Final Say: Lowell Weicker

 

Peter Hvizdak / New Haven Register

Lowell Weicker, 81, served as governor of Connecticut, as well as first selectman of Greenwich, state representative and U.S. Senator and Representative. He lives in Old Lyme.

It’s the 40th anniversary of Watergate—what memories stand out in regard to your role in that investigation?
I suppose that it’s you had a criminal conspiracy by the President of the United States, who in effect, went and undermined the Constitution of the United States. That conspiracy consisted of wiretapping and break ins and burglary and on and on . . . . The fact that he got nailed, really only by a whisker, makes you wonder what kind of oversight that we as a people have in so far as our government is concerned. The reason I say that is, do I think that our inattention and absence at the voting booth would allow a situation like that to occur again in the United States, the answer is yes. So then the question is, “What have we learned from the Watergate horrors?” It was a very difficult time in terms of accepting the fact that the President of the United States was not above the law. Up to that point, everyone sort of assumed that the President could do anything he wanted. When it became clear what it was that he was doing, we got our backs up.

It was a very tough period in my life because when I started out and I started to learn what Nixon was up to and expressed myself, people in Connecticut were very much behind President Nixon, like the rest of the country. They thought he could do no wrong, and when I was in Connecticut, I would get flipped the bird all the time, whether it was on the streets or in the car, for the role that I was playing. After Watergate was over, then the needle goes all the way the other way, and I’ve got huge favorability ratings. Again, I think it all comes down to the care that we all take of our government. We can only express that care in our activity in the political process, which for the average person is voting. When you only get 45 percent of the people voting in presidential elections—I think that’s the figure we’re at right now—that allows the mischief to take place, and it also allows the extremes of left and right to go ahead and gain a foothold.

You’ve again endorsed President Obama—who do you think would give him the toughest run?
Oh, I think another Republican would do far better than [Mitt] Romney. I think that [Indiana Gov.] Mitch Daniels would stand out in that category. Probably, also [former Florida Gov.] Jeb Bush and Chris Christie of New Jersey. I think there’s a group of gubernatorial Republicans who might’ve given a rather stiff battle, but I think it’s also clear from the way the Republican primary took place—which was really comedy central—that the party has swung off so far to the right that no moderate could’ve survived a primary. It’s only a moderate that’s going to establish himself with the voters. The problem with Romney is that he doesn’t know what to believe, and it’s very clear to everybody that what he does say today can change tomorrow if that curries favor with the far right. Well, people don’t a finger-to-the-wind president; they want somebody who has definite ideas, and right now, he’s going to face one barrage of advertisements when the real campaign season begins on the Obama side showing how he’s flipped on every major issue in the United States.

Besides that and the economy, what will be the other big issues of this election?
Well, you’re right when you say that—the economy is the issue. Do I think there are going to be other issues? Well, of course health care is going to be a big issue, which is an area that I’ve spent my non-political time in, having just stepped down as the chairman as the Trust for America’s Health, which advocates for a better public health system, in the sense of preventive medicine that used to be practiced by the office of the Surgeon General. The health care bill is going to be right up there, and I can only urge people who want to repeal Obamacare—that’s a ridiculous path to take when you know how many people are suffering out there because of bad health. It would be perfectly proper to say that there are portions of the bill that one disagrees with and that we ought to change. I have no problem with that. When you figure already that our healthcare will cover, number one, having your kids on your policy until they’re 26, the idea of pre-existing conditions, not excluding you from insurance in the public health section, which I mentioned saves money, doesn’t spend it—there’s a lot of good parts of Obamacare. But right now, the Republican position seems to say “No!”—which is their position on everything—and that would be a horrible thing in terms of how we treat those who are the frailest of our citizens.

If you were going to start out again in politics, would you be a Republican again?
Yeah, if I have to go ahead and get elected. The problem is getting over the first hurdle of the party itself. Look, you’ve got a classic example. We don’t have to go far afield to find out what the problems are. We can stay right here in the state of Connecticut. The main problem with our state and our deficits and everything else that’s going wrong is that we have a one-party system in the state of Connecticut—and one party doesn’t work. You have to have two parties to make the system accountable and to have the system produce its best ideas. You cannot have Republicans in the state of Connecticut subscribing to a national Republican policy. The national Republican policy, as I said before, is the policy of the religious right and the rural areas of the country. It’s “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition” party.

In the state of Connecticut, you have small cities—New Haven is a great example, as is Hartford, Waterbury and New London. You have small cities, you have a big blue-collar population, large minorities of Hispanics and blacks . . . it’s very well-educated state in so far as its universities are concerned, and all these things pushed together don’t make the Republican party very appealing. It’s time that we had a foothold, whether it’s taking the state senate or the state house, or congressional elections, senatorial, gubernatorial, and we start to make inroads. And there are no inroads. In the last elections, which was a Republican sweep across the country, it was a Democratic sweep in Connecticut. That tells you something is very wrong, and it’s clear what’s wrong: The Republican party of Connecticut does not relate to the demographic which is Connecticut.

You’ve suggested in other interviews that a third political party would do well—why is it so hard to establish a third party and sustain it?
I was successful because I had my name established. I had name recognition, and that’s the big hurdle for any independent. I’d come up through the political chairs as first selectman and state rep, congressman and senator, so by the time I ran as an independent for governor, I was well established in the political fabric of Connecticut. But that doesn’t mean that applies to everyone who wants to run as an independent. A third party in the state of Connecticut could do very well right now, especially at the level of state rep and state senator. It’d certainly be a healthy thing, I think, for our legislature to have a third voice raised to make both parties accountable. If you’re talking about higher office, it’s very difficult unless you have name recognition, but there’s no reason why independents couldn’t run—and win—at the lower level of Connecticut politics.

A year ago, you stated that although you’re not personally fond of Gov. Malloy, you were supportive of him for making tough decisions in the face of a huge budget deficit. What’s your take on his performance since then?
Look, he’s in almost the identical situation that I was in when I came to be governor. We both faced large deficits that were not of our making, and we both made tough decisions in how we got rid of those deficits, but more importantly, in how we tried to implement systems that they wouldn’t happen again. So that’s really the background—that’s my evaluation of Gov. Malloy. I think it’s too soon to evaluate his performance because his measures are only now beginning to take hold. I think your question is far better answered in about a year’s time.

Other than yourself, do you have a favorite connecticut governor?
I was very fond of John Dempsey. John was governor when I went into the state legislature. First of all, there was nobody more likable as an individual—he was just a great guy. Number two, he was the one who brought my attention—as he did for the rest of the state—to the plight of the disabled in Southbury and Mansfield. He used the medium of having the Christmas show at Southbury televised in the state. That was to their plight, the same as the Special Olympics, the athletics are, to today’s disadvantaged. John also worked very hard on our transportation system, especially between Connecticut and New York, which was important to a representative from Greenwich. So both in the area of transportation and of the disabled, and just in his general attitude in his role as governor of the state of Connecticut could do. He was a fine governor.

Do you have a favorite political foe?
I think of all the persons I ran against, my toughest race was against Toby Moffett. I won that race by a narrow margin, but I also thought that Moffett was a very smart, capable individual, and that’s what made the race tough. I’ve obviously run against a lot of other people, and God bless ’em all, and I won all of them except one, but in terms of the person whom I admire the most yet I beat and gave me the toughest time, Toby Moffett would be it.

Are there any more courageous politicians out there?
I’m sure there are men and women who have exhibited and do exhibit courage, but I really keep a general eye on the national scene and a specific eye on Connecticut. The problem today is that politics has become a contentious exercise in re-election. That’s what diminishes any courage. People figure that they’re going to make them popular in the polls, whereas my view of it is that you take your stand and the whole purpose of democracy is that the people back home then say “Yes” or “No” to what it is that you stood for. It’s a little a difficult, therefore, to find a great number of men and women with courage, but they’re out there. It’s just in this brief interview, I can’t recollect names, but if we had a couple of hours, I’m sure I could come up with a bunch of names.

It’s been 20 years since the income tax was introduced here and people still seem peeved at you—is it time for them to get over it?
I think it was time for them to get over it right after it was enacted. [laughs] The fact is that I didn’t put the state in the hole—I wasn’t even here in Connecticut. But when I arrived during the campaign, we knew it was about $50 million in the hole, and then it grew so by the time I took the oath of office, it was about $1.5 billion, close to $2 billion. Now we’ve had 20 years go by and what have people done with the income tax? They spent it, and now we’re back in the hole by $6 billion. And I might, not only did they spend the income tax, they went ahead and spent all the Indian gaming money—we also concluded those deal, which were enormously profitable for the state of Connecticut—and they spent that. And they went ahead and created bonded indebtedness beyond the moon. Unfortunately, it’s a bad habit here in Connecticut of spending the money but not being willing to pay the bill. For those who are still complaining, as I’ve said before, you’ve had 20 years to repeal it!

The other thing that really does bother me is that some of the loudest voices against it were the ones who spent it—our felon John Rowland, as governor, and the Democratic legislature who worked with him and were his lap dog as he just let them spend money hand over fist while he was doing his under the table. I’m sorry—I know the right thing was done, and Malloy understood the importance of having a fiscal system in place that could work. He had to go ahead and raise it again. I’m not blaming him since he didn’t create the deficit. But please everyone, if we’re going to spend the money, I’d suggest that people be prepared to pay a bill. The old saying comes to mind: “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” There wasn’t in 1990 and there isn’t in 2012.

With the partisanship that’s prevalent in politics today, how would a maverick like yourself fare?
Oh, I think very well. People in their gut—I’m talking about men and women on the street—they want things done, and they want to know that the people who they send to Congress are going to go ahead and deal with the problems that they have to deal with. They’re not interested in the in-fighting of insiders in Washington, D.C. They want men and women who are going to solve problems. I’ll tell you right now, if it wasn’t for a bum pair of legs, I’d be happy to go out there and run again, and I think maybe I’d have a good chance of winning. It has only come to pass that an independent can do well because of the failure of both Republicans and Democrats.

What’s been most challenging for you—being senator, governor or retired?
That’s a great question! [laughs] I think probably being retired. To sit here and watch this world go by—and this world is having a tough time—and I can’t do anything about it . . . . I think to the real essence of your question, between governor and senator, governor is the tougher job because it’s you. The spotlight is on you alone on the stage, whereas when you’re in the U.S. Senate, there’s a hundred of you. I think I accomplished as much if not more when I was in the Senate in terms of legislation, but it’s also true that the tougher job was being governor, and it was using all the skills I’d acquired as senator to try and guide us through the difficult times we had in Connecticut. So governor was the tougher job, senator was the more enjoyable one.

What do you miss most about your days as a senator?
Well the fact that you could take any area of interest and if you concentrated on it, you could make things happen. Senators do not fool themselves. We know who the workhorses are. We know who knows their subject matter and who doesn’t. The example of that for me, for instance, was that almost all of the legislation for the disabled in the United States was legislation that I wrote. I’m not saying that I wrote all the Americans with Disabilities Act, but certainly, most of it, and everything that preceded it—the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, From Birth-to-Three and so on. It’s also true that when I was there, I was able to build up NOAA, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. Probably my main achievement was blocking Ronald Reagan from cutting the National Institutes of Health—which he tried to do when I was head of the appropriations committee that handled health care—and went ahead and managed to not only block Reagan from his cuts, but increase the appropriations for the National Institutes of Health.

The other things that really stand out are obviously, the opposition to Apartheid and overriding veto on that, and then, just as importantly, recognizing the AIDS epidemic and appropriating the first monies for the development of AZT, which even today is the main ingredient for so many of the AIDS cocktails that are given to improve the quality of life of those who have the disease. Those are the areas—they concentrate on health care and disabled, and that’s what I want to be remembered for, much more so than Watergate, even though that’s a role that brought me into prominence. I would rather cite the achievements in the United States Senate as being more important.

What do you miss most about your days as governor?
In actually being on site to see firsthand the problems and the people—I miss that. Always, when I campaigned, whether it was state legislature or whatever, I’ve always enjoyed person-to-person campaigning, handshaking, etc. Now I’m translating that to answer your question in that I miss actually being in the middle of the people who I’m serving. Not, may I add, in the middle of the tax-revolt crowd in front of the Capitol! [laughs] You see  on the ground what the problems are. You try to confront them. The last initiative I had before I left but didn’t succeed because there wasn’t enough time was to address the economic segregation in the state—the disadvantaged, mainly in the cities, just do not get the same quality of education that so many other kids in the state do. That’s something you can actually see if you spend your time moving around the state. That’s something that should’ve been corrected then, and something that should be corrected today because the future of our state really relies on educated young people. That’s the part of Connecticut I miss. That’s why Claudia and I are glad to be back in Old Lyme. I was gone for several years while I was doing my papers down at the University of Virginia, but all the time while we were down there, I missed being up here.

You come from a background of some wealth, do you think the wealthy now have the same sense of responsibility to the greater society that they once had?
I think that anybody who’s been endowed by not only wealth in terms of money, but in terms of education, are obliged to give back. Yes, I do. I’ll tell you what the problem is: Politics has become such a public dirty game, in other words, you’re torn apart not just by your opponents but by everybody trying to intrude into your life and cite every flaw that you have and every mistake that you’ve made from the time you were 2 years old, that people have acquired either wealth of mind or wealth of cash, don’t want to serve. They don’t want to serve in elected office, and they don’t want to serve in appointed office. So we’re not getting the best of our country to get out there and be part of the process.

I think about our current electoral process for the presidency, and i’d say that it’s one of the four or five most important jobs on the planet, yet you get that job by being the most popular, as opposed to some other jobs, say like the CEO of a fortune 500 company, which has a lot more rigorous vetting than what we kind of do for president.
I might dispute that when you take a look at all these “brilliant” CEOs of the financial companies. For the guys who had a lot of brains and had all the money in the United States, they certainly screwed it up! The presidency of the United States is certainly the most powerful office in the world, and the good fortune that we enjoy as a nation, as long as we participate, is that the average American is a very fair, common-sense type of person. We usually end up with someone who represents our national mood—our moods don’t really swing that far. One year to the left, then a little back to the right, but we’re essentially a centrist nation, and we have centrist leaders.

The only question that arises as far as the presidency is concerned is are you satisfied with the electoral college or do you think it should be a direct majority vote? I’ve always been of the belief that it should be the electoral college and I’ll tell you why in a moment, but I’m really swinging now toward the popular side of things. I’ve been for the electoral college because it makes any presidential candidate pay attention to the smallest state, and the smallest state in terms of population might have an inordinate influence in terms of what it does or what it produces, etc. It does make a president pay attention to 50 states and not just New York, Florida, Texas and California.

Now, I’m not so sure. I think the direct vote might better reflect who should sit in the White House.

What’s the difference between growing up in greenwich when you did and today?
Probably none. As a matter of fact, I attended my granddaughter’s graduation in Darien [last night] and what they consider the Gold Coast—Greenwich, Darien, the north end of Stamford, New Canaan, Weston, Wilton, Fairfield—that hasn’t changed very much at all except for the fact that you have more people down there who are more oriented toward New York than Hartford. When I was First Selectman of Greenwich, all our board positions and the representatives in town meetings were all filled by people who were enormous successes in New York—the heads of large corporations, etc. They actively took an interest in the town. I’m not sure that interest is there as much today as it used to be. I think the people in lower Fairfield County have to pay attention because this is their state. The issues in Hartford are their issues—their issues are not decided in Albany or Michael Bloomberg’s office. They are decided right here in this state.

I see much more of the small-town Connecticut as it used to be down in Greenwich here in Old Lyme. Old Lyme is what Greenwich was when I was down there running for first selectman, and the whole area now around me, be it Old Saybrook, Haddam, Lyme, Middletown or whatever. This is Connecticut as it always was and how I knew it and the same Connecticut when we had a legislature, where unconstitutionally for a little while, we had two representatives for every one of the 169 towns until we went under the Supreme Court decision where you had to have proportional representation. That, I think, is really the main difference between the lower part of the state and our [part of] the state. They’re all good people—I love them all down there—but they have got to focus their attention on Hartford.

Speaking of that area, you were a former member of the board of the WWE ...
When you’re a member of the board, you’re obligated to the board, and you’re certainly obligated to confidentiality as to your service on the board. As you know, I’m no longer on the board, and I think that I’d just assume refrain from any comments as far as Linda McMahon or the WWE are concerned.

Okay, can I ask this in terms of that do you think that the McMahon family business is fair game in the senatorial campaign?
Well, yeah. I think you’re whole life is fair game. My whole life is fair game, everyones is. If you’re going to run for public office, there’s nothing that’s out of bounds. It’s all on the table and it’s all open for discussion.

I appreciate you taking the time—I just have one or two more questions ...
When you said let’s chat, I put the time aside . . . and I’ve got to tell you, I do have a little more time than in the old days!

Well let me ask this then—why does it seem that politicians seem to struggle with retiring on their own terms? Do they ever really retire?
I don’t think I’ve ever really retired. I still take enormous interest in the politics and governing in my state. I think the main pull is monetary and/or your family. I mean, honest politics will bankrupt you. It just will. In fact, when I was governor of the state of Connecticut, I got what? $70,000. When I left and became the head of a large nonprofit enterprise in the medical research field, you could just about quadruple that amount of money. So money is something—quite frankly, we do not pay our elected officials enough money in my opinion, and I still feel that way. Point number two is your family. I’ve got seven boys of my own and eight grandchildren . . . well, let’s just start with the boys. You spend all of your time away from the house, and you’ve got to have a good wife to stand in your stead but that still doesn’t substitute for you and you miss your kids. I think you also wince—not for you when you get blown apart in the political ring, but you wince because, “Geez, how are my kids going to take that?” You worry as to how that’s going to impact on them. So I think it’s really that combination of family and money that gets you out of the game.

It’s been 50 years since you were first elected to serve—if you could do it over again, would you have a life in politics again?
Oh absolutely. I wouldn’t change it for anything. And I might add that I’m obviously a great believer in coming up through the chairs. You can tell from my career, which went from state rep, then to selectman, then Congress, then Senate, then governor—and you learn along the way. And you obviously change your mind along the way. Don’t forget, it’s a lot different being a representative from Greenwich, Connecticut, and then being the congressman for a district that includes Bridgeport, Connecticut, and then being a senator from a state that includes New Haven, New London, Waterbury, etc., plus smaller towns, plus manufacturing towns—so the constituency is constantly changing. So if you’re true to your office, you have to change with that to represent those people.
 

Final Say: Lowell Weicker

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