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Independent thinkers can evolve while working in government

The finest public servants I have known during more than a half-century in the news business in Connecticut are Raymond Baldwin, Abraham Ribicoff and Lowell Weicker, all of whom were independent, willing to speak their minds and guilty of having been in government all of their lives.

I thought of them and their splendid careers when Linda McMahon sneered that it wasn’t Richard Blumenthal’s fault he didn’t know anything about business because “you’ve been in government all your life.†It seems being in government all one’s life, working your way up while learning how to govern, is suddenly out of fashion, if not an indictable offense.

I came to know Baldwin, Ribicoff and Weicker — all three were governors and U.S. senators, Baldwin was also chief justice of the state Supreme Court and Ribicoff, a Cabinet member — when I wrote television documentaries about each of them.  In the course of hours of interviews, they never mentioned being attacked by opponents or the voters for devoting their lives to public service. There were plenty of other attacks, but not for that.

Baldwin, who was a Republican, Ribicoff, a Democrat, and Weicker, a little of each, never flinched at breaking with their own parties or risking public disapproval to do what they considered the right thing, whether it was Baldwin questioning the motives of fellow Republican Sen. Joe McCarthy long before it became fashionable, Ribicoff attacking “Gestapo tactics†by Mayor Richard Daley’s Chicago police at the 1968 Democratic Convention or Weicker going after a Republican president during Watergate or later, denying himself a second term by giving the state an income tax.

A lifetime in elected office wasn’t considered a shortcoming — and one might add, for all of Mrs. McMahon’s boasting, having been bankrupt wasn’t a virtue — when Connecticut elected governors like Baldwin, Ribicoff and Weicker or Grasso and Meskill. The country was being run by presidents who had proudly been in government all their lives — Roosevelt and Truman, Kennedy and Johnson. Even that most beloved of Republican presidents, Eisenhower, was a government lifer who never met a payroll.

I wouldn’t presume to imagine what the late Ray Baldwin and Abe Ribicoff would have to say about the Connecticut political scene today, but Weicker is still with us, still unpredictable and controversial and still willing to speak his mind about a state in which “you’ve got an electorate that is absolutely roaming around looking for leadership and seeing none,†as he told The Hartford Courant in July.

Weicker is a member of the McMahon family’s World Wrestling Entertainment board and calls Senate candidate Linda McMahon “a nice lady†but hasn’t endorsed her. He says she was wrong about opposing health-care reform and he considered Rob Simmons the stronger candidate against Blumenthal, whom he has written off for claiming to have served in Vietnam.

“If he is going to dissemble or fabricate over a matter like that, what trust will you have in that individual as a U.S. senator?†he said on Channel 3 last month. (Admiring Weicker doesn’t necessarily mean agreeing with him. I, too, would admit to being disturbed by Blumenthal’s “misstatements,†but I’m more disturbed by McMahon.)

Others may take issue with one or two of Weicker’s other views on current events, as reported by The Courant’s Rick Green. He criticizes Republicans for being the party of no and the Democrats as the party of reckless spending, but what of President Obama? “I’d vote for him tomorrow,†said Weicker.

And to those who still condemn his income tax, Weicker pointed out, “People love to talk about the income tax. Yet there was also a reduction in the sales tax and elimination of capital gains. Other business taxes were eliminated.â€

To which I would add, you never heard any talk of repealing the tax from Governors Rowland or Rell, not to mention current candidates Foley or Malloy.

Dick Ahles is a retired broadcast journalist from Simsbury.  E-mail: dahles@hotmail.com.

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