Thursday, December 08, 2005

When A Weicker Meets A Maverick, Coming Through The Rye

Here is a thumbnail view, admittedly incomplete, of former governor and senator Lowell Weicker’s political philosophy:

The United States is a republic, not a democracy. In a republican form of government, the people rule through elected representatives. As a practical matter, at least for Weicker, this means that the whole apparatus of modern politics is hopelessly defective. Polls and especially referendums are useless excrescences. Politicians should conduct themselves as if they were above polls, the media, clamorous political commentators and even, Weicker does not blush to say it, political parties. The former Republican senator is notorious for having defined himself as “the turd in the Republican Party punchbowl.” Anything that comes between a politician and what the politician knows to be right, judging from his own experience, must be brushed away with a sneer and a catcall. The primary virtue of a politician, overriding all lesser virtues, is guts: Do what you think is right though, in doing it, you pull down on your head and others the edifice in which you work, live and breathe. Wear your defeats proudly on your breast as a red badge of courage, and if the people you represent do not like living in the ruins you have made, they can always vote you out of office. It is this last virtue that has throughout his career endeared Weicker to people who would rather win a political battle and lose a war.

This philosophy can be seen baring its teeth in Weicker’s latest political pronouncement. His is an operative and not merely a speculative philosophy, which may be why Weicker will not be challenging Senator Joe Lieberman in a political contest any time soon, though hopes of a rematch among liberals and anti-war proponents were raised recently after Weicker had been interrogated by a talk show host and did not deny in absolute terms the possibility of a re-entry into politics.

As everyone in Connecticut must know by now, Lieberman has put himself at odds with his party’s leaders – Shades of Weicker! – by upholding President George Bush’s view of the war in Iraq, thus earning the contumely of Democrats and much of the media. Passing over the question whether Lieberman’s position is right or wrong, the senator’s lonely stand should be regarded by Weicker’s measure as principled and “gutsy.”

Had not Lieberman, following a path once trodden by Weicker, screwed his courage to the hitching post and bucked his party? Indeed, had Lieberman “played it safe” -- an expression used by professor Weicker at the University of Virginia to dazzle admiring students and cast luster on his own public career as a maverick -- Weicker would not now be enticing Democrats to throw Lieberman out of the party boat by hinting broadly that, if no one else is up to it, the old political war horse might come out of retirement, toss his cane aside and enter the race as an independent. Weicker has ruled out affiliating himself with the Democrat Party to run against Lieberman in a primary, possibly the only way he might beat the incumbent senator.

Lieberman, in fact, is the mirror image of Weicker in reverse: He votes with his party on most issues, as did Weicker when he was senator, and yet parts company with liberal Democrats on foreign policy; as senator, Weicker parted company with the conservative wing of his party on foreign policy. Weicker, of course, was much more abrasive as senator than Lieberman, which is why, at the end of his political career Republicans did not shed tears in the punch bowl as Weicker left the political stage.

There are, to be sure, some important differences between Weicker and Lieberman, other than temperament. Lieberman is as placid and contemplative as Weicker is stormy and emotional. They are the odd couple of Connecticut politics. Lieberman, who admired Democrat party boss John Bailey enough to write a book about him --Weicker’s book was about Weicker -- understands the utility of parties and has never claimed to be an independent, except on those rare occasions when principle guided by pragmatism has forced a breach.

It is still an open question whether Iraq will emerge as a nascent democracy or deteriorate, once American troops leave, into a theocratic steam pot hostile to Western interests. But there is little doubt that Lieberman’s take on Iraq does not please his party and is, at bottom, courageous and firmly anchored in principle. The louder Weicker’s protest becomes, the more he sounds like a parody of his bitterest opponents.

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