Friday, June 18, 2010

Mirror, Mirror, On The Wall -- Weicker Is The Fairest Of Them All

In honor of former Senator and Governor Lowell Weicker’s recent surfacing at the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities gathering in Cromwell, there to give an address on the state's faltering economy, Connecticut Commentary is reprinting Chris Powell’s review of Weicker’s autobiography,“Maverick," the best single snapshot of the man in full.


Weicker, it is said, received numerous standing ovations from an organization called by its critics The Connecticut Conference Of Crying Mayors.


Powell’s applause was more circumspect.

MISTER BLUSTER SAVES THE WORLD

Weicker's Memoir Is Breathtaking for Self-Contradiction and Omission

By CHRIS POWELL

Legend has it that the ancient Athenian statesman Aristides was stopped in the street by an uneducated man who didn't recognize him and who asked for help in writing Aristides' own name on a ballot in an election to decide who among the nation's leaders would be banished. The man is said to have explained that he didn't know Aristides at all but was simply sick and tired of hearing him called "the Just."

It may be impossible to get far into Lowell P. Weicker Jr.'s autobiography, "Maverick: A Life in Politics" (Little, Brown, & Co., $22.95), without understanding exactly how that disgruntled voter felt.

According to the legend, Aristides silently completed the man's ballot for him and was duly voted into exile, which is sort of where Weicker, Connecticut's former U.S. senator and governor, now finds himself politically. Unfortunately, while Weicker was at the center of great events both in Washington and in
Connecticut and has had the ghostwriting services of Barry Sussman of The Washington Post, this memoir is almost entirely without reflection even as it is often laughably and unintentionally ironic. Indeed, if there’s even one insight in "Maverick," it is lost under an avalanche of chest-thumping, self-congratulation, self-righteousness, and breathtaking self-contradiction and omission.

The self-contradiction begins right away, in Weicker's introduction, where he denies the grievance of many Republicans, to whose party he belonged throughout most of his political career, that he lurched to the left after he was elected to the Senate in 1970 with less than half the vote in a three-way race. He insists that it is the Republicans themselves who have moved so far to the right" since then.

But only a few paragraphs later Weicker acknowledges having been a Goldwater supporter who, during his single term in the U.S. House of Representatives,  endorsed a school prayer amendment to the Constitution and the impeachment of Justice William O. Douglas. In this paragraph Weicker writes that he "matured and changed," having just denied changing at all. And that is the extent of his explanation of his remarkable political metamorphosis. He doesn't deign to address the old suspicion that he mainly adapted himself to suit Connecticut's traditional Democratic leanings.

To explain his narrow loss to Democrat Joseph Lieberman in his bid for re-election to the Senate in 988, Weicker writes, "I had remained the same persistent figure, fighting with the Jesse Helmses of this world...." A few pages later he discloses not only that he, the great maverick, actually believed fervently in the Senate's seniority system but also that, in this belief, he supported the very same repugnant but duly senior Helms against the tolerable but junior Richard Lugar for chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

"By 1988 Connecticut citizens were tiring of a senator who kept focusing on annoying issues like discrimination, separation of church and state, health care, and AIDS," Weicker writes, never mentioning the possibility that Connecticut also might have tired of a senator who was missing dozens of Senate votes to go out collecting a fortune in "speaking fees" from special interests on whose legislation he simultaneously was voting -- the issue that actually cost him the election. Nor does he explain how, if benighted Connecticut really was so indifferent to those annoying issues of his, it nevertheless elected him governor as an independent two years later.

FIRST CIVILITY, THEN NAME CALLING

Weicker laments the loss of civility in public life and complains that his political opponents over the years have been hateful and vicious. Having disposed of civility, a few pages later he calls them names like "slimeball," "chameleon," "ass," and "moralizing nuts."

He can relate a trivial anecdote about playing in a tennis match for charity with Vice President Spiro Agnew but recalls nothing about the speech Agnew gave soon after, in the last weeks of the 1970 Senate campaign, calling Weicker's Democratic opponent a communist -- a damaging attack whose immense political
profit was gratefully accepted by the fearless crusader for fair play.

Weicker calls former state Sen. Richard Bozzuto's endorsement of Lieberman in 1988 "a stunning act of disloyalty to the Republican Party." But Weicker neglects to mention his own frequent and stunning endorsement-like remarks from the Republican side in support of Connecticut Democrats in the thick of
campaigns over the years. How someone who was elevated by Connecticut's Republican Party and was never denied anything he sought from it and still sabotaged its candidates and then left it to deprive it of the governorship in 1990 can fault others for disloyalty is ... well, vintage Weicker. As he did in politics, in this book he simply waives all standards for himself, sometimes only moments after he articulates them for everyone else.

He praises his broadmindedness for having induced the party in Connecticut to open its primary elections to unaffiliated voters. But he fails to address the complaint that his underlying purpose was only to prevent Republicans even from having a party of their own in which they someday might have a primary Weicker himself might not win.

"DIALOGUE" OR BAITING THE CROWD?

Even advocates of progressive taxation may gag at Weicker's account of his imposition of the income tax on Connecticut soon after his inauguration as governor n 1991.

Weicker writes that he said during his campaign for governor that he "wouldn't rule out an income tax." ut in fact he did rule it out -- in general with his famous television commercial likening the tax to "pouring gasoline on a fire," a commercial responding directly to his Republican opponent's charge that Weicker did support an income ax; and specifically, in writing, with a pledge to oppose an income tax at least through his first year in office.

He writes that he waded into the crowd at the mass ally at the state Capitol protesting the tax because I wanted to keep up the dialogue." A few lines later he remarks that the insults hurled at him there were the kind of inanities you expect in that situation." So might he really not have sought "dialogue" at all
but rather an opportunity to taunt the protesters into discrediting their cause and to get himself on TV looking like a brave martyr to a mob?

This self-contradiction suggests as much, and sure enough, in the Weicker pattern, it is followed by an equivalent hypocrisy, when he condemns White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman for having done the same sort of thing, for having welcomed the chance that protesters would turn violent and obscene at a
campaign rally for Richard Nixon.

Weicker writes that he refused to give state legislators jobs in the executive branch in exchange for their votes for the income tax. But in fact a good number who voted for the tax did end up with such
jobs.

He writes that his income tax saved Connecticut. He doesn't mention the tax's cynical "Greenwich" nature, its replacement of capital gains and dividend taxes on his wealthy friends and neighbors with taxes on the ordinary earnings of the middle class. Nor does he mention that, whatever the cause, Connecticut remains severely depressed economically and has lost population every year since the income tax was passed, the only state in such a long downward trend.

WHO MANIPULATED WHOM?

Weicker denounces the manipulation and self-perpetuation of the two-party system and cites an example of it: the attempt of Democratic and Republican legislators who opposed the income tax to build support for their alternative tax proposals by promising not to nominate candidates against each
other in the next election. But then he boasts that he ot votes for the income tax by promising his third party's cross-endorsement to the same legislators, who, with that endorsement, survived to perpetuate the very system he just denounced.

He describes as his great personal victory the 1992 state legislative election, which returned to power the Democratic majority of the income-tax session, without mentioning the possible influence of the Democratic presidential landslide at the top of the ticket. He does not explain why he did not dare to seek re-election himself two years later.

To hear Weicker tell it, he didn't just end up on the right side of the Watergate drama but rather was its central figure. (Putting Nixon rather than Weicker himself on that postage stamp apparently should be considered doubly unjust.) Weicker didn't just work to clean up the oceans and integrate the disabled and
retarded into society and so forth. No, Mister Bluster single-handedly saved the world -- and in a mere 224 pages.

HE'S AGAINST THE WAR ... NOW

As he has been doing in speaking engagements for a few years now, Weicker blithely rewrites history here, portraying himself as the anti-Vietnam War candidate when, in both 1968 and 1970, his two congressional
elections during the war, he was entirely Nixon's candidate and supported Nixon administration war policy. He may be escaping exposure in this because most of those who supported the war don't want to have to account for it now and because most of those who opposed the war give him a free pass for having come over to their side on big issues since then.

Amid all these self-contradictions and omissions he writes that his "first truly hypocritical act in politics" was only to eulogize Malcolm Baldrige at the dedication of a research ship named for the late commerce secretary. According to Weicker, Baldrige's unforgivable sin was that he had tried to carry out the cuts proposed by his president, Ronald Reagan, in the budget for oceanic research. (Of course if Baldrige had resisted carrying out the will of his boss, Weicker now might be sneering at him as well as at Bozzuto for "a stunning act of disloyalty to the Republican Party.")

While his once having spoken a little too well of the dead is the most Weicker can fault himself for in "a life in politics," it was not policy or ideological disagreement but his making a whole career of flaming hypocrisy that created such apoplectic animosity toward him among certain political people in Connecticut. Indeed, here and there in this book he actually makes good if all-too-brief arguments for particular policies, like means-testing entitlements and relaxing the U.S. embargo against Castro's Cuba. But these are overwhelmed by the blustering pose that he has been so much better than all other politicians in methods, tactics, principle, and personal virtue.

NOT REALLY CANDID AT ALL

In fact Weicker regularly lowered himself with the worst of them. Maybe that is why there is no mention in this book either of his too-cozy relationship with the contrivance that calls itself the Mashantucket Pequot tribe, to which, by gubernatorial fiat, he rented a monopoly on casino gambling in Connecticut
and from which he received, seemingly in return, a $2 million contribution to a charity he chaired and controlled, the Special Olympics --which promptly provided many of his political cronies with cushy jobs and a comfortable place to land as his administration was coming to an end.

If Weicker's predecessor from the Democratic old guard, William A. O'Neill, had taken personal advantage of his office like that, Connecticut's largest newspaper, The Hartford Courant, would have led the state's press in demanding impeachment on grounds of corruption. But since their darling of political correctness did it, The Courant and most other Connecticut newspapers never even reported the connections.

Weicker has cultivated a reputation for candor, and the publicity for this book tries to perpetuate it. He has taken many forthright positions over the years and no one would accuse him of timidity, but, as this book inadvertently suggests, he may have been the least candid politician of his era in Connecticut, the
distinction between candor and mere bluster having been lost.

Weicker notes that he has been married three times and acknowledges shortchanging his family during his 30 years in politics. As he took this book on the road to receptions at bookstores last month, he said his family was the most important thing in his life now. A few days later came the announcement of his exploratory committee for an independent presidential campaign.

"Maverick" may be less an autobiography than a hasty and self-serving text for that campaign, establishing that its author isn't always wrong, just insufferable.

Chris Powell is managing editor of the Journal Inquirer in Manchester.
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