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Los Angeles Times Interview : Lowell Weicker : An Independent Politician at a Highly Partisan Time

November 06, 1994|Sara Fritz | Sara Fritz is a national correspondent for The Times. She interviewed Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. in his office at the state capital

HARTFORD — Even before he bolted the GOP to be elected governor of Connecticut as a third-party candidate in 1990, Lowell P. Weicker Jr. had a reputation as a maverick politician with a keen intellect, an acerbic tongue and an unusual willingness to take unpopular stands. Indeed, Weicker has always taken pride in being the antithesis of the slick, media-savvy politician.

A giant of a man who stands 6-feet-6 inches tall and lumbers through life like the proverbial bull in the china shop, Weicker is known to his friends and enemies alike as both arrogant and highly principled.

As a member of Congress for 20 years, before being defeated in 1988, he often took stands that set him apart from most of his colleagues in the Republican Party. He spoke out in favor of abortion rights. He was arrested on the front steps of the South African Embassy in Washington for protesting apartheid. And as a member of the Senate Watergate Committee, he was one of the first Republicans to find fault with then-President Richard M. Nixon.

Later, as governor and founder of A Connecticut Party, Weicker succeeded in setting the state's finances straight by doing what for most politicians would have been an act of political suicide: imposing a state income tax.

Not surprisingly, Weicker's personality and political record have made him highly controversial. While held in high esteem in some quarters, it is not surprising that Weicker is portrayed as a villain by many of his constituents--particularly conservative Republicans whose views he has consistently challenged. Weicker, in fact, seems to enjoy the vilification. As he sees it, hostility to his brand of politics is evidence that voters do not really appreciate the kind of principled leadership they claim to want.

At age 63, Weicker will be leaving public life in January. Although he entered politics with inherited family wealth, he now says a lifetime of service in low-paying elected offices has depleted his financial resources. As a private citizen, Weicker says he plans to do three things: make money, have fun and spend more time with his wife, five children and two stepchildren.

Nonetheless, Weicker, whose success in getting elected in Connecticut has inspired other independent efforts across the nation, is suspected of nurturing a secret desire to run for President in 1996--as a national third-party candidate.

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Question: As the election approaches, there has been a lot of hand-wringing about the deterioration of political discourse and leadership in this country. How do you view the state of politics?

Answer: I think democracy is working as it should--which is to say that the politicians are reflecting the views of their constituents. I do not belong to the school that there's Washington out there, and there's us back here. I think the people of America do not want decisions; they don't want the tough news or the bad news. They sort of want to coast along, and the net result is that the politicians are coasting along and the parties are coasting along.

I realize this puts a somewhat reverse twist on everybody saying, "Gee, you know, we're looking for the right people in Washington." But the fact is that finger-to-the-wind politics, which never solves any problem, is creating finger-to-the-wind government, so that the most difficult problems are never resolved and we get increasingly frustrated.

The fact is, the American people have now accorded their highest honors to those politicians who don't stand for anything. And the net result, as far as the system is concerned, is we have gone from a politics of accountability to a politics of electability or reelect-ability. And that just does not work, because, very frankly, the realities of both opportunity and the realities of the problems don't yield to easy political solutions.

Q: Hasn't finger-to-the-wind politics always been a problem?

A: I think of my first important national election, i.e., when I ran for Congress in 1968, and I ran against an incumbent Democrat, Donald Irwin. Irwin was a Johnson, pro-war, pro-Vietnam War Democrat. That was his position. I took the position we should be out of there.

Both of us knew that we were going to live or die on our position. That was going to decide the election. And it did.

That's not politics today. The idea today is to fuzz it up as to where you stand on the issue. And that's where the shift has come. I increasingly saw it when I was in Washington, as both the Republicans and Democrats would get together, sort of, on consensus solutions to deficit reduction that were meaningless. But they felt they didn't want to rock the boat too much before an election and, therefore, it wouldn't become an issue. And it didn't become an issue and, consequently, it didn't become executive and legislative action after the election was over.

Q: Is there a solution to this problem?

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