The Accidental Governor: Marvin Mandel dictates his memoir

Originally published in

MPPI in the News Len Lazarick Apr 30, 2010

"I'll Never Forget It" is what former Maryland Gov. Marvin Mandel calls his memoir published today - a forgettable title that could have been applied to a thousand autobiographies. It might better have been called "The Accidental Governor," since Mandel's subtitle is "Memoirs of a Political Accident from East Baltimore."

Mandel is no stylist in this book published by the Maryland Public Policy Institute, the free-market think tank on whose board the ex-governor serves. It was co-written with Jeremy Lott. Former Gov. Bob Ehrlich wrote the forward

Institute President Christopher Summers said the book was composed based on a series of interviews over the last two years after he realized nothing had been written about Mandel's life. There were books about his successors as governor, Harry Hughes and William Donald Schaefer, "but they did not have the impact on Maryland that Gov. Mandel did," Summers said.

Mandel in his own words:

When politicians today look at my legacy, they tend to see two conflicting things. On the one hand I did a hell of a lot of new things. I expanded funding for schools and transportation, I funded the shock trauma unit, I bought Friendship Airport and transformed it into BWI, and I helped build up the Baltimore Inner Harbor. On the other hand, I reorganized state government so that the budgeting system was completely changed, and passed a constitutional amendment mandating a balanced budget.

What they don't understand is the two went together. I was able to do so many new things because I got hold of the state spending process. If I had been raising taxes to pay for all of this, the people of Maryland would have been revolted. But I wasn't raising taxes.

The book is written in the colloquial style of a plain-spoken man, a Jewish kid from East Baltimore who, if you believe this book, never had ambitions to be a member of the legislature. He never aspired to be chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee, speaker of the House of Delegates (accidentally again, after the indictment of the current speaker). And it wasn't his plan to be the first Jewish governor of Maryland, after the first Greek governor was elected vice-president - with an unintended assist from Mandel.

Mandel has lived an incredible life, and April 19, he turned 90 and is still living it. He is the longest-serving governor in Maryland history, a term filled with immense accomplishments and remarkable scandal.

Scandal, that is, if you count being thrown out of the governor's mansion by his first wife. On top of that, Mandel was convicted in federal court, and served a prison sentence later commuted by President Ronald Reagan, the Republican he had befriended as California governor. His conviction was later overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.

This guy is no movie star like Reagan -- short of stature, a nebbish looking guy, with a pipe constantly in his hand or mouth in the old days.

Yet surviving friends and some historians consider him to be one of the best Maryland governors of the 20th century.

The book is 100-pages short, an easy read. It starts slow, but it's full of interesting anecdotes and observations that at some points leave you laughing, or wondering: could this be true?

Could Mandel really be the one who breaks the news to U.S. Vice President Spiro T. "Ted" Agnew that he's going to be indicted? Years before, did he really encourage Maryland Gov. Agnew to give a nominating speech for Richard Nixon?

"He had about as much chance of being nominated as vice president as I had of becoming the pope, and yet that's what happened," Mandel writes.

Could he really have gotten his start as member of the party central committee, saying, "If I don't have to do anything, I'll do it. And I didn't do anything"? Did he really get to be speaker because House rules said the Ways & Means chairman should fill in for the indicted presiding officer? Mandel also claims President Jimmy Carter allowed for his prosecution and incarceration because he was anti-Semitic?

Did he really diffuse a confrontation with students "rioting" over the Vietnam War at the University of Maryland by eating a marshmallow that had been thrown at him?

Mandel seems less than introspective.

"I had a lawyer who got into politics as my role model. Who knows? Maybe that's why my life turned out the way it did."

And on some of the key personal points, we get little insight. How did he wind up in an affair with "a girl" named Jeanne Dorsey and decide to leave his wife Bootsy in an election year?

Mandel is one of those fiscally-conservative Democrats that are now as endangered as dinosaurs.

"We're spending money that we don't have at the state and federal levels," he says, in an observation he makes several times in the book.

Mandel has now lived long enough to outlast the stain of his conviction, even if it was overturned.

"I said then, and I say now, that I never did anything illegal as governor of Maryland," he writes.

Still, after all, Mandel still seems pleasantly surprised by his success and unable to explain it. "At no time when I was growing up did think that I would be governor, nor did I ever really try to be governor. All these things happened. It wasn't that I made them happen. It was just the way things worked out."

Monday: Excerpts from Len Lazarick's 90-minute interview with Mandel prior to Tuesday's big 90th birthday bash at the University of Maryland.