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In This Corner Lowell Weicker

LOWELL WEICKER TOOK A RARE day off from work this fall, a day away from protesters hurling bottles at his head and placards linking his name to Hitler's. It was a brief reprieve from the political chaos of his benighted domain–from the Democrats who detest him and the Republicans who think even less of him than that.

Weicker took a trip to Washington to receive an honorary degree from Gallaudet University, the school for the deaf he had supported vigorously during his 18 years in the United States Senate. The Connecticut Governor worked for hours on his speech, which he envisioned as an advertisement for a life of public service, a life much like his own.

With his hulking 6-foot-6-inch frame draped regally in a gray gown with deep purple stripes, and his words inching slowly across a giant movie screen behind him, Weicker spoke to his largely deaf audience in a booming and indignant voice. "The 1980's brought selfishness to new heights in America," he said, twisting his hands violently as he spoke. "They preached that you can get something for nothing, more services for less taxes. Today we're picking up the refuse of that philosophy in Connecticut. In Washington. In state capitols across the land. Contrition? Forget it. Americans have forgotten the system that is the envy of the world."

By now it had become clear that the Governor wasn't taking a day off from work at all. He was there to speak to the people of his own state, the voters who last year elected him as their first independent governor since the Civil War, but had since fought his pivotal income tax initiative with unparalleled hostility.

A few weeks earlier, Weicker had been denounced and spat upon at the Capitol when at least 40,000 people came to Hartford for the largest protest rally in the history of the state. At Gallaudet, Weicker struck back. He told the students that he had "inherited a trash of constituent neglect" when he took office and that he was sick of politicians whose idea of leadership was to keep a "dial tuned to talk radio and a 1-800 line to their pollster."

"Ours is a democracy," Weicker said, sadly shaking his head. "If people are upset with the daily results, it is because they have become absentee owners.

"Nowadays, it's hard just to get someone to drop their bag of Doritos long enough to cross the street and vote."

The speech was a classic piece of Weicker performance art: compelling, persuasive and condescending. Within hours, politicians back in Hartford heard the message and responded with the rage and venom that attach themselves to almost everything Weicker does these days. But when the 60-year-old Governor read the harsh reviews in the next day's papers, he just smiled and shrugged.

"That was a good speech," he muttered with conviction, as he waited with his wife, Claudia, at National Airport to board his flight home. "That was one hell of a good speech."

NOBODY LIKES TO BE RIGHT– or to fight about it– more than Lowell Weicker. For nearly 30 years, the mammoth patrician from Greenwich has been viewed within the Republican Party and beyond as a kind of rogue preppy, gratingly virtuous and eager to flaunt his rectitude at every opportunity.

From his cherished committee seat at the Senate Watergate hearings, where his repeated attacks on the Nixon White House turned him into a cult hero among a generation that learned to loathe his party, to his high-pitched crusade against Ronald Reagan's social agenda, Weicker emerged as a Coriolanus in a Brooks Brothers suit, a dangerously proud aristocrat– long on integrity but short on grace.

The last liberal Republican in the Senate before he abandoned the party that abandoned him, Weicker doesn't just welcome trouble, he's addicted to it. "I saw him on television with that mob at the Capitol," says his friend Howard H. Baker Jr., the former Senate Republican leader and White House chief of staff. "I said to myself, 'That's the only man I ever met who would strike a match to look into a gas tank.' "

Dancing through mine fields has long delighted Weicker, who once referred to the Republican convention that nominated Ronald Reagan to a second term as "an all-time disgrace" and who calls President Bush's domestic policies "the mirror of his predecessor, and that adds up to zero."

Weicker's candor rarely flags, even when it should. At a sensitive moment earlier this year, for example, he told Connecticut Democratic leaders that their alternative to his budget was "pitiful" and suggested that they "pour it back into the horse."

Yet, even by the standards of a man who considers martyrs the only heroes worth having (Albert Schweitzer and Mother Teresa are his favorites), Lowell Weicker has clearly strolled into the most incendiary battle of his life. After one of the most rancorous tax fights in American history, Weicker finally jammed his 4.5 percent income tax package, which also included reductions in sales and corporate taxes, through the Legislature in August.

But his painful victory may not hold. Last month, leaders of both political parties convened a special session to try and dismantle it. It looks like the champions of repeal have assembled enough votes to dump the tax, but it appears far less certain they have mustered the two-thirds majority required to overcome Weicker's certain veto.

Whatever the result, voters in Connecticut make the anger of their neighbors in New Jersey over Gov. James J. Florio's tax initiatives seem muted. In fact, the withering assault on Weicker has been watched with growing horror by governors across the country, many of whom preside over far less prosperous states and face even bleaker fiscal reckonings. In Tennessee, for example, the Legislature has turned back initial attempts by Gov. Ned McWherter to introduce an income tax. And in Florida, where chaos has descended upon the state treasury, Gov. Lawton Chiles cut more than $1 billion from a budget that was leaner than Weicker's will ever be. With an eye on the furor up North, Chiles then embarked upon a relentless campaign to convince voters that his way– and Weicker's– has become inevitable. So far, the polls show, there have been few takers.

For Weicker, it has been a lonely year. By continuing to insist that only an income tax can relieve the financial despair of a state reeling from its worst times since the Depression, the politician who once promised the people of Connecticut he'd be "Nobody's Man but Yours," has more recently become nobody's man but his.

BEFORE SUNRISE ON A FRIGID MORNING late in October, Weicker folds his lumbering frame into the back of his new Lincoln Town Car. Surrounded by nervous state troopers who are with him always, he hits the highway. Dressed in his usual uniform– size 46XL blue serge suit, pin-striped shirt with broad white collar– the Governor cranks up the Verdi as he cruises past steaming lakes into a crimson dawn.

An opera fanatic, Weicker has convinced his drivers to suffer through his obsession. Earlier this year, he made his musical debut, playing an American naval officer in a Connecticut Opera Company production of "Madame Butterfly." He was not required– or permitted– to sing. But the husky baritone earned a second chance a couple of weeks ago with a brief vocal role in the company's winter production of "The Barber of Seville." For fun, he even agreed to take a pie in the face, a scene not originally included by Rossini in the 1816 libretto.

"If I didn't get the life I chose," Weicker says without regret, "I would have wanted to star in the opera. What could be better than to sing such wonderful solos?"

Today, Weicker is heading to Norwich, a devastated mill town of 38,000 people not far from New London that has lost more jobs in the last four years than it did during the Depression. All along the banks of the once vibrant Thames River, low-slung brick millworks stand vacant– bleak and sooty monuments to the state's harrowing industrial decline.

"The people who are so emotional about the income tax should take a good long look at Norwich and places like it," says Richard H. Ayers, the chairman of Stanley Works, the giant tool company that is among the oldest industrial manufacturers in the state. Ayers has spoken out for years about the need to lower the state's corporate tax rates, which had long been the nation's highest.

"I can't imagine a business choosing to move here," he says.

Weicker has worked furiously to keep corporations from deserting, cutting the state's 13.8 corporate tax surcharge to 10.5 percent over the next two years and reducing sales taxes from 8 percent to 6 percent. So far, however, success has been limited. In Norwich, he will address the Southeastern Connecticut Chamber of Commerce, arguably the most desperate group of business leaders in a state that has seen 80,000 manufacturing jobs vanish in the past five years, along with several leading corporations, among them United Parcel Service and Saab. In addition, at least two Connecticut companies born in the flinty tradition of the Yankee tinkerers, Stanley and Hamilton Standard, have decided to make major expansions elsewhere.

It is barely past 7 A.M. when the state car with the No. 1 license plates rolls past the local Wendy's and into the gates of the Sheraton hotel. But it is not too early for the dozens of protesters, dwarfed by a double-hitched 18-wheeler with "Impeach Weicker" painted on its side in bright red letters the size of a modest house. These days, wherever the Governor goes, pickets get there first.

Weicker rubs his increasingly crumpled face to keep awake. He is usually up at 5 A.M. and in the pool at the Jewish Community Center a couple of miles from the mansion or on a nearby tennis court soon after, but the hourlong ride from Hartford has made him sleepy. This morning, after he speaks to 400 people, he will meet with the editorial board of a local newspaper. But the real purpose of his trip is to take the sagging pulse of the region, check in with a few local allies and to perform a little politics.

Of the many common complaints about the Governor, none is as prominent as the accusation that he puts himself above compromise, that he is a man musclebound by morality.

"Did you know that the Lord speaks directly to Lowell Weicker, and only to Lowell Weicker?" asks John F. Droney Jr., the combative Democratic state chairman who helped Joseph I. Lieberman upset Weicker in a 1988 Senate race so bitter and humiliating that many believe Weicker ran for Governor largely to avenge the loss.

"He is an intellectually superior man, but hubris killed Greece, so don't you think it could harm him too?" Droney asks without a trace of humor. "He could have done far more for himself on the tax issue with a case of Budweiser and a couple of bottles of Jack Daniel's than by setting himself up as a modern day Charlemagne."

It is part of the usual assault on Weicker: a man of integrity, but one who can't quite fathom the needs of the average person. Droney and Carter Eskew, a Washington media consultant, relied on that perception in 1988 to help Lieberman hand Weicker his first electoral defeat. They portrayed him as a man willing to go to the wall to protect a woman's right to choose abortion or to prevent daily prayers from returning to public schools– a man whose commitment to the Constitution is unsurpassed, but also one who has little patience for the minutiae of daily government.

"We beat him by showing what he was good at," Eskew says. "Lieberman made the case that Weicker cares deeply about issues, that he is a man of principle. But they are not often principles shared by the majority of people. I think we caught the beginning of the big fear that has enveloped the state. People could see things were headed seriously in the wrong direction, and they saw in Weicker a guy out here on his own, pursuing an agenda that had nothing to do with them."

This view of Weicker is usually bolstered by references to his background in Paris, on Park Avenue, at prep schools, Yale University, the University of Virginia Law School and as an heir to the Squibb pharmaceutical fortune.

Lowell P. Weicker Jr. grew up rich and has stayed that way– although his actual earnings are often exaggerated. He says he is worth little more than $1 million and makes less than $200,000 a year from his salary and other income. But he declines to release complete 1990 income tax returns for himself and his third wife, Claudia.

Weicker was born in Paris, where he lived until he was 5. Then his family returned to New York. His father eventually become the chief executive officer of Squibb, the company young Weicker's grandfather helped found in a Brooklyn drugstore after coming from Germany more than a century ago.

After earning gentleman's C's in school, Weicker started in politics as a traditionally conservative Greenwich Republican, like his taciturn father and much like two rich neighbors who also went to Yale, George Bush and William F. Buckley Jr. But by the time Weicker finished serving as First Selectman of Greenwich in 1968, he had begun to look like a fun-house-mirror version of a country club Republican, remaining conservative on fiscal matters but straying wildly on social policy.

Weicker met his first wife, Bunny, while he was in college. They had three boys, the youngest of whom is 25, before ending their 24-year marriage in 1977. With his second wife, Camille, Weicker had two more boys, Sonny, a 13-year-old who has Down syndrome, and Tre, 12. Although Weicker remains close with his first wife, his marriage to Camille lasted only seven years and was, by all accounts, unhappy for both of them. Claudia, Weicker's current wife, has yet two more boys from a previous marriage. The youngest four, all of whom live in Washington, see the Weickers on most weekends and during vacations.

Weicker's wealth, it is often argued, has permitted him his raging independence. His is the kind of life that works well in the United States Senate, critics suggest, but not for the chief executive of a state in crisis, a state that clearly needs all hands linked together.

Yet, as he works his way through the cavernous hotel ballroom in Norwich this morning, it is clear that the Governor thrives on his position. The breakfast is like a flashback to the wedding scene in "The Godfather," as first one local official and then another find their way to Weicker's table seeking political favors. There are senior citizen centers to open and casino operators to train. Roads need repair and there is talk of a new bridge. Dutifully, he takes notes on each request, referring people– always by first name– to the right member of his staff.

"We want people to come back downtown," a local member of the General Assembly says abruptly, without the usual small talk. "We want a state office building in Norwich."

The Governor swallows hard and begins to play with his wire-rim glasses. This is a man who stood by him on the tough series of income tax votes, and Weicker knows that, with the repeal effort likely to gather momentum in the special session, he'll need this Assemblyman more in the future. Hard as the tax initiative has been on Weicker, it has been even harder on some of the legislators who backed him. One had a bullet fired through her window, while others felt compelled to toss their legislative license plates in the trash.

Finally, after delivering the gentlest reminder that the income tax was designed to make ambitions like Norwich's come true, Weicker promises to do all he can to help. As he talks, Weicker becomes enthusiastic about redevelopment in an area where unemployment has rarely been higher, largely because of all the jobs lost in manufacturing and the defense industries. Not until the conversation turns to financing new sewer lines does Weicker walk away.

THE TRADITIONAL vision of Connecticut can be found in a Currier and Ives print. The state has always evoked images of wealth and privilege: a place of ancestral summer homes and black-tie weekends, for Henry Fonda in "The Lady Eve," Katharine Hepburn in "Bringing Up Baby" or Barbara Stanwyck in "Christmas in Connecticut." Even now, the state retains the highest per capita income in the country, although much of that wealth belongs to the residents of Fairfield County, a natural extension of the Upper East Side that somehow broke off and found its way into another state.

But Connecticut, which has nearly 3.3 million residents, has never been just a playground for rich people. Its cities stoked the industrial growth of the nation, turning out everything from brass clocks in Waterbury to nautical instruments in New London, from the Wiffle Ball in Shelton to the Colt revolver in Hartford. And when Ronald Reagan rolled into office, the boom was on again, with the state's two largest employers, United Technologies and Electric Boat, becoming major beneficiaries of the decade of defense.

They weren't the only ones that prospered. While manufacturing jobs had been sliding away for decades, real estate, banking and insurance companies more than made up for the loss. As profits soared, the tax structure– based entirely on sales and business revenues– delivered bigger than a lucky trip to Vegas.

When the stock market crashed in 1987, however, so did Connecticut's house of cards. Corporate profits went into free fall. Tax revenues have fallen by more than 10 percent a year. One of the most inflated real-estate markets in the nation disintegrated, and Connecticut's banks, holding billions of dollars worth of mortgages few could afford, began to cave under their own weight like a black hole. The state's biggest cities– Hartford, New Haven and Waterbury– all stumbled toward economic collapse. This spring, Bridgeport became the first major city in the nation to declare bankruptcy.

By 1988, the year Weicker lost his Senate seat, the deficit was more than $150 million. Former Gov. William A. O'Neill, like so many of the Democrats who ran the state for years before him, refused to consider an income tax, and in 1989 he was forced to find nearly $1 billion in new revenues. A state already writhing in economic withdrawal was left with the highest sales and corporate tax rates in America.

No one knows whether Connecticut has hit bottom, and if not, when it will. This year, the state's banks have reported the highest percentage of bad loans in the nation, and the Federal Government has seized 13 of them with assets worth more than $12 billion.

The desperate economy dominated last year's gubernatorial campaign. As one of only 10 states without an income tax, Connecticut finally appeared ready to adopt a logical alternative. Because income taxes are not dependent solely upon the vagaries of consumer spending, they generate a far more stable stream of revenues than any sales tax.

"The state budget was a true catastrophe and everybody knew it," says Jerome P. Brown, president of District 1199 of the New England Health Care Employees Union, which provided critical support for Weicker during last year's race against two members of the House, Republican John G. Rowland, a conservative who declared war on taxes, and Bruce A. Morrison, a Democrat who suggested putting the income tax issue to a referendum.

Weicker, edging his way up the middle, said he would consider all options. As he has so often in the past, he sold himself as a man so completely disgusted by politics as usual that he created "A Connecticut Party" as a new vehicle for his independence.

Nevertheless, Rowland portrayed Weicker as the tax man. Connecticut has always had a fiery antipathy to any notion of income tax. In 1971, when one was passed in the dead of night, the state revolted and the law was repealed within weeks. That killed the issue for a generation.

Starting with a big lead, Weicker refused to rule out a tax during the campaign, but insisted all along that he didn't want one. As the race drew to its close, polls showed Rowland within reach of a victory nobody thought was possible. It began to seem as if Weicker's humiliation of 1988 was about to repeat itself– another insurmountable lead lost, a final disgrace to bring a long career to a poignant end.

Two weeks before the election, with his lead slipping fast, this Weicker ad appeared on Connecticut television stations: "I'm Lowell Weicker with a message for John Rowland," he proclaimed in his most gladiatorial voice. "Don't speak for me, John Rowland. Stop distorting facts and scaring people with misquotes and half-truths. Long before your negative ads, I was opposed to a state income tax. The people of Connecticut and I know it would be like pouring gasoline on the fires of recession. And nobody's for that."

The commercial convinced many of those vehemently opposed to taxes that a vote for Weicker was safe. He ended up winning by three percentage points, carrying only 40 percent of the vote.

Weicker then stunned income tax opponents by selecting as his budget director William J. Cibes Jr., a Democrat and the state's most visible income tax advocate. Within a month of the Governor's inauguration, the state deficit had ballooned to nearly $2.7 billion in a $7.8 billion budget, proportionately the largest in the country. After much reflection, prolonged discussion with his advisers and what he describes as a period of "praying for another way," Weicker decided that if Connecticut were going to survive, it would have to accept an income tax.

From the start, editorial boards, academics and many public-policy experts have backed Weicker. So, for the most part, have business and labor. But Connecticut's Democratic Senators– Lieberman and Weicker's friend Christopher J. Dodd– have each denounced the tax, mindful of the near defeat suffered by Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey last year after he'd tacitly supported Florio's tax reforms. Weicker and the Legislature have each been battered in the polls, with 70 percent of those surveyed this fall saying they were either "very angry" or "displeased" with the tax. Even among those who clearly benefit from Weicker's tax program– the poor, who will pay nothing, and the lower middle class, who stand to gain most from lower sales taxes– support has been scarce.

Yet Weicker insists that even after making more than $1.2 billion in cuts to essential services, he had no other choice. "I worked my butt off to keep an income tax out of this state," he says. "I don't like it. I didn't want it. But I'll tell you, the facts were so loud I couldn't shut them off. There was no other way."

Maybe not, but Weicker's apparent reversal has infuriated the people who elected him– many of whom feel betrayed. "Well, he took a pledge and he broke it," says Stanley Greenberg, the Washington-based Democratic pollster who worked on Morrison's campaign. "There is an arrogance about Lowell Weicker that you tolerate because that arrogance is associated with his absolute commitment to principle. He made a pact with the devil to get elected and it worked."

"I never made any damn pledge," Weicker says. "But even if I had, I would have broken it."

STATE REPUBLICANS have been known to scour local highway maps searching for the spot on the road to Hartford where, as a young man, Lowell Weicker became a liberal. Weicker doesn't shrink from the L-word, just as he doesn't hesitate to call Teddy Kennedy "one of the two or three best Senators I have ever known" or to refer to Richard Nixon as "a small man who wanted to take the country and the Constitution into the sewer."

Weicker was honored when William F. Buckley Jr. and his family organized a 1988 effort called BuckPac, which was dedicated to ridding the Senate of him. Picking one of the many issues on which they have always been on opposite sides of the trenches, BuckPac sold bumper stickers that said, "Don't Abort Your Child (He May Grow Up to Vote Against Weicker)."

"Buckley constantly suggests that I am some kind of traitor to my class," Weicker says now. "I think the truth is just the opposite. What a horrid, callous man! To have so much and give so little. He is an embarrassment to the background we both come from."

Weicker has probably been called a maverick more than any living politician. The word, and the image of him as a rambunctious loner– a kind of feral child who doesn't play well with others– fits him well. Many people who know him trace his yearning for lonely celebrity to Watergate, when he first felt the glorious freedom of being shunned. Others say his contrarian gift is the legacy of a lifelong effort to prove to his father that he was unique. Weicker doesn't go in for heavy analysis, though. Psychology makes him laugh.

"I love it when they try to figure out my problem," he says, stretching out the last word for what seems like a minute. "I don't have mystical secrets."

People have strained to figure out Weicker's maddening disaffection with the G.O.P. since the mid-70's. Predictably, the questions drive him up the wall. "Everyone always asks why didn't I just switch parties, why am I not a Democrat, if I couldn't get along with the Republicans? It was constantly said during and after Watergate that the reason why he acted as he did is he is really a Democrat in Republican clothing."

When he gets excited, Weicker shifts frequently from the first to the third person. "I always bridled at that," he says, calming down. "I was a damn good Republican. It was the party that changed, not me."

The Governor's eyes still shine when he talks about the Republicans he used to call his colleagues in the Senate.

"They were great men," he says, reeling off a list of the Grand Old Party's legendary liberals–all gone. "Javits was the greatest. He had the most influence on my life with his total commitment to social concerns.

"And there was Cliff Case of New Jersey and Ed Brooke of Massachusetts. Chuck Percy from Illinois. Mac Mathias of Maryland. Jim Pearson of Kansas and Mark Hatfield of Oregon. It was a great core of moderate Republicans. They had brains in their head."

Thrilled to be among them, Weicker watched in horror as, slowly, the New Right rose from the ashes of the Goldwater wing of the party. He grew weary of the excessive civility of his old colleagues, none of whom was willing to "bare-knuckle it with the bad guys."

So Lowell Weicker became the Republican Rambo, a guerrilla warrior who used every rule in the Senate to tie the body in knots. His ability to filibuster was matched only by that of his principal nemesis, Jesse Helms of North Carolina. Weicker went through aides like water and had few friends in the Senate.

Reveling in his outlaw status, Weicker stared down the tanks of the Reagan Revolution. As the White House worked ceaselessly to eliminate funds for school lunch programs, community health care centers, child vaccines and dozens of other social programs, Weicker usually managed to keep a finger in the dike. When AIDS was a word few Senators would even utter, Weicker regularly demanded more Federal money to fight it.

"I used to call him in every now and then," recalls a chuckling Howard Baker, "and say, 'Now, Lowell, you can only be a moral giant once this week.' "

IT IS EARLY ON THE Saturday morning after Weicker's inflammatory speech at Gallaudet. He is easily the biggest man at Bradley International Airport in Hartford, and as he and his wife and their state police escort sweep through the nearly empty terminal, all heads turn.

The security detail assigned to Weicker tightens up. Over the last few months, the officers have become increasingly worried about his safety. But Weicker, carrying a suit bag from a Greenwich men's store, seems oblivious.

The state car is waiting out front to take the couple home to the Governor's mansion, where they will host a wedding reception later that afternoon for a close friend.

After everyone piles into the car, Weicker's driver gingerly passes him the morning's Hartford Courant, with the latest poll results from the University of Connecticut Institute for Social Inquiry.

"Weicker Popularity Plummets to New Low," the headline screams. The story says that one out of every two residents of the state believes Weicker is doing a "poor" job, the worst showing for any politician in the history of the poll.

Weicker has been talking a lot lately about smelling the flowers and watching sunsets. He says he has had a "wretched" year and would have to be crazy to seek "this or any other office again."

Yet it pains him that he has been able to do nothing to implement health care reforms or to help the state's faltering cities. Despite the polls, Lowell Weicker still considers himself the best in his business. I don't doubt myself on that count," he says curtly. "Never have."

Settling into the back seat of the Town Car, Weicker loosens his tie, giggles and castes a gleeful look at his wife.

"Look at that, Claudia," he says, practically singing. "We continue to go down in the polls. I guess we'll just have to keep suffering."

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