Now that former Governor Bill O’Neill has passed on, everyone is laying claim to the body.
O’Neill was a kindly man, a genteel barkeep who wandered into politics at a time when it was thought that barkeeps -- rather than, say, news people – could run for governor or president and win.
He never lost his common touch; it was both his strength and his weakness. The most dangerous and cowardly word in politics is “yes.” O’Neill, as Chris Powell of the Journal Inquirer reminds us, was full of yeses, which is why the state budget flowered under his hand.
A conservative in demeanor only, Powell writes, O’Neill “in 10 years and 10 days, enacted, almost mutely, most of the liberal agenda of his time -- vast state underwriting of municipal school expenses, the near-doubling of teacher salaries, and the tripling of total state reimbursements to towns. Prompted by the bridge collapse in Greenwich in 1983, O'Neill also arranged a huge program of road renovation. His conservative demeanor was useful cover.”
There is no doubt O’Neill pushed the spending envelope while in office. When push came to shove, O’Neill was inclined, far more than his predecessor former Governor Ella Grasso, to yield to the push. In many ways, he was a prime example of the worse excesses of Democrats, the mirror image of the present speaker of the House, Jim Amann, also a glad hander who is fighting off an undeserved rep as a “fiscal conservative.” It would be well for us to get this straight: In an era – the era of the moderate, ideologically clueless politician – in which the state budget has more than doubled within the past administrations following O’Neill, all talk of fiscal conservativism is gibberish.
The tradition, when a good man has died, is to refrain from kicking the corpse. But now that O’Neill is off in heaven disporting with the angels, it may be said: The poor, clueless, genteel barkeep probably never knew how masterfully he had been manipulated by the liberals, always less genteel than their victims.
No doubt O’Neill felt their pinch. Who does not? And perhaps he resented them for a bit, but only the ideologically committed hold grudges. Out of office in his hometown, surrounded by real friends, he must have felt that resentment washing away. It does not take long, once an honest man leaves politics, for the reality of daily life to re-assert itself.
What O’Neill left behind was Lowell Weicker, the income tax and an apparently limitless spending spree. These days, the Democrats have become political alchemists: There is no problem so mild and solvable that it cannot, with the aide of a compliant media, become the occasion for more improvident spending. We have been on this road ever since O’Neill yielded to the promptings of the Hartford Courant editorial board and produced a deficit that the alchemists have now changed into multiple surpluses with their income tax. In this regard, he was not that much different from Republicans John Rowland and Weicker, who spent most of his political life in the “moderate to liberal” Republican camp.
Here is a charitable comment from O’Neill’s close friend and adviser Jim Wade lifted from the Journal Inquirer: O’Neill, Wade said, was “a modest, humble man who was more proud of his state, Irish heritage, Catholic faith, and his staff than himself.” All very true. He considered himself “a fiscal conservative who wanted to make sure ‘the little guy’ enjoyed the same benefits he had in life. Politics was a calling ‘from which he did not shrink.’”
Is it not passing odd how that expression “fiscal conservative” gets bandied about in Connecticut politics? Like departed governors, everyone wishes to lay claim to the corpse of fiscal conservativism. Those who do not have the courage to be conservative -- that is, to practice the art of saying “no” and to offer alternatives to reckless spending – claim the mantle of fiscal conservatives. They are neither, just run of the mill, never say “no” moderates.