Monday, March 28, 2005

Rowland Goes Down

Can I just say something here without people getting all twisted and crazy?

All right, here goes: I’m sorry to see John Rowland going to jail.

Now, take it easy. Before you leap onto that soapbox or pound that table, I already know what you’re going to say.

As Governor of Connecticut, John Rowland violated the public trust. He took gifts and services from businessmen who turned around and won hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts and tax breaks.

His actions were outrageous, unconscionable, and unforgivable—not to mention incredibly stupid. And I think he deserves every day of jail time he gets—and probably a hell of a lot more.

Yeah, I got all that and I’m a Democrat to boot. And yet I still feel bad for the guy.

I’m one of God knows how many people who thought they knew John Rowland. Back in the early Rowland days, I was a reporter at the Waterbury Republican-American, Rowland’s hometown newspaper and in 1996 I got to accompany Rowland on his trade mission to Mexico.

This was a different John Rowland than the one that shambled into federal court in New Haven recently and pleaded guilty to his crimes in a quivering voice. The John Rowland I knew was confident, purposeful, proudly representing his state and his country in Mexico City.

The Mexican road tour took place when Rowland was new to the governor’s mansion and determined to shake things up. As a business writer, I had pitched the idea of joining Rowland on his trip south of the border. It would mean being away from home on my birthday, but that was a small price to travel with the governor to a foreign country.

And on the first morning in our hotel lobby--my birthday--I learned that John Rowland and I were on the same day in the same year--May 24, 1957. We laughed over that and then it was on to work. As the group of business people and staffers was divided among several vans, Rowland looked to me and said “You ride with us, Rob.”

You ride with us, Rob. I know the worst thing a reporter can do is become star struck by the people he’s covering, but God, I liked the sound of that.

I remember as we slogged through Mexico City’s grinding traffic that morning, Rowland looked out over the pincushion skyline of TV antennas and talked about the vast potential for Connecticut’s telecommunications companies.

The trip only lasted three days and Rowland left after two, but I talked about it for months. I’d joke around with people about my pal the Guv, my birthday buddy, and make like we were the best of friends.

I saw Rowland a few more times after that. Once, after a speech at a Waterbury business person’s meeting, he came out to greet his young son. There was nothing dishonest about the way he smiled broadly at that little boy and hugged him.

I think the last time was just short of our 39th birthday, the real 39th as Rowland called it. He shook my hand, smiled, and said, “Hey, got a birthday coming up, don’t you?”

I left Connecticut in 1997 and lost all contact with John Rowland. When I turned 40, I thought about sending him a birthday card, something along the lines of “hey, we made it.” But like a lot of things I think about doing, I didn’t actually do it.

And when the bad news starting coming out of Hartford, I had to follow it the way everybody else did--through media reports.

As the story went into a death spiral, I kept thinking it was unbelievable that this man, so driven, so sure of himself, could have screwed up so royally. His live appearance pleading for a second chance from the voters was painful to watch.

At the end of the movie “The Producers” Gene Wilder’s milquetoast accountant stands up to speak about his larcenous partner, Max Bialystock. His speech starts off tearing Max apart as a lowlife and a cheat, but ends up thanking him for the ride.

I guess I could say that about John Rowland as I think about that morning in Mexico City on our mutual birthday. Thanks for the ride.

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