University in a basketball game.

Prince George's County police were accused of brutality in the beatings of two students that night.

In retrospect, isn't that strange?