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Somewhere Between Truth Telling and Harassment Sits Wm Donald Schaefer, The Last Brutally Honest Man in Politics

Deep down, lots of folks--well, at least lots of men--admire William Donald Schaefer for his latest antics. Well, for some of them, anyway.

Hardly a man alive would deny watching a woman walk away from time to time. Many of us would try to be discreet about it and would refrain from obvious gawking. But virtually all human beings admire the form of a fine-looking person. That said, it's obviously rude, and in this strange world we live in, actionable to be too overt about this natural attraction to the beauty of our fellow members of the species. Admiration is sublime; leering is crude.

So when the comptroller of Maryland, one of the great ornery, cranky, politically incorrect populist politicians of our age, stares at a young female aide at a public meeting in front of 100 people, and then has the gall to tell her to "Walk again," lots of guys are simultaneously shocked, amused, appalled, jealous (that he had the cojones to do it) and stunned by the base stupidity and arrogance of Schaefer's action.

That the 84-year-old pol then compounded the damage by calling the woman a "little girl" and claiming that he--and not she-- is the offended party sadly strips away any sympathy that many folks might have had for the old man.

Schaefer apparently gets a kick out of outraging the easily outraged. Sometimes, he even reaches out to offend those with tougher hides. But at bottom, he's a guy who has a lot of fun having the megaphone. And that has always been a big part of his popular appeal--he's a regular guy's regular guy. So when he tees off against Spanish-speaking McDonald's workers, he appeals to a segment of the population that blames immigrants for their own marginalized place in the workforce. Schaefer, unlike most politicians, not only understands that there is a vast body of emotions, beliefs and perspectives that cannot be publicly expressed in this society; he, like the talkers on raunch radio, also acts to reach out to people who feel silenced and suppressed.

But of course a state official who is elected by the people is different from Howard Stern. When you sit in your car and get satisfaction out of Stern saying stuff that would get you fired at work, that is both a release and an entertainment, as well as a commentary on the real restrictions against free speech that we have constructed in public settings.

But when Schaefer says such stuff in an official capacity, he is speaking for more than himself and like-minded people; he is supposed to be speaking for the state of Maryland, and that requires him to exercise more restraint and caution than the average bear. All of which is both appropriate and too bad, because we all crave politicians who are less rehearsed, less programmed, more...like us.

I love having Schaefer around, both because as a journalist I know he is a ready and dependable source of outrageous behavior, and because as a citizen, I like having people in high places who are capable of breaking out of the box and showing us all a glimpse of what's really going on in some people's minds.

The problem with our decision as a society to embrace the idea that we should all be proud of being offended by obnoxious comments and behaviors is that it forces us to be dishonest with each other. I don't want any taboos on words, thoughts or slurs; I want to see my enemy head on and decide for myself whether to engage or ignore. But instead of retaining that option, we increasingly declare words and ideas to be unacceptable, or hate speech, or actionable comments. And when we create taboos, we are really encouraging ugly ideas to blossom under cover.
In Germany, it is illegal to buy Hitler's Mein Kampf or any of hundreds of other works sympathetic to the Nazi viewpoint. Given Germany's history, that may be an understandable set of restrictions, but the impact of those rules is to foster an underground fascination with that material--a phenomenon that is far more dangerous than the open trade we have in extremist materials in this country.

If I were the woman Schaefer humiliated today, or even if I were her relative or friend, I would loathe what he did and I would want him to suffer public embarrassment and political damage. But I wouldn't be the slightest bit interested in the views of the many lawyers and corporate managers who are now being quoted as saying that Schaefer has violated this or that law. What we say to each other and how we act toward one another should be a matter of basic decency and politeness, governed by our own community and individual standards and expectations. The law ought to play no role whatsoever until and unless violent physical crimes enter the equation.

The more Schaefer's dumb, retrograde behavior is treated as a legal violation, the less we as citizens feel that it's our responsibility to confront the problem ourselves.

My conclusion about Schaefer is that he's an entertaining old guy whose time has long since passed by. He needs to find a retirement home where he can sit around telling crude jokes with his friends.

By Marc Fisher |  February 15, 2006; 10:41 PM ET
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Comments

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Marc:
You're way off base in your last comment that nothing should be illegal in the workplace absent violent physical assault. Clearly you have never had to undergo a gauntlet of leers, taunts, ruanchy--and worse--comments, pornographic pictures modified to include your face in the workplace. If you had (and these occurrances are not exaggerations but are a tiny sample of facts of real sexual harassment cases), you would realize that verbal harassment, of which Schaefer's behavior was an isolated example, is neither funny, cute, nor a glorious example of free speech, but just as harmful as actual physical assault. Where people get on their high horse about how being "PC" has taken the "fun" out of the workplace, they usually refer to conduct that is isolated, not egregious, or ambiguous, or, like you, they are men who just don't get it.

Posted by: Seen it All | February 15, 2006 11:22 PM

Marc: You wrote: "how we act toward one another should be a matter of basic decency and politeness, governed by our own community and individual standards and expectations. The law ought to play no role whatsoever until and unless violent physical crimes enter the equation."

But aren't laws supposed to offer some reflection of the community standards and expectations?

I hope you'll reconsider your point. No one should have to tolerate being the target of the Comptroller's behavior, nor the type of behavior's that Seen it All mentions above. If it takes the law to protect people from that, then I'm all for using the law.

Please, Maryland, let's force the retirement of this guy (that's Schaefer, not Fisher).

Posted by: Steve | February 15, 2006 11:31 PM

Laws can express good and important goals and yet still be an unfortunate method of enforcing community standards. The problem with relying on law is that it substitutes a sledgehammer for the much tougher and more organic process of persuasion and evolution that any community should aim to use to govern behavior. Morality, personal responsibility, shame and family and community bonds are, ideally, far more potent tools, yet they require a level of personal and civic involvement that laws don't. A law may be right, but when we resort to law, we have already lost as a community.

Posted by: Fisher | February 15, 2006 11:59 PM

Way to go Marc! I seldom agree with your points but I heartily endose this one. Although I think you treated this with more seriousness than it warranted. The gal should have walked back, said, "Sure" and sashasyed away like she owned the place, and him. By cringing and acting embarassed, she gave him the upper hand.

Posted by: Stick | February 16, 2006 6:32 AM

Marc, go take a walk at lunch today. Young women in DC, and presumably Annapolis too, take these jobs in tight pants/skirts in the hopes that someone like Bobby Haircut or Schaefer will slip a nice rock-hard letter of recommendation into her file.
If you're going to go hunting with the Veep, you gotta be able to stand a little birdshot.

Posted by: athea | February 16, 2006 8:02 AM

athea: Ah, how silly of me. She clearly wanted to be humiliated by some wrinkled imbecile in front of a roomful of strangers.

She should hire a good lawyer, sue the guy, and end up laughing all the way to the bank. If he can have his fun (which I think is what Marc is saying), then why can't she?

Posted by: truly | February 16, 2006 8:57 AM

I disagree with you , Marc, on this one. While it's a pleasant thought, these days "basic decency and politeness" sometimes needs to be demanded through legal means. The fact is, while women are respected more in the workplace now than they ever have been before, we are not on equal playing fields yet. We are paid less than men for doing the same work, promoted less frequently, and, as "Athea" so clearly made the point, still viewed as sexual objects in the workplace for wearing things such as, gasp, a skirt! Clearly, "basic decency and politeness" are not taking care of these issues. So, until we are seen as an equal in the workplace, men like the disgusting Schaefer should be punished.

Posted by: mel | February 16, 2006 9:10 AM

A woman in this situation should stand up to the offender in a way she feels comfortable with, whether that is telling him he's a dinosaur, asking for an apology, or - my favorite - doing just what was recommonded by Stick and stealing the thunder. Point being, until women everywhere respond to the gestures they feel are inappropriate with words and actions that relay proper social expectations, there will always be someone suggesting that we should take legal action for something as good ole boy as this example - don't get me wrong, legal action needs to be there for the more serious offenses which truly meet the definition of sexual harrassment. When it comes to flirtatious comments being made in a public setting, let's stand up for ourselves, ladies! It's not Schaefer's generation anymore and he needs to be reminded of this whenever he forgets that it's not 1955. My opinion, guys will always be like this; isn't it part of the ongoing saga of the sexes?? We just have to shape their behavior so it emerges in appropriate settings - it's not too bad to have your husband/boyfriend/partner ask you to "walk over here again, would you?" Bottom line, Mr. Schaefer - apologize to the young lady privately; young lady - hold your head up the next time someone does this and respond however you see fit to relay the message that the behavior is unaccaptable and unwelcome.

Posted by: m | February 16, 2006 9:56 AM

Oh please, M, get off your high horse! Not many women would have the courage to stand up to a superior in front of a room full of people to stick up for herself. What Schaeffer did was complete, unprovoked public humiliation. At the very least, she deserves something equal to the crime - so, how about a public apology, Schaeffer?

I stuck up for myself in a workplace setting when a male co-worker was harassing me and was fired by my male boss. It's not as easy to stick up for yourself when you know that one of the consequences is being without a job in this awful economy.

Posted by: RE: M | February 16, 2006 10:50 AM

Hey, Don Schaefer, c’mon over here.

Walk on over, that’s right. Now stand there. Turn around.

Let me get a good look at you.

You’ve got a double chin there. Little sparse on top. A bit jowly for my taste.

Hot or not? Don’t ask. On a scale of 1 to 10? You won't like the answer.

I heard you tricked a young woman--who thought she was doing her job—into walking back and forth in front of you at a public meeting. Strictly for your enjoyment. Who do you think you are?

You can walk away now, I’ve seen enough. This is for my pleasure, not yours. Next!

The day I stop appreciating good-looking men, I die.

Hey, state trooper. C’mon over here.


Posted by: alice100@gmail.com | February 16, 2006 11:33 AM

See, Alice, the problem is that many guys will think that that's "hot", because they've never been in a situation where they are at someone else's mercy, whether it be physically, emotionally, or economically. Like Marc, most of them will imagine it would be great fun to be "taken advantage of", because they could end it at any time with no adverse consequences; on the contrary, they'd have something to brag about to their trogdolyte friends. They have no concept of what it is like to be marginalized.

Posted by: The Cosmic Avenger | February 16, 2006 12:14 PM

"She should hire a good lawyer, sue the guy, and end up laughing all the way to the bank. If he can have his fun (which I think is what Marc is saying), then why can't she"

Are you serious? Sue for a single inappropriate comment? If a judge didn't simply throw that out of court then it would be a huge waste of the court's time to hear such a case. Was the woman slandered or defamed in any way? What injury did she suffer? Embarrassment is not cause for a lawsuit.

Posted by: RL | February 16, 2006 12:21 PM

"They've never been in a situation where they are at someone else's mercy, whether it be physically, emotionally, or economically."

What? WHAT? Most men have never worked for anyone? Most men have never been taunted by physically stronger men? Most men have never been at the emotional mercy of a woman?

Harrassment is not unique to women at all. Yes, it's different for women, but when you state it so broadly, your argument loses all credibility.

So to speak.

Posted by: Another name | February 16, 2006 12:25 PM

It's high horsey m here - don't mean to sound that way and yes I realize the difficulty of standing up for oneself in a public venue (based on personal experience). Definitely easier to walk away. But do you really think she would lose her job for telling him he was in the wrong - especially with witnesses to the exchange? Given this guy's reputation, a more likely result might be applause.

Posted by: m | February 16, 2006 12:48 PM

MD citizens should be interested in what laws he might have violated because it will probably cost them some of their hard earned tax dollars to pay off her discrimination/harrassment complaint.

Posted by: Anonymous | February 16, 2006 1:00 PM

The worst part of this was Ehrlich's gutlessness. He sits there with a silly grin on his face while Schaefer's humiliates his (Ehrlich's) employee. What a boss! He should have stood up for his employee and publicly chastised Schaefer. Ehrlich needs to grow a spine and Schaefer needs to retire.

Posted by: MD | February 16, 2006 1:01 PM

I can't really blame anyone's immediate reaction to the harrasment - everyone, including the harrased woman, was probably in shock that such a thing would happen in such a very public setting. I think it's suffice to say that shock is the reason why the woman didn't say/do anything and why Ehrlich sat there with a silly grin.

But, where is the outrage now, after the shock of it? That woman must feel like no one is on her side right now.

Posted by: Lynn | February 16, 2006 1:18 PM

HOrray MD! Honestly, I'm a guy who admits there should be some chivalry, some old fashioned ideas left, one of which is sticking up for your employee. Its one thing to catch yourself looking a little too lond, at as someone said earlier, the tight pants and skirts worn across this city. BUt doing what Schaefer did is disgusting. MEn can appreciate women's good looks, and yes, It hink they can LOOK. but to make someone do a cat walk for you because you're a worthless incontinent old man is ridiculous. I think women can both wear attractive clothing to work, which may bring looks from men, even old men, but then still be appreciated for their intelligence and job skills, not just for their skirts.

BUt Ehrlich, get off your ass and stick upf ro your employee! Tell this old fart he's wrong and be a man!

MArc, you totally missed the ball on this one. How would you like your wife/ mother/ sister/ daughter to eb humiliated like this? BEcause this isn't some old guy being attracted to a woman, or then going to his guy friends telling them he thinks she's hot. This is purposefully degrading a women because he probably thinks she doesn belong in the workplace. Get a clue Fischer.

Posted by: DC | February 16, 2006 1:59 PM

Have to agree that Ehrlich's reaction is lame. And it's not even self-servingly so! He was in a perfect position to take a jab at Schaefer, and he passed it up.

This whole issue about the use of moral suasion and social ostracism vs. legislation to effect social change is very difficult. I have to get back to work, but I hope someone else will pick up the baton and share their views about it here!

Posted by: THS | February 16, 2006 2:01 PM

BAH!
If he had been a Hot Young Stud I wonder what her outrage might be? Maybe a cute smile and a flip of the hair and a little more wiggle in those hips?
It's funny how woman do all their makeup, hair, clothes, push up bra's etc... to get noticed, and then they do and they like it, AS long as it's by people they want to notice them.

Posted by: Joe D. | February 16, 2006 2:35 PM

The last comment was from someone who, obviously, needs to get into the 20th century and not kid himself. What Willie Don did is wrong on every level, compounded by the fact that he is an elected official, paid by the citizens of Maryland.

What is really strange is that the position, itself, seems to engender the sort of attitude evinced by Willie Don. Some years ago, when in North Carolina, I remember that the man who held the parallel position, one Thad Eure, used to describe himself as the oldest rat in the pack. Before that, I remember the case of the Secretary of State of Illinois dying (of natural causes at an advanced age) and when the authorities examined his domicile (a hotel room in Springfield), they found shoe boxes full of uncashed checks made out to the Secretary of State of Illinois. I guess that he was going to, personally, take them home and process them????

Posted by: Catcher50 | February 16, 2006 2:46 PM

What she should have done when he called her back for such a very obviously offensive reason was to smile graciously, walk all the way back to him and accidentally spill the coffee into his lap.

Posted by: Ann Simpson | February 16, 2006 2:57 PM

The guy is 84...has anyone considered maybe he's in the early stages of Alzheimer's. Inappropriate speech and actions are a sign of early A.

Posted by: Anonymous | February 16, 2006 2:58 PM

I'd like to point out that I find this:

"But instead of retaining that option, we increasingly declare words and ideas to be unacceptable, or hate speech, or actionable comments. And when we create taboos, we are really encouraging ugly ideas to blossom under cover."

To be in complete opposition to the tact that the washingtonpost.com took when outraged users posted crude and disgusting commments on the postblog about Mrs. Howell, the ombudsperson several weeks back.

You might want to reconsider that position or allow people to post exactly what they want to say in these comments.

Just a thought.

Posted by: corbett | February 16, 2006 3:26 PM

"Hardly a man alive would deny watching a woman walk away from time to time. "
I guess the measurable percentage of gay men out there, at least those unmoved by female pulchritude, are "hardly a man alive."

Posted by: matt | February 16, 2006 3:33 PM

On the subject of Schaeffer retiring: The Dems of Maryland have an excellent opportunity to make that happen this fall when Peter Franchot runs against him in the primary. I was sorry that you didn't mention Franchot's name in your post, because just about all Schaeffer has going for him is name recognition. Most Marylanders assume that Schaeffer will hold a powerful state office forever, but that does not necessarily have to be the case. We get to vote!!

Posted by: JimPreston | February 16, 2006 3:52 PM

"So when he tees off against Spanish-speaking McDonald's workers, he appeals to a segment of the population that blames immigrants for their own marginalized place in the workforce"

Baloney - he appeals to those of us who don't want to need the services of a translator just to order some darn fries.

Posted by: Danielle fr. Gmail | February 16, 2006 3:58 PM

corbett - excellent point! But, unlike the poor staffer, "Lovey" Howell and the Post staff are in the position of power where they can edit, delete, or drop comments they don't like entirely. Had that staffer talked back to Mr. Schaeffer, she could have been reprimanded or worse.

This was a professional setting, and he is in a position of authority. Marc, I usually agree with you, but you are 100% wrong on this one. I do fear you were only hired because of your hot rear attributes.

Posted by: ML | February 16, 2006 3:58 PM

Joe D. says If he had been a Hot Young Stud I wonder what her outrage might be? Maybe a cute smile and a flip of the hair and a little more wiggle in those hips?
It's funny how woman do all their makeup, hair, clothes, push up bra's etc... to get noticed, and then they do and they like it, AS long as it's by people they want to notice them.

I say baloney. Of course, women want men to notice them, just as men want the attention of women. But there's quite a difference between noticing that someone is attractive--whether walking away or walking forward--and acting on that perception by trying to get to know the person or asking him or her for a date and
demeaning the person in the way Schaefer did.

Joe D.'s comments smack of hostility toward women.

Posted by: THS | February 16, 2006 4:15 PM

If it had been an African American who had brought a republican official a cup of coffee and the official had said 'boy bring me some sugar for my coffee.' I wonder what your comment would have been, not withstanding whatever percentage of people who see nothing wrong with that comment. Schaefer was acting as a high ranking state official to a lower level state official. It is his job to behave appropriately. If he wants too sit around and make crass comments then he should fine a appropriate place for that, I know the name of several good strip clubs, or he should be a real man an quit his government job. Being too stupid to know how to do your job should be an excuse for firing people in addition to laughing at them

Posted by: J J | February 16, 2006 5:02 PM

So what am I suppose to do when my boss talks to my body and not to my face and continually make crude remarks about the female form -- confront him? I did and I was told that I was too sensitive -- it's just a joke. I guess I will have to find another job...

The laws were put into place because people were not displaying "basic decency and politeness" to one another. I'm sure you know words can hurt much more than physical violence.

Posted by: AGG | February 16, 2006 6:43 PM

==>> The law ought to play no role whatsoever until and unless violent physical crimes enter the equation.


That's the dumbest thing to write. You can 'hurt' people severely without laying a hand on them particularly if you are the one with the 'power'. Power manifests in many forms. Verbal abuse, blocking career advancement, witholding raises, creating a hostile atmosphere, public humiliation, ... Ninety nine percent of the time just the threat of power alone will be enough to intimidate people to toe whatever line you want them to toe, legally or not, morally or not. How else would say a small number of cops keep a much larger society in check?

Saying the law should play no role unless violence enters the equation is like saying only muggers and not thieves should be prosecuted.

Posted by: Tom | February 16, 2006 6:53 PM

Here's what I think many who've written are failing to grasp: Ehrlich is an updated Shaefer---the proverbial guy's guy with a little Princton polish and electoral sensibility. Indeed, caucasion blue collar Maryland has embraced a GOP governor (and adores Shaefer to this day) precisely because he seems refreshingly blunt (remember Ehrlich's "multi-culturism is bunk") and healthily indifferent to some of the PC zealotry that infects Montgomery County and the more well-to-do liberal enclaves of the state. Dems today just don't get it.

Rail away at an obnoxious comment by a truly old man and watch the voters flee.

As much of a dinosaur as Shaefer might appear to be, the fact is he inspired flat-out belly laughs among males across the state with this line: "the day I stop looking at women is the day I die." Find me a Dem office-holder in Maryland who admits--even privately--laughing about that, and you've found a Dem I and the rest of the non-genteel folks in this state can embrace.

Until then, the ideologically thin-skinned members of the chattering classes can huff and puff themselves into losing another election....

Posted by: Bravo Marc | February 16, 2006 10:22 PM

Ohhhh that Schaaaaaefer!!!!

Posted by: Ata | February 17, 2006 3:20 PM

Posted by: Anonymous | February 17, 2006 4:59 PM

I think the analysis that Schaefer feels himself to be speaking for the silent majority is accurate. After all, here is a WaPo columnist reinforcing it: Oh, sure, it's socially unacceptable, but c'mon! Then the commenters who said that women who dress like that are asking for Schaefer's reaction; the Democrats don't act like real men so they're losing the blue collar voters. Even if he never gets on the internet, Schaefer is getting the nods and winks and quiet approval offline.

Posted by: PG | February 18, 2006 5:44 PM

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