Q: Before we get to the particulars, the details where the devil lives and breathes, let me ask you some general questions.
Q: When did you first start writing for newspapers?
A: I remember my first or second column for the Journal Inquirer. I’m not sure of the date. It was a column on Thurman Milner, who was then running as mayor of Hartford. Mr. Milner won the contest and became the first black mayor of a major city in Connecticut.
Q: Do you remember what the column was about?
A: I do. It has long since been consigned to the newspaper morgue at the JI…
Q: Curious that you remember.
A: No one forgets the circumstances involving the birth of their first child. The mayoralty race was well underway when the JI stumbled upon some questionable credentials presented by Mr. Milner. He had flourished a certificate from “Roachdale College.” The paper discovered the certificate was produced as a result of a dormitory scheme. In due course, a story appeared, but no other newspapers were picking up on it. Journalism, as you know, is ten percent thought and ninety percent repetition. I wrote a letter to the JI and received back a note from Chris Powell, the paper’s Managing Editor – also, at the time, the JI’s Editorial Page Editor – asking if the paper could print it as a column. I assented. Mr. Powell requested other columns, and a career of sorts was launched. Sometime later in 1992, Mr. Powell ran for the state senate on the Republican ticket against a strong incumbent Democrat from Glastonbury. He was disappointed, but not shocked, when he lost the race. Connecticut is as blue as Herman Melville’s inscrutable blue sky. I recall joking with Mr. Powell at the time that he was setting himself up for a painful defeat because he was a journalist, and many people in the state were just itching to hang all the state’s journalists on hooks in Hell. Anyway, not to stray too far from your question, Mr. Powell later left the editorial page because someone else had been hired to take his place on the page while he was campaigning, and perhaps he was weary wearing too many hats. He had been writing columns in the JI under his own byline since 1969 and distributing to other papers commentaries that were appearing as unsigned editorials in the JI. The new Editorial Page Editor was, I had supposed, not too comfortable with an excess of conservative opinion on his pages, and I lapsed into a hiatus of a few months. Up to that point, I had been writing for the paper for about ten years. My temporary absence from Op-Ed pages in Connecticut was cut short by Mr. Powell, who suggested that I send future columns to a series of Connecticut papers. He was sending his column to the same papers under his own byline. And so, here we are.
Q: I notice you chuckled twice so far: first when you said that journalism was ten percent thought and ninety percent repetition, and again when you said editors supposed their papers were non-ideological and non-partisan. What’s so funny?
A: I see I’m not going to be allowed to get away with much here, but it would be pointless to insist on a less inquisitive interlocutor. Repetition of a story lies at the very heart of journalism. Stories unfold, and essentials are always repeated. A big story – Watergate during the Nixon administration may serve as an example – is picked up by a host of papers and the elements of the story are always repeated. I’m not convinced that the tern “non-partisan” is all that useful; a paper that is partisan would not consider itself so. We should recall the birth of modern American newspapers in the post-Civil War period. Many of the leading papers of that day were unabashedly partisan, and quite a few were little more than party organs. You may have noticed that there is a synergy, shall we call it, between newspapers and politicians. One of the reasons Connecticut is called “the land of steady habits” is because its newspapers have been habitually left of center. As incumbent politicians drift to the left, they carry the media with them; and as the newspapers go, so go remaining politicians as yet untouched by ideological imperatives. I can think of only one newspaper editorial page in the state that might reasonably be styled conservative. That would be the Waterbury Republican American. Most of the rest are left of center. The preferred term today is “progressive,” though there are some important differences between progressives and liberals. I am speaking here of editorial opinion and perhaps the editorial prerogatives of publishers and editors.
Q: Let me interrupt you. Wouldn’t the editors of most papers in Connecticut insist their papers are moderate?... Another smirk!
A: That defense might have been true in Connecticut a few decades ago. Times change. I would argue that the very standard by which one may calculate the ideological posture of the media in Connecticut has shifted to the left. But it is true: Most reporters, editors and commentators working today might consider themselves moderate. They have said that, and they are wrong. The claim to moderation is a conscience salve. You just rub a little “moderation” on your editorial page and you have proofed yourself against the charge that you are left of center. Most newspapers in Connecticut allow national conservative commentators to ventilate on their Op-Ed pages. This is a painless concession to moderation and “fair-play.” There may be a conservative Op-Ed writer or two ventilating about state politics in Connecticut newspapers; if so, they have not yet disturbed the political universe. Presently [This self-interview was conducted at the end of January, 2014], Connecticut’s gubernatorial office is held by a Democrat who appears often as possible marching energetically in union picket lines. Governor Dannel Malloy has gone to some trouble to identify himself publically as a progressive Democrat. Most of his PR initiatives are readily identifiable as progressive. He is comfortable with the progressive policy prescription of President Barack Obama. All the leadership positions in the General Assembly are held by progressives. The state’s entire U.S. Congressional delegation is Democratic, and Democratic voters in the state, many of whom are not progressive but who reflexively vote the party line, outnumber Republicans by a ratio of two to one. The old Democratic Party apparatus one associates with Tammany Hall is still very strong in Connecticut’s cities. The operative axioms that underlie Mr. Malloy’s first two budgets are progressive, and none more so than the tax increase in his first budget, the largest in Connecticut history, as well as his venture into crony capitalism. Moderate Democrats in the state have long since been consigned to the dustbin of political history. Moderate Republicanism -- as represented by the three “fiscally conservative, socially liberal” past members of the state’s U.S. Congressional delegation -- is a desiccated corpse. The same is true in the Democratic Party. All moderate Democrats have been put out to pasture. A Bill O’Neill or an Ella Grasso today would be moldering on the back benches of Connecticut’s progressive Democratic Party. This is the real universe of decisive political facts that shapes Connecticut politics. The liberal to progressive mass has a strong gravitational pull on the media. If we ask ourselves -- “How did things get this way? Why is Connecticut, for all practical purposes, broke?” -- it seems to me proper to lay much of the responsibility on the shoulders of Connecticut’s left of center media. A stronger resistance to the progressive, leftward drift might have given us a more moderate configuration, but Connecticut’s media has for the past few decades simply succumbed to the gravitational pull of Democratic and progressive interests. I think it may have been Chesterton, himself a repentant journalist, who pointed out that no great struggle is needed to float downstream; even a dead body eventually reaches that point at which rivers dump effulgent into the ocean. The media in this state has too often cooperated with the ruling regime. The vigorous and healthful antibodies one expects from a media in opposition – the only kind of press that deserves respect -- simply are not in evidence.
Q: That seems a little harsh. Let’s go back to some of the political characters in the state. Connecticut is full of them: former Senator and Governor Lowell Weicker; former U.S. Senator Chris Dodd, now a shill, as you think, for Hollywood; former suit-prone Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, now a U.S. Senator; former U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman; Governor Dannel Malloy, whom you’ve called the most progressive Connecticut governor since Wilber Cross -- a curiosity shop of characters, including Mr. Powell, whom you seems to respect.
A: Mr. Powell is among the best newsmen in Connecticut, and his impatience with nonsense is refreshing. It was Mr. Powell who styled Mr. Weicker a “gasbag” in his review of Mr. Weicker’s fact-based autobiography, “Maverick.” I reprinted the review, with Mr. Powell’s permission, on my blog site, “Connecticut Commentary: Red Notes From A Blue State." I’ve also interview him several times on the blog.
Q: What makes a good newsman?
A: He must have an intuitive grasp of the nature of a good story and the will to pursue it to the gates of Hell. There’s a little bit of Alexander Pope in every good journalist:
“Am I proud?
Yes, why should I not be,
When even men who do not fear God
To arrive at Pope’s rather generous estimate of himself should be the ambition of any reporter or journalist who relishes his own independence. And I’m using the word “independence” here to indicate a sharp separation between journalists and politicians. Mr. Powell is fond of quoting Joseph Pulitzer on the point: A good reporter should have no friends. And then too, anyone who appreciates Fredrick Bastiat has his foot firmly planted on the right path.
Q: In understanding the drift of Connecticut politics during the last few decades, how important is Mr. Weicker? He’s retired now, but still a bit of a live wire.
A: Yeah. He pops up from time to time, most recently in an Op-Ed piece in the Hartford Courant in which Mr. Weicker advises the Republican Party to become more like Mr. Weicker. The shape and destiny of the Republican Party – very much on the downslide these past few decades – cannot be understood without a careful consideration of Mr. Weicker, the last Jacob Javits Republican in the Northeast.
Q: Javits… there’s a name that is not likely to ring a bell in the memory of people younger than 30.
A: Mr. Weicker is not younger than 30. Mr. Javits, a Republican U.S. Senator from New York who professed a progressive brand of Republicanism, left politics in 1980. Mr. Weicker has identified himself on a few occasions as a “Jacob Javits Republican.” Mr. Powell, in his review of Mr. Weicker’s autobiography, identified Mr. Weicker as a gasbag who used his own party as a campaign foil to assure his re-election in a state dominated by Democrats.
Q: And you?
A: Mr. Powell has the better and more objective view. I think it was Bernard Shaw who pointed out that most autobiographies take liberties with the truth. Mr. Shaw said the most truthful biography of Napoleon would have been one written by his butler. In his own party, Mr. Weicker was the spreading oak in the shade of which nothing vital could grow. He also famously – and accurately -- called himself “the turd in the Republican Party punchbowl.” When he was chased out of the Senate in 1989 by then Connecticut Attorney General Joe Lieberman -- a “Jacob Javits” Democrat, be it noted -- Mr. Weicker’s home party breathed a huge sigh of relief and began earnestly to attempt to dig itself out of the rubble. Mr. Weicker later ran as an independent for governor of his state and won. He imposed an income tax on Connecticut and then high-tailed it out of town, declining to run for a second term on a ticket of his own invention. Democrats in Connecticut learned from the Weicker-Lieberman race that any Jacob Javits progressive Democrat could defeat any Jacob Javits progressive Republican, and they’ve been winning office ever since. In the past 16 years, beginning with U.S. Representative Nancy Johnson and ending with U.S. Representative Chris Shays, all the Republicans in Connecticut’s U.S. Congressional delegation have been replaced by progressive Democrats. And in 2004, Republicans surrendered the gubernatorial office to Danell Malloy, who is every bit as progressive as President Barack Obama. The ruination of the Republican Party is Mr. Weicker’s legacy to his state – that and the state income tax. When Mr. Malloy in his first budget imposed upon the people of Connecticut the largest tax increase in state history, Mr. Weicker commiserated. He had been there, done that.
Q: You believe Mr. Lieberman and Mr. Weicker were leading political parallel lives.
A: Sort of. There are astonishing correspondences between the two. Through two bruising races – the Weicker-Lieberman race for the U.S. Senate and the Lieberman- Lamont race for the U.S. Senate – the two senators were pretty aggressive antagonists. It was Mr. Weicker who encouraged Mr. Lamont to challenge Mr. Lieberman. Of the two races, the Weicker-Lieberman contest was the more interesting to me. Mr. Weicker, during his 18 years in the Senate, had staked out for himself large swaths of political territory that belonged to Democrats. He was friendly with Edward Kennedy and Chris Dodd, whose father, Tom Dodd, he had defeated in 1971 when Dodd the elder was reeling from scandals largely of his own making. David Koskoff wrote a fairly good book about Tom Dodd, “The Senator From Central Casting: The Rise, Fall and Resurrection of Thomas Dodd,” which I reviewed for one of the newspapers. Mr. Weicker’s campaign against Tom Dodd was, he later acknowledged, rougher than it should have been. I made a record of Weicker’s comments on Tom Dodd when he was invited to appear on a radio show to say some soothing things about U.S. Senator Chris Dodd. He said, “In 1970, I made my first run for the U.S. Senate. It was a unique event in that I was pitted against a Democrat, Joe Duffy (sic), and an Independent, Tom Dodd — a beginning for me but an end to the distinguished career of Sen. Dodd. Though happy to win, I wasn't particularly proud of the tough verbiage I had landed on Dodd.” He also left some knuckle marks on Joe Duffey’s face. Mr. Duffey was the anti-Vietnam political candidate of the moment. Mr. Weicker, who had called upon President Nixon to campaign in his corner, said Duffey and other protestors like him should be in jail. Later on, during the Watergate period, Mr. Weicker was to change his mind about the war. Mr. Lieberman was familiar with Mr. Weicker’s campaign methods. During the 1989 senatorial campaign, he attacked Mr. Weicker both from the left and the right. Much to Mr. Weicker’s dismay, Mr. Lieberman was indirectly assisted in his campaign by staunch conservatives such as Bill Buckley. The much abused Connecticut GOP, it seemed, was in full scale revolt against the “turd in the Republican Party punchbowl.” Mr. Weicker, at long last, was shown the door by his party. Today, Mr. Weicker says the Connecticut GOP booted him out, presumably for infidelity. But it was Mr. Weicker who had initiated divorce proceeding many years earlier; the final and fatal break was merely formalized with his loss to Mr. Lieberman. No one – not even he, it must be supposed – was surprised. During the Lieberman-Lamont race, Weicker and the Weicker-likers in the Democratic Party teamed up against Mr. Lieberman, but to no avail. Mr. Lieberman slipped the noose. Mr. Weicker and Mr. Lieberman were both liberals. A liberal group, the Americans for Democratic Action, rated Mr. Weicker in 1986 the most liberal Republican in the Senate. His rating was 20 points higher than that of Senator Chris Dodd. The bizarre notion of Mr. Weicker as a centrist was, even then at the apex of his senatorial career, preposterous. It was a fiction promoted by liberals who no doubt appreciated Mr. Weicker’s service in rendering harmless anyone in his party who displayed toxic conservative symptoms.
Q: Mr. Weicker declined to run again as governor. Had he done so, would he have won?
Q: But he did say in an interview that ran in Connecticut magazine that he thought he could win.
A: Politicians are people whose whole lives are lived in the intersection of “yes” and “no.” The piece you’re referring to is called “Final Say: Lowell Weicker,” published in 2012. There is no final say with Mr. Weicker. There are no “last words,” and may never be as long as he has breath in him and there are Republican careers yet to destroy. The interviewer asked Mr. Weicker to justify his choice of Barack Obama over Mitt Romney in the presidential election, and Mr. Weicker doubted that a Republican moderate could survive a Republican primary, which is pure fantasy: Mr. Romney was hardly a fire breathing conservative, and he survived the Republican primary. The Republican Party in Mr. Weicker’s own state has never nominated a conservative for high office. Mr. Weicker’s nuisance value has ebbed since he left office. A re-election would have forced an awkward defense of the income tax in a general election. That tax was popular only among progressives in Mr. Weicker’s state. The tax changed the character of Connecticut and opened the flood gates to improvident spending. By the time Mr. Malloy was elected governor, spending in the state had tripled -- and the coffers were empty. Interestingly, the amount of the deficit faced by Mr. Malloy in the post-income tax period was, almost to the dollar, the same as it was when Mr. Weicker inaugurated his income tax. No one from O’Neill to Malloy had seriously addressed the spending side of the budget. A few months after Mr. Malloy was installed as the first Democratic governor since O’Neill had declined to run again as governor, Mr. Weicker lamented, “Where did it all go?” And I replied in a column, “Into the black hole, you ninny.”
Q: Why not?
A: It takes a politician full of years in Congress to pull it off, and the present members of Connecticut’s U.S. Congressional delegation are – what shall we say? – light-weights. Both Connecticut U.S. Senators Dick Blumenthal and Chris Murphy are new arrivals. It takes a good long time for a U.S. Senator to grow a beard and, at least in Connecticut, all the long beards have drifted off to greener pastures elsewhere. Mr. Weicker hung himself with an income tax. Mr. Dodd is now lobbying in Hollywood. Mr. Lieberman has attached himself to a prominent law firm as a lobbyist. Before they had kicked the dust of the Senate from their feet, both Mr. Dodd and Mr. Lieberman had vowed, but not on a stack of Bibles, to eschew lobbying. It’s sure a strange world, isn’t it?
Q: But all that is in the past, so much water under the bridge. Can we talk a bit about the present and the future?
A: Yes. But remember, the past exercises a gravitational pull on the present.
Q: How would you describe the correlation of political forces in Connecticut today?
A: There is no enemy to the right in Connecticut, never has been. And in the absence of strenuous opposition, the state has moved very far to the left. Most Democratic politicians, who were alive and kicking in, say, 1990, the last year of the O’Neill administration, would be dismayed at the leftward drift. President Richard Nixon, shortly after he had taken the country entirely off the gold standard, used to say, much to the annoyance of the late Bill Buckley, “We are all Keynesians now.” Similarly, it might be said by Mr. Malloy, “We are all progressives now.” Mr. O’Neill’s first term saw a rapid increase in spending, owing mostly to the boom period in the 1980s that had produced successive budget surpluses. The surpluses spurred spending, which resulted in a higher budget ceiling. When the boom ended, as all booms must, no serious attempt was made by O’Neill administration Democrats to lower the ceiling through spending cuts. Improvident spending had produced a deficit, which in turn led the way to so called “tax reform.” The O’Neill deficit opened the door to an income tax. Mr. Weicker waltzed through the opening, and his “tax reform” relieved all state legislators at the time of a mounting pressure to reduce spending. Facing a similar set of circumstances in 2011, Mr. Malloy “pulled a Weicker.” The Malloy tax increase, the largest in Connecticut’s history, raised the spending ceiling. Connecticut is now the highest taxed state in the nation, and as such it is poorly positioned for a quick recovery if the rising tide mentioned in a memorable speech by President John Kennedy ever does lifts all the boats. I do say “if” because progressive proposals adopted both in Washington and at home in Connecticut have delayed a national and state-wide recovery. All this is background music, but the correlation of forces in the state, including a compliant, left of center media, is such that these harsh notes reach the ear as bewitching music, a song of sirens.
Q: But the Republican response to what you call the siren song has more or less fallen on deaf ears here in Connecticut. Are Republicans not shouting loudly enough?
A: I think the alternative message promulgated by Democrats, part of the siren song, is more alluring. Theirs is a bread and circus remedy. The Republican message is that wealth, real wealth, is created wholly in the private marketplace by entrepreneurs who are free to create products people want. The free flow of marketable intelligence is curtailed when the government aggressively, unnaturally and unnecessarily directs the flow. Democrats say: Not to worry, there’s nothing we can’t fix; and they proceed to offer a series of fixes, sometimes involving their political cohorts, that worsens matters. Long term solutions imposed from above on a quasi-free market rarely produce beneficial effects. The progressive is a Chanticleer convinced the sun cannot rise in the absence of his crowing.
Q: These would be the crony capitalists.
A: Yes, progressive crony capitalists. Honore Balzac used to say that behind every great fortune lies a great crime. If he had lived in the 20th and 21st centuries, he might have amended his apothegm. Nowadays, behind every great fortune lies a politician dispensing favors. And please don’t think that purist Democrats have no blood on their hands. It has been common among Democrats in Connecticut, champions of the proletariat, to launch rhetorical missiles at rich Republicans during campaigns. Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate Linda McMahon’s leaky boat was sunk by commentators who never failed to mention her self-financed $50 million dollar sputtering campaign. That’s fine: All’s fair in love and politics. The victor in the race was Dick Blumenthal, now the 6th richest Senator in Congress. Mr. Blumenthal’s campaign suffered a bump in the road when he was shown several times in several different venues saying or strongly implying that he had served as a marine in Vietnam. These were bald-faced lies; Mr. Blumenthal said he had misspoken, and the bump was quickly surmounted. U.S. Representatives Rosa DeLauro and Jim Himes are millionaires, both Democrats. Mr. Dodd exchanged his Senate chair for a $2 million a year salary as a Tinsletown hawker, and if Mr. Lieberman has ever suffered proletarian want in the Senate, he is about to be richly rewarded for it. Mr. Weicker, whose grandfather was a successful business man, earned most of his money the easy way. Now that Mrs. McMahon – who ought not to have been elected to the Senate for a fistful of reasons – has been got out of the way, one expects to hear little in the future concerning the corrupting influence of personal wealth. How can you urge that point of view when three of the seven members of Connecticut’s all Democratic U.S. Congressional delegation are millionaires? The real corrupting influence in politics today lies in mutually beneficial political exchanges between powerful politicians and crony capitalists on the right or left who prosper because of their efforts. These efforts always create disabling distortions in the market place and rarely help the majority of creative wealth producing entrepreneurs unattached to large corporations.
Q: But you can’t fit all that on a bumper sticker.
A: Right. “Raise the minimum wage” fits. It’s a campaign battle flag rather than a useful proposal. The flag indicates that those in favor of the proposal have chosen to place themselves in the trenches with the poor and dispossessed. How many heads of household in Connecticut make no more than minimum wage? Probably not many. You are not likely to come upon that statistic in your local paper, and why not? It is the very first question that should be put to any politician in the state who is advocating for a boost in the minimum wage. Most minimum wage earners are part time workers in households with an average annual income of $50,000, some of them kids socking away a few bucks to defray the cost of their increasingly expensive college loans. After Governor Malloy gave UConn millions of tax dollars, the university boosted its tuition fees. The minimum wage raises the cost of labor for employers who either will or will not be able to recover sometimes slight profits by increasing the cost of his product or service. That loss may be recovered by reducing the hours of full time employees, laying off workers or reducing the quality of the product or service rendered, unintended consequences none of which are likely to help aspiring college students or, say, a child in poor section of a city who would like to contribute his fair share to the upkeep of his household. The minimum wage in Connecticut is also connected to union salaries by means of contractual escalator clauses; so any increase in the minimum benefits a powerful special interest group in the state that, some say, provided the edge to Mr. Malloy during his second run as governor.
Q: Are people so easily fooled?
A: Some are, enough are. It was Lincoln who said “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time; but you can’t fool all the people all the time,” though that would seem to be the ambition of many politicians.
Q: Thanks. It’s been fun. Let’s do it again.