Frank DeFilippo Says Goodbye (For Now)

Maryland Matters Columnist Frank DeFilippo at a December 2018 fundraising lunch. Maryland Matters photo.

Nancy Kopp. Brian Frosh. Maggie McIntosh. Frank DeFilippo.

Hey, whoa! That’s me. What the heck is going on here.

Bulk it up, and that’s a lot of institutional memory about to be put on a shelf, roughly 175 years’ worth – Kopp 50 years, Frosh, 35 years, McIntosh 30 years, each with a different and unique spool of tall tales, outrageous yarns and records of achievement.

>> Related: Read all of Frank DeFilippo’s columns here. 

And me? I’ve been chronicling the comic opera of politics for more than 60 years, eight of those with an insider’s view of what makes politics and government tick – and sometimes go amok.

Frank A. DeFilippo

Writing is easy. Just put one word after another. Writing about politics is a bit more complicated because often illumination is scarce. It’s a headachy business.

It can be done in the manner H.L. Mencken suggested: “The only way for a reporter to look at a politician is down.”

Or the Aristotelian ideal that politics is among the noblest professions, a classic principle stated often by President John F. Kennedy.

Somewhere between the two hovers that fertile horizon waiting for the choice of slippery, colorful adjectives and adverbs to capture just the right lilt of character, that smirky hint of swagger, the facile disposition of absurdity between what you hear and what you know — not the big lie, but the yank-our-chains put-on, or as it’s called on the streets, signifying.

In that sense, there is great theater in politics, entertainment imitating life, or is it life imitating entertainment. After all, we’ve had an actor as president (Ronald Reagan), and in the U.S. Senate (George Murphy) and in the House (Love Boat’s “Gopher,” Fred Grandy) and a game show host as president (Donald Trump).

So why not write about politics as entertainment – policy and peccadillos, information with an attitude. Except that today politics have become more menacing than amusing. People such as the craven Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), the House minority leader, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), Gov. Ron DeSantis, Florida, and Gov. Greg Abbott, of Texas, scare the stuffing out of rational people. Trump is neither funny nor menacing. He’s a con artist, the Harold Hill of American politics, extracting millions from gullible citizens for his own gratification. He’s a born loser.

Skip over the editorial pages. For today’s most satisfying political commentary turn to the comics where the cartoonists are among the savviest, and most savage, political observers. There you’ll find “Lio” up to his usual zombie tricks, ‘Prickly City” always searching for something better than this, “Pearls Before Swine” for fun and puns, “Loose Parts” as a social teaser, “Non Sequitur” for incisive conversation, and many others. There you have it, pretty much all you need to know about the day’s politics, and with drawings yet.

We’ve had our share of characters in Baltimore politics. “Mr. Diz” was a courthouse hang-about, not exactly homeless but with no specific address except of course, the courthouse, always eager to explain the legal particulars of a case underway.

Melvin Perkins was a vagrant who ran for governor and for congress, but beneath that ragamuffin’s exterior was an expert on nautical law. Perkins once rebuffed any annoyer by claiming he had a certificate proving that he was sane and challenged the provocateur to produce his.

We’ve had our share of buffoons, too. Mention the word and George P. Mahoney pops into mind. A 10-time loser for public office, Mahoney won the old “unit vote” once and the popular vote another time, but never the whole enchilada. Back in the day before the “one man, one vote” ruling, a statewide candidate for governor had to win both the popular vote and the “unit vote,” patterned after the electoral college, to secure an election victory.

The word buffoonery also becomes Hyman A. Pressman, city comptroller for years, who cost the state millions by petitioning to referendum the original plan for a multi-purpose domed stadium in downtown Baltimore in the early 1970s. Pressman, a publicity hound, was also a one-man roadblock on the city’s Board of Estimates, at no telling what cost. Yet he called himself a “civic watchdog.”

Ditto Rep. Clarence D. Long (D), of Baltimore County, who cost the state even more millions when he successfully petitioned to referendum the first proposal for a parallel bridge across the Chesapeake Bay. And now a third span is under consideration.

Spiro T. Agnew (R) was in a class of his own, a man of relentlessly middlebrow tastes whose haughty demeanor and disregard of ethics and the appearance of behavior cost him the vice presidency and would have toppled his governorship if the posse had moved earlier. Agnew’s attacks on the media didn’t begin as vice president. They started as Baltimore County executive, even before he was elected governor.

William Donald Schaefer (D) was a hall-of-fame kvetch. Reporters needled him not out of meanness or spite but because they knew they could get a rise out of him. They bestowed on Schaefer, behind his back, of course, the nickname, Mayor Annoyed, telescoped and pronounced quickly to mimic the word paranoid.

If Schaefer were alive today, he’d probably be wearing a MAGA hat because of his late-life comments and views on immigrants which are remarkably similar to Trump’s. But, then, he’d likely be holding the hat in-hand to accept the Biden administration’s infrastructure and safety net money.

And along the way we’ve witnessed arrival and departure of the political machines of James H. “Jack” Pollack and Irv Kovens in Baltimore, Col. E. Brooke Lee in Montgomery County and Peter O’Malley in Prince George’s County.

They were subsumed in a succession of events — television, talk radio, the free-flow of corporate and dark money into the political ecosystem and gradually by the proliferation of social media. Along with the bosses went party discipline.

Some still argue that the public was better served in the bad old days of bossed-and-bought politics because stuff got done. As Frank Kent wrote in his prescient book, The Great Game of Politics: “A good politician is one who stays bought.”

I’ve often been asked that what my favorite story is among all those that I’ve written, experienced and witnessed.

My answer is, the one I lived — the eight years as Gov. Marvin Mandel’s press secretary and speechwriter. Those years of accomplishment were unparalleled. Mandel took Maryland by the scruff of the neck and dragged it kicking and screaming into what was then the 20th century. And to watch it all go down the toilet because of — CANCELLED — was truly Shakespearean tragedy. The complete story is still untold. But it’s all there in a book-length manuscript that one day I might bequeath to the state archives as a resource of the era for future historians and voyeurs.

Anyway, you get the picture.

The great New York columnist Murray Kempton observed that “editorial writers are the people who come over the hill after the battle and shoot the dead.”

The same could be said of columnists, as exemplified above.

There’s a recollection of Kempton at one the national political conventions, the 1964 Goldwater convention, if the memory circuits are still sparking, where he was moving cheerily among clumps of reporters and at each stop saying the convention reminded him of Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard. Kempton, it turns out, was testing the figure of speech, known today as a trope, for reaction and laughs. Sure enough, The Cherry Orchard was the framework for his next column.

And that’s the job of a columnist, always searching for the ironic, the tragic, the twist or turn of fate, the memorable phrase. To tell it in an entertaining way is the hard part. But sometimes we get lucky. A really good story, or column, tells itself.

Among the favorites of my many years of writing were those at Maryland Matters. The more so knowing that it is a non-profit organization funded entirely by public contributions, and the knowledge that its readers support continuing its broad and deep coverage of Maryland government and politics with their donations.

A tip-of-the-hat to its founding editor, Josh Kurtz, for birthing this baby, and for letting me hitch-hike a ride, and making it a must-read for those who crank the machinery of Maryland government and politics and among the populous ranks of political hobbyists. And to his successor as work-a-day editor, Danielle Gaines, who has invited me to contribute an occasional essay as body and spirit (and outrage) move me. Meg Thale, Maryland Matters’ intrepid publisher, is the behind-the-scenes pack leader who wraps it all together for delivery to readers.

They have been generous employers, velvet-gloved editors and above all, cherished friends and colleagues. And to all of those other by-liners with whom I’ve worked but have never met because computers have frozen time and distance. Their daily work is the pulse of Maryland Matters. Carry on.

Frank A. DeFilippo
Frank A. DeFilippo is an award-winning political commentator who lives and writes in Baltimore. DeFilippo has been writing about the comic opera of politics for more than 50 years. He reported on the Maryland General Assembly for 10 years before joining the administration of former Gov. Marvin Mandel (D) as press secretary and speechwriter. Between times, he was a White House correspondent during the administration of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, and he has covered six national political conventions. DeFilippo is the author of Hooked, an alleged work of fiction, and an unpublished manuscript, Shiksa: The Rise and Fall of Marvin Mandel.