Since Lowell P. Weicker Jr. won five out of six major elections in Connecticut as a Republican or recent Republican while the state drifted more Democratic, his political talent can’t be denied. But with his death this week at age 92, it may be argued how much better the state and the country are on account of him.
Few will disparage Weicker’s advocacy of the Americans with Disabilities Act and greater federal support for the mentally handicapped and other people in need. But is Connecticut better off for its state income tax and the duopoly two of its Indian tribes enjoy on casino gambling in the state, things for which Weicker was responsible as governor? Even if the state is better off for them, how they were arranged may remain cause for resentment.
Part of Weicker’s talent in his three terms as U.S. senator was his ability to get away with reversing his positions. He was elected to the Senate in 1970 as a supporter of the Vietnam War endorsed by President Nixon, and his campaign touted a photo of the two conferring at the White House. But as the war was being lost and support for it fell, Weicker began portraying himself as having been its opponent, and most liberals gave him a pass because he increasingly was voting with the Democrats.
During his term in the U.S. House of Representatives, Weicker supported government-sponsored prayer in public schools and impeaching liberal Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. Running for the Senate, Weicker discarded those positions.
During his campaign for governor in 1990 Weicker declared himself opposed to a state income tax and was elected in large part because voters saw him as a tough and independent guy who would force state government to straighten up and economize. In office he quickly figured that economizing would be too much work and political trouble, as it would have enraged the government class, which always has more staying power than mere taxpayers, and so instead he insisted on enacting an income tax after all.
In a ghost-written autobiography flawed by contradictions and omissions, Weicker acknowledged having sometimes reversed himself on big issues. His explanation: “I matured and changed.”
That is, like some politicians who were not as self-righteous, Weicker blew with the wind.
Indeed, that was one way to construe his stand on the issue that made him a national figure — Watergate, the burglary of Democratic National Headquarters undertaken by Nixon’s re-election campaign in 1972. Weicker could be credited for courage for condemning the Nixon administration’s corruption during the Senate’s famous hearings in 1973. But perhaps more than courage he had foresight. Nixon would not last in office another year, the 1974 election would be a Democratic sweep, and Connecticut would remain in its Democratic trend in 1976, when the senator would be up for re-election and could run on his integrity.
More of that integrity had worn off by 1988 when Weicker, seeking election to a fourth term in the Senate, was exposed as having taken lucrative “honoraria” — speaking fees — from special interests involved in legislation before the Senate, and even missing Senate votes so he could collect the money. Weicker’s Democratic challenger, then-Attorney General Joseph I. Lieberman, made an issue of the practice and it may have been decisive in Weicker’s narrow defeat.
Weicker’s integrity came into question again in 1994 when he conferred the casino duopoly on the Mashantucket Pequot and the Mohegan tribes. The Pequots showed their gratitude by making a $2 million contribution to a charity the governor chaired and controlled, the Special Olympics, which in turn provided jobs to some members of the governor’s administration as it drew to an end.
Years after he left office and it was seen that, contrary to what had been promised, the income tax had not stabilized its finances and state government was still incurring big deficits and craving higher taxes, Weicker deplored his successors for having unleashed state spending — as if that hadn’t been the idea of the income tax all along.
His biggest legacy to Connecticut is that he rescued the government class.
Chris Powell has written about state government and politics for many years. (CPowell@cox.net)