Marvin Mandel can rest in honor and peace

Marvin Mandel goes to his grave so trailed by his tabloid history of 40 years ago – the dreadful public divorce, the racetrack deals that led to a fraud conviction (later overturned), the federal imprisonment – that his remarkable record as governor of Maryland is almost forgotten.

It shouldn’t be.

He was a progressive before the talk-show guys tried to turn that word into political slander. He helped build subways for Baltimore and Washington. He streamlined state agencies and state courts. He put big state money into school construction. He placed limits on handguns before the NRA put a choke-hold on politicians. He put money into protecting the environment. He controlled his state legislature like a grand orchestral conductor.

Whenever a Baltimore mayor named William Donald Schaefer went to Annapolis on bended knee, hungry for state funds to finance major municipal projects, it was Mandel who steered through the big-ticket items for a broken city desperate to bring itself back to life in the post-riot 1960s and ‘70s.

Mandel was an accident of history. He became governor when Spiro Agnew vacated the job in 1969 to become Richard Nixon’s vice president. Then, after voters kept Mandel in office in 1970 and 1974, he became part of a procession of Maryland politicians brought low by the Baltimore U.S. attorney’s office in a chaotic little 1970’s era – a lengthy list of political defendants that included Agnew and Dale Anderson and Joseph Alton.

And that was just the A’s.

In Mandel’s case, the scandal involved a convoluted back-and-forth of Marlboro racetrack assets, and gifts to Mandel of jewelry and clothing and vacation trips.

Was it bribery, or simply a few pals looking out for a governor who was underpaid and going through a costly divorce from his first wife, Barbara (Bootsie) Mandel, so he could pursue the woman who became his second wife, the former Jeanne Dorsey?

“I never did anything illegal as governor of Maryland,” Mandel said repeatedly.

He said it in court, and he said it everywhere he went. That courtroom scene with  Mandel on the witness stand is still vivid 40 years later.

He was fine when questioned by his own attorney, Arnold Weiner. He remembered conversations of years ago, direct quotes, specific hours of the day. He talked about his first day in office.

On that day, he said, former Gov. Millard Tawes told him, “Marvin, from now on, when you go hunting, check the blinds, because they’re all gonna be looking to lock you up.”

Judge Robert Taylor, presiding in the case, eyes twinkling, asked, “Did he tell you, ‘May God have mercy on your soul?’”

“No,” Mandel answered, “but under the present circumstances, I wish he had.”

Those circumstances got much tougher when Mandel underwent cross-examining a day later by the legendary federal prosecutor Barnet Skolnik.

The two of them seemed ready to rip out each other’s throats.

“Governor,” Skolnik would say, “please listen to my question.” It became a litany. “Governor, I didn’t ask you that. Please listen to my question.”

In the middle sat Judge Taylor, slightly breathless, like an aging father trying to keep his teenage sons from breaking the living room furniture over each other’s heads.

“Your honor,” defense attorney Wiener cried at one point, “that’s the sixth time Mr. Skolnik has asked this question.”

And it was. Skolnik asked his questions, got answers he didn’t like, then circled back and tried, again and again, to ask the same question.

Through it all, Mandel maintained his innocence. But a jury disagreed. The trial, and then the re-trial, and then the appeals, took years. Mandel was a beaten man but never showed it in public.

Finally he went off to serve a three-year prison sentence, whose ordeal he recalled in an interview many years later, when he’d resumed his life as a political lobbyist in Annapolis.

He sat in an office a few miles from the statehouse, where he’d decorated the walls with photographs of sunnier times. Even the awful years turned out well here. Framed newspaper headlines trumpeted the overturning of his guilty verdict. Photos of his second wife and family were everywhere.

He was a political player again, and pleased to be seen as one. But he hadn’t forgotten what he’d been through.

“Prison?” he said. “It was terrible, it was horrible. So I had to give it back to them the best I could. I wrote letters and appeals” for other inmates. “I taught the Spanish guys stuff. You work the system, because you know they’re trying to work you.

“There was one nasty captain, a big strapping guy. He was trying to give me trouble. I said, ‘Let me ask you something, captain. No matter how it goes, in four months, I’m outa here, and you’re still here. And then your ass is gonna belong to me.’ And then I didn’t have a moment’s trouble.”

He sat back in his chair with a look of contentment on his face. He’d been through the worst of it, and maintained his innocence, and held his head high.

“And then,” Mandel said, “my case was overturned. Man, I was the only inmate that they were so glad to see me out of there, they wouldn’t even let me pack. The president signed my special commutation, and they pushed me out of there and sent my clothes home Special Delivery.”

He smiled delightedly. He came home and got on with his life. He became an elder statesmen, much admired by the statehouse crowd, a man whose reputation had been so cleared that Gov. Hogan directed all state flags to be flown at half-mast.

Editor’s Note:  Michael Olesker, former newspaper columnist and nightly TV news commentator, covered the Mandel trials and later wrote about Mandel in his book “Journeys to the Heart of Baltimore,” newly released as a paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.