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Still no better than a Muppet

September 09, 2007|By BOB MAGINNIS

I still remember the day I graduated from Northwestern High School near College Park, Md. My pals and I - the same ones I'd ducked out of school with to visit the museums in Washington, D.C. - skipped the baccalaureate ceremony and stuck out our thumbs, ready to leave the area and celebrate our freedom with what passed for rowdy behavior 40 years ago.

Those were good times, though we didn't know at the time how good. We weren't paying property taxes or worrying about what the price of oil would be the following winter. Gasoline was less than 50 cents a gallon and the national hysteria of a few years earlier, when the Soviet Union had snuck missiles into Cuba, had subsided after President Kennedy faced the Russians down.

Kennedy was dead by 1967, replaced by Lyndon Johnson, who had less charisma than the poor beagle he picked it up by its ears, outraging pet lovers. Martin Luther King was dead by then, too. In April of that year, as a stock boy for The Hecht Co. department store, and, I had loaded plywood on trucks so store employees could board up the front of the store's downtown branch during the riots.

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The importance of all these things was lost on me back then. My chief concerns were not the lessons of history, but whether I would make enough money bussing tables to take out someone that weekend - and whether someone, anyone, would agree to go.

In that regard, I was lucky. After 10th grade, the good brothers of John Carroll High School had informed my parents that they were sure that I would do better in another kind of school, anywhere but their institution.

I had my first taste of journalism at Carroll, after my English teacher assigned me to work on the school paper as a punishment for horsing around in class. I was booted off the paper after I got the young brother who directed the missions program to admit that not all of the money collected actually went to the poor overseas. As I have found repeatedly, people often prefer happy fables to the truth.

And so, instead of dressing up each day in a sportcoat, dress shirt and a tie, I went to public school, where the dress code was much looser. Instead of riding the D.C. Transit bus into the heart of the capital to an all-boys' school, a big yellow bus picked me up a block from my house and took me to a public high school. Where there were girls.

I worked on the school paper there, not as a punishment, but because I discovered that I got great satisfaction from asking the questions that no one else had thought of.

That's still the case. When Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., came to visit The Herald-Mail in December 1999, we talked about grants and the problems of Western Maryland.

At the time, Hillary Clinton was making her first run for the Senate. I asked Mikulski what she would tell Clinton if the former first lady had asked for campaign advice.

Oh, but she has, Mikulski said, adding that the two had already discussed how Clinton should set up her senate office. The right question changed the story that day.

I have worked on newspapers of one sort or another every year since ninth grade. I was tear-gassed during an anti-Vietnam War riot at the University of Maryland, College Park, when I naively decided that in the interest of getting a good picture, I could shed a few tears.

"Tear gas" doesn't describe adequately the effect that spray has on one's respiratory system. I ended up gasping on the university library's lawn, holding up my camera so the National Guard troops wouldn't think I was a rioter.

But as a professional journalist, I have found that the biggest threat to me is not physical harm, though I have had a few unhappy story subjects poke a finger into my chest. The biggest threat is being overcome by boredom, as the slow pace of political progress gradually softens your brain as you wait, wait, wait, hoping that some forward motion will be achieved before everyone gives up.

A good example: Maryland's policy of releasing prisoners from the state prison complex south of Hagerstown with a bus ticket (that they weren't required to use to go home) had been debated since 1999. Gary Maynard, Maryland's new Public Safety Secretary, changed the policy this month, saying that it never made sense to do it that way.

Why did it take so long for someone in authority to see that? It is a great mystery. Governments get advice from well-paid experts and from advisory groups of prominent citizens but, as often as not, nothing happens. This snail's pace of progress can fool a journalist into believing that he or she could do as well or better in office, but that is a delusion.

In this business, the best thing we can do is to tell the readers what's happening here and, just as important, how other areas have handled similar problems. At that point, it's up to them to act.

By the way, I missed my 40th reunion celebration, held in August on the crab deck of The Fisherman's Inn on Kent Island, Md.

I had hoped to achieve some measure of fame by now, but the most prominent Northwestern High alumnus is still the late Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets. I am recognized sometimes on the streets of Hagerstown, but stay humble because on the national scene I am less well known than a cloth frog with a hand stuck up its back.

Bob Maginnis is

editorial page editor of

The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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