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Our new mayor is learning it's a tough war of words out there

April 01, 2013|By TIM ROWLAND | timr@herald-mail.com

War! What is it good for?

Well, urban renewal, perhaps.

That was the unfortunate take of Hagerstown Mayor David Gysberts last week, when he quipped that if the city had been lucky enough to have been bombed back into the Stone Age, we could start over with better result.

Look, this is the kind of thing you would expect out of Del. John Donoghue when fooling around with his Twitter account at midnight. But Gysberts? The heretofore relatively composed mayor presiding over an admittedly difficult downtown situation?

To quote directly, Gysberts said, “Sometimes I wish we would have had a war here … Some of (the buildings) looked like they have been bombed out.”

We all know that this is the type of thing you can get away with at the office Christmas party after everyone’s about six mugs into the egg nog. But Gysberts’ comments came in public with cameras rolling. And if that weren’t enough, he was speaking to a group of kids from our sister city in Wesel, Germany, where jokes about war are generally considered to be Not Funny.

All I can think is that it’s a good thing Hagerstown doesn’t have a sister city in Japan.

Now, as an occasional public speaker, I know there’s always pressure to break the ice. But falling back on tank battles and air raids as a way to lighten the mood just seems to be a strange way to go about it.

Shortly thereafter, Gysberts issued the following apology: “During my recent discussion with students from our Sister City in Wesel, Germany, (which I didn’t ask for in the first place) I allowed some (accurate) comments concerning my frustration with (a whole bunch of idiots I must deal with who do not have a clue about) urban renewal to come across in a way that some (humorless) people may have found offensive. I first want to express my regret (not) and apologies to anyone who was (stuffy enough to be) offended by my comment.”

All right, so the stuff in parentheses might have been mine. But I have dealt with politicians long enough that I feel as if I am qualified to act as interpreter.

According to the tape, the German students sort of laughed it off. But pretty much everyone else was horrified.To understand the dichotomy, you have to realize that for high school kids, World War II might as well be the Battle of Thermopylae. It ended a half-century before they were born. So this would be akin to Angela Merkel coming over here and cracking jokes about the War of 1812.

But even so, holding elected office means that you have to think before you speak. That’s why I think every elected executive position should come with a cabinet-level post known as the Secretary of Dope Slaps — an officer who would be charged with knocking a politician off the podium halfway through a potentially regrettable statement.

So, for example, when U.S. Rep. Don Young said last week that “...we used to have 50 to 60 wetbacks to pick …” THUNK. The Secretary of Dope Slaps would stop him short.

And when Gysberts said, “Sometimes I wish we would have had a war …” THUNK.

But I suppose every politician needs to learn on his own that all public comments are open to scrutiny and some degree of care is necessary. You know, just understand your audience. When you’re speaking to a group of nuns, don’t go stampeding straight into the chastity jokes, is all.

All that aside, this idea of war as an economic development tool does have an air of plausibility to it.

Just think if we could have gotten some foreign nation to pay for the explosives necessary to take down the old hospital, the Venice, the library, the Holiday Motel, the municipal light plant and all the old half-burned hulks in Hagerstown. Then we could finally turn the … THUNK.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 6997, or via email at timr@herald-mail.com.

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