Part 1 In A Series Of Self Interviews
Q: Reading over your blog, “Connecticut Commentary: Red Note From A Blue State”, I don’t see many “I’s”.
Q: No really, why?
A: Political commentators fall into two categories: those who write about themselves, and those who write about others and ideas. This last group tends to dispense with “I’s”.
Q: Well, we’ll see if we can remedy that lapse here. You have quoted Chris Powell, for many years both the Managing Editor and the Editorial Page Editor of the Journal Inquirer, on his motivation. You said to him once – correct me if I’m wrong – that he had been writing opinion pieces longer than you, and you have been working in the commentary vineyard for more than forty years. You complimented him. His opinion pieces were perceptive, well written and necessary, a tonic for what ails the state, you said. Yet, politicians at the state Capitol who decide Connecticut’s destiny did not appear to be paying much attention. So, you asked, what keeps him going. He flashed a smile and said, “Spite.” Does spite keep you going?
A: I doubt Powell ever bought the notion that political behavior swings on the writings of political commentators. His primary motivation is plain on the face of his opinion pieces, both editorials and op-ed commentary. He wants to set hard truths before the general public, hoping that not every citizen is motivated by spite or enclosed within a Berlin Wall of invincible ignorance. Off camera, so to speak, Powell has a quiet, infectious sense of humor. And a sense of humor is a sense of right proportion. He was joking. It’s possible that joking in the 21st century will be a capital offense punishable by exile, as were serious crimes against the state in Roman and Greek times. In modern times, burning down buildings, liberating high-toned stores of merchandise, throwing Molotov cocktails at police buildings, are all okay; but we draw the line at making jokes. The Greek tyrant Creon feared Aristophanes as much as an invading army. One day, one of Creon’s factotums met Aristophanes in the street and asked him in a fury, “Don’t you take anything seriously?” Aristophanes answered, “Yes, I take comedy seriously.” Mark Twain also took comedy seriously, and his long suffering wife, Olivia Langdon Clemens, worked tirelessly to protect him from a public whipping. In "The Chronicle of Young Satan, Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts,” Twain has Satan say, “Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand.”
Q: So, you are not spiteful then?
A: Spite, like humor, is salt, to be used always sparingly. I acknowledge that every sealed closet has some bones concealed in it. I can only say I don’t feel spiteful, though I do think spite can flower into gorgeous commentary. I’m thinking of Alexander Pope’s long poem, “The Dunciad”. We should love lovable things and hate hateful things. The record -- and it’s a long one; “Connecticut Commentary” contains to date about 3,141 separate pieces, nearly all submitted as columns to a host of Connecticut papers – I think will show that I’m interested in the public persona of politicians, the face they present to their constituents. I’m certainly not interested in delving into the private soul of, say, US Senator Dick Blumenthal, about whom I’ve written a great deal, much of it unpublished by Connecticut’s print media. It’s best to stay away from amateur psychology. Rummaging in private souls is very much like rummaging in attics – too many spider’s webs, hanks of hair, abandoned diaries, and moldy, old dolls.
Q: I’ve seen the Blumenthal cache. Much of it is well written, certainly publishable. And you’ve said that nearly all of that cache had been sent out to various Connecticut newspapers. Much of it never saw print. Why not?
A: Thanks for your labor of love. It’s a good question. I suppose much of it may have rubbed editorial fur the wrong way. Part of this is business. Smaller newspapers, as you know, have been swallowed up by journalistic leviathans. The larger chains have a stable of dependable writers they may draw from. The whole of New England is a left-of-center political theater and has been for a long while. The General Assembly in the state has been dominated by left-of-center Democrats for a few decades; all the constitutional offices in the state are manned by Democrats; there are no Republicans in the state’s US Congressional Delegation; virtually all the justices of the state’s Supreme Court have been placed on the bench by highly progressive former Governor Dannel Malloy. Larger cities in the state – Bridgeport, New Haven and Hartford – have been, some would say, mismanaged by Democrats for about a half century. And it is not news that the media does political business mostly with incumbents. So, while it is not at all excessive hyperbole to say that most of the state’s current difficulties may be laid squarely at the feet of immoderate Democrats, incumbents are, mostly for business reasons, lightly leashed.
Q: Why lightly leashed?
A: You cannot get water from a rock, and you cannot get printable news from non-incumbents. If the political state is largely progressive, the state media will follow suit.
Q: Why “immoderate” Democrats?
A: Because Connecticut Democrats are no longer moderate, no longer centrists, no longer “liberal” in the sense that President John Kennedy or justly celebrated Governor Ella Grasso were liberal.
Q: You knew Grasso.
A: I did. She, her family and my father and his family, while occupying opposite ends of the political spectrum, were friends all their lives in the social and political petri-dish of Windsor Locks. During those times, friendship transcended politics. And politics itself was well mannered and soft spoken.
Q: Not now.
A: No longer.
Q: What changed?
A: Do you mean nationally or state-wide?
A: Nationally, the Huey-Long-like personality of President Trump has thrown the right-left national polarity into sharp relief, but this polarity preceded Trump by decades. When everyone, including the overarching, permanent political apparatus and a politicized media, has a dog in the fight, a permanent dog fight should surprise no one. State-wide, Connecticut has become, within a very short period of time, perhaps the most left-leaning state in the northeast. The drift leftward here began long ago. It was “maverick” Republican Lowell Weicker who, first as senator then governor, took the road not taken by pervious governors when he forced through the General Assembly Connecticut’s income tax, a levy that has resulted in improvident spending, outsized budgets, preening politicians and a poorer proletariat.
Q: That was the turning point?
A: It was a crossing of the Rubicon by a small-minded man who had contemplated for years the destruction of his own state Republican Party, which Weicker had betrayed numerous times, that finally gave him the heave-ho. Without turning over the molding psychological dolls in Weicker’s attic, I think it is proper to conclude that the man was motivated principally by unalloyed malice, what aphorist-philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche would have called resentment, an awful curse. “Whoever fights monsters,” Nietzsche warned, “should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.” I never heard Weicker toss off a laugh line that was not spiked with malice. I’m referring here only to the man’s public persona, you understand. In private, he may have been Henny Youngman for all I know. In politics, it is the characters who determine the play. And in Connecticut, neatly all the characters who advance the play are progressives motivated chiefly by a rancid lust for power, very Nietzschean. Without will, you cannot secure your ends. But when the will becomes the end, it’s doomsday. Nietzsche never quite worked that into his calculations. But the great tyrants of the 20th century – Hitler, Stalin, Mao – did. Without God, Dostoyevsky said, “anything is possible” – even Weicker, the first of many of Connecticut’s “savior politicians.” The business of these savior politicians is to create the problems from which they pretend to save us.
Q: That seems a bit cynical.
A: Critical and descriptive, not cynical. The real cynics among us are those who believe positive knowledge is impossible. A perverse inability to see what lies right under your nose, George Orwell’s formulation, is the very definition of cynicism.
Q: Can you give us an example.
A: I think it is cynical to pretend not to notice the predictable effects of Lamont’s shutdown of state businesses. Even a state legislator hiding under his bed, trembling in fear of Coronavirus, cannot fail to have noticed that a prolonged business shutdown would result in a diminution of state revenue; that the fatal failure of state government to provide adequate and targeted resources to nursing homes would result in needless deaths among people exposed to Coronavirus; that tax increases always transfer power and responsibility from citizens to the unelected administrative state, a descriptive rather than a cynical term; that a one party state necessarily results in political oligarchy, which easily dispenses with representative government; that...
Q: Alright, alright, we don’t have all day here. Without being too cynical – excuse me, too descriptive – how do you see Connecticut’s future unfolding.
A: What was it Yogi Berra said – the future ain’t what it used to be? In a representative republic, we used to rely on the common sense of voters to turn out politicians who pursued public policies inimical to representative government and the public good, one of the reasons Grasso agitated against an income tax. One of Grasso’s biographers is Lieutenant Governor Susan Bysiewicz, who argues that Grasso, a great governor, was wrong about the income tax. Well, Grasso was right about the income tax, and she was right for the right reasons. Weicker was right about the income tax when he said, during his gubernatorial campaign that instituting an income tax in the midst of a recession would be like pouring gas on a fire, and he was wrong when, as governor, he poured income tax gas on Connecticut’s recession. The progress from Grasso to Bysiewicz, from Grasso to former Governor Dannel Malloy and Ned Lamont is a fool’s journey in the wrong direction. The false solutions and the consequent havoc lie right under our noses. And it is long past time for Connecticut’s media to realize that the whole purpose of journalism is to describe accurately, in Orwell’s words, “the thing that lies right under our noses.” So, given our recent past history, our one party state, our wall-eyed media, our seemingly indifferent citizens, our representative-shy, inoperative General Assembly, which has just decided to surrender even more of its constitutional and legislative responsibilities to an incompetent governor, I would say Connecticut’s future looks bleak.
Q: Just one more quibble before we go. You lament the want of common sense among voters. What made common sense a casualty of modern politics?
A: Both common sense and the conscience, an inseparable pair, have been surrounded and taken prisoner by wily politicians and a cowardly media. The founders of the republic feared, almost to a man that common sense – the moral imperative, the ethical genius that lies in all of us – could not survive immoral and ambitious politicians seeking to promote their own rather than the public good. We can only pray to God for the restoration of a moral order. God, Otto von Bismarck once said, favors drunkards, the poor, and the United States of America. Pray he was right, because, except on their tongues, politicians in Connecticut, mostly pretending to be progressives, favor none of the above. And, once again, I am being descriptive here, not cynical.