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Mel Guapo

Best Historical Revisionism: William Donald Schaefer as Posthumous Saint

Best Historical Revisionism

William Donald Schaefer as posthumous saint

You could feel this thing coming three years out: the devotional stories about Willie Don’s decline (in fact, he was already batty as a church attic during his second term as comptroller), the mini-scandal about the ruse that got him to a nursing home, the nostalgic references by C. Fraser Smith (two dozen of them, at least) sprinkled throughout the Sun and The Daily Record between his last day as state comptroller and his death on April 18. William Donald Schaefer was certainly a one-of-a-kind Baltimore character, and his reign in the city and at the state level was undeniably historic in its breadth. But the question of whether he was a great mayor was never debated; it was assumed. This despite the city’s savage decline in population and prosperity during and since his reign, and maybe because the kind of big-ticket, tourist-oriented, tax-break-mongering downtown development programs he championed have become the norm in almost every mid-size city across the land. It is a failed model, yes—but dammit, it’s our failed model. If one could only separate these dodgy deeds (the madcap pursuit of stadiums and sports teams, the lavishing of contracts on buddies, the taxes that went up and stayed there, the treating the school system as political spoils, the highway projects) from the pure heart the man supposedly had, one could begin to parse the question. But that would be a job for an unsentimental biographer, and Baltimore has produced something else in Smith, whose 1999 William Donald Schaefer: A Political Biography remains our only guide. As Smith observed in 2008: “I suppose it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that legacies can be prefabricated, fed into the air supply, drummed into the subconscious. But not with Mr. Schaefer. He didn’t have time for that.”

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