05/10/2012 05:20 pm ET Updated Jul 10, 2012

Why "Martin O'Malley" and "2016" Always Appear in the Same Sentence

By Marin Cogan, GQ

For the last hour, students stood or sat on the floor playing on their cell phones under blue and red balloon clusters in the gym at Bowie State University, just outside of Washington. Maryland's governor, Martin O'Malley, former Lakers star A.C. Green, and members of the Boys and Girls Club announce a new grant partnership with Toyota aimed and helping more kids get to college, and as soon as they finish, Kanye West comes blaring through the sound system: I gotta testify, come up in the spot looking extra fly... The university's marching band high steps through the back door of the gym, horns close in front of their faces. The school's dance squad, the Dancing D.I.V.A.s, are right behind them in black shorts and yellow racerback tanks, swinging their hips to the beat. But O'Malley has already retreated to a little side room off the gym to have a politician's lunch -- popping hors d'oeuvres and phyllo dough finger food into his mouth before rushing off to his next event.

Martin O'Malley is 49 years old and handsome in an entirely non-descript way, as if he was ordered from a catalogue of classical politicians they keep in a crypt below the Library of Congress. He is wearing a crisp white shirt and dusky purple tie. Almost every story written about him in the national press mentions that he's a possible 2016 candidate. He's part of a contingent of pols enjoying the "next-time" speculation (on the Democratic side, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, or Tim Kaine; on the Republican side Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, South Dakota Sen. John Thune, and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal) from pundits who would always rather speculate than journalist. But these are men who will probably never get the chance to be their party's nominee. They're the Chris Dodds, the Sam Brownbacks of their party: plausible on paper, solid on policy, but lacking the star wattage of a Hillary Clinton or a Chris Christie. And yet O'Malley keeps showing up in the national news. For their Saint Patrick's Day celebration, the White House hosted his Celtic rock band, O'Malley's March, at the White House. "Afterwards I saw the president and the first lady. They kindly came back and said hello to the band," O'Malley recalled. "My son William was there as well and the president kind of teased him and asked if he thought his father was a rocker, knowing that there's nothing more mortifying for a 14-year-old boy than to be asked whether or not his father is a rocker ... William tried to be very polite and evasive finally I stepped in and said, 'Mr. President, he's a little embarrassed.'"

There were nice stories about O'Malley sending Rolling Stone's Springsteen interview to his cabinet. O'Malley's a longtime fan of the Boss -- he's seen him somewhere between a dozen and 20 times -- and "I thought the clarity of language, the clarity of purpose, and the clarity of principle that came ringing through that interview, where Bruce Springsteen talked about the state of our nation, was something very powerful and insightful." (The Bruce connection is a far better pop culture association for O'Malley than the one he dealt with as mayor of Baltimore. "I don't miss The Wire, no," he says, of the endless questions, criticisms, and comparisons to the HBO show's mayoral character, Tommy Carcetti. "I don't miss fighting with David Simon.")

For the Maryland primary, he did interviews on Ed Schultz and POLITICO's election night live stream. There were the debates with McDonnell, his Virginia neighbor and another recipient of 2016 buzz. Both men are the heads of their party's governors associations, both are building national profiles based in part on social issues (O'Malley signed a gay marriage bill into law In March, nine months after Governor Andrew Cuomo signed New York's bill; McDonnell got tangled in a controversy over the state legislature's attempt to pass a mandatory transvaginal ultrasound for women who seek abortions.) The O'Malley-McDonnell contrast is one that he's clearly happy to have -- when I note their dissimilar national profiles in the set-up to a question, O'Malley replies with a quick "Thank you."

At an interview at the Third Way think tank last month, he addressed the 2016 speculation. "My daughters will email me when they see the honorable mentions with such tremendous leaders as Hillary Clinton and Andrew Cuomo, who's done an outstanding job in New York, and Vice President Biden, who my daughters just adore," he told the audience, "They'll email me and say, 'Boy, Dad, it's nice to be included.' So there's that sort of talk." For now, he said, "I don't really spend a whole lot of time thinking about it, working on it, or worrying about it."

There's something incongruous about O'Malley's body language and his speech. When he sits, he leans forward in his chair, peering at his subject with a quiet intensity. When he speaks, he is soft, slow, even languid. It can sometimes undercut the force of his rhetoric, and it's impossible to imagine him firing up shrieking supporters in support of his candidacy. It is difficult to determine where the "2016 moniker" came from, but those titles can be self-justifying -- reporters put them into stories to make their subjects seem more newsworthy, especially when the politician won't flatly deny it.

"There's such a lack of belief in what we're capable of accomplishing through that common platform of our so called our government," he says quietly, finally leaning back in his chair. "It calls upon our leaders who have executive jobs and management jobs to break through that cynicism with a new kind of leadership, one that declares goals openly and measures performance so that everyone can tell whether as a group we're doing any better." Later, we talk about the president's self-described evolution on the issue of gay marriage. Gov. O'Malley pauses for a moment, licks his finger and rubs at a spot on his pants.

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