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Lowell Weicker, GOP senator who became bold Nixon adversary, dies at 92

Lowell P. Weicker Jr., a three-term senator from Connecticut who became one of President Richard M. Nixon’s boldest Republican adversaries during the Watergate affair and who engineered dramatic increases in medical research funding despite President Ronald Reagan’s efforts to slash domestic spending, died June 28 at a hospital in Middletown, Conn. He was 92.

His family announced the death in a statement but did not cite a cause.

Mr. Weicker, who had family ties to the E.R. Squibb pharmaceutical fortune, was educated at preparatory schools and elite colleges. But in politics, a profession often driven by polls, Mr. Weicker was a self-described “maverick” — the title he also gave his memoir. His caustic tongue and bearlike, 6-foot-6 build lent an imposing aura.

A liberal Republican for much of his career, Mr. Weicker was unable to retain his party’s support during its rightward lurch under Reagan. He was unseated in 1988 by a Democratic challenger, Joseph I. Lieberman, then the Connecticut attorney general. The race marked Mr. Weicker’s sole electoral defeat in a political career spanning more than three decades.

He went on to win Connecticut’s governorship in 1990 by running as an independent. Remarkably, he managed to overcome the traditional allergy of Connecticut to an income tax in an effort to tame the state’s fiscal crisis.

Time magazine called him the “gutsiest governor in America.” The John F. Kennedy Foundation gave him its 1992 Profile in Courage award for reforming his state’s tax policies in the face of fierce opposition. But he drew the ire of tens of thousands of residents who thought he had broken a campaign pledge to avoid imposing an income tax.

“In the campaign I made one statement over and over: You promise me no new problems, I’ll promise you no new taxes,” he told Time. “During the campaign, the estimates on the deficit ranged between $50 million and $100 million. When we closed our books in June 1991, the state had a $1 billion deficit. I would suggest to you that is a new problem.”

If nothing else, he was unintimidated by power and seemed to enjoy poking at it. When, as governor, he signed a bill that placed new restrictions on the purchase and sale of handguns, he reportedly told an aide, “Make sure a copy is sent to the NRA.”

Mr. Weicker first gained national attention when, as a freshman U.S. senator in 1973, he became one of only three Senate Republicans willing to join the Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities. The committee’s mandate was to investigate the June 1972 burglary of Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington.

While prosecution of the burglars was still unfolding, Mr. Weicker considered many of his committee colleagues too complacent about ferreting out the White House’s role in the break-in. During the televised hearings, his willingness to challenge a president in his own party helped build momentum for a robust investigation. The hearings generated heavy publicity, gradually preparing public opinion to accept the impeachment process.

Although he was the junior member of the Watergate committee, he met privately with John Dean, the White House counsel, and L. Patrick Gray III, the FBI’s acting director. On Mr. Weicker’s advice, Gray publicly acknowledged that, at the White House’s behest, he had destroyed the files of E. Howard Hunt Jr., a Watergate conspirator. That disclosure helped undermine Nixon’s denials of complicity.

Mr. Weicker also demanded that the committee subpoena White House officials. Nixon’s aides retaliated with leaks that the senator had accepted illicit campaign contributions. That false charge boomeranged when Dean disclosed White House efforts to silence Mr. Weicker.

At first, the press was skeptical of Mr. Weicker’s assertiveness, but reporters soon came around. The columnist Joseph Kraft called him “the point man on the committee, the Senator who has forced the pace of investigation all along.” Nixon resigned on Aug. 9, 1974.

When accused of being disloyal to the GOP, Mr. Weicker used a committee hearing to respond: “Republicans do not cover up. Republicans do not … threaten. Republicans do not commit illegal acts. And, God knows, Republicans don’t view fellow Americans as enemies to be harassed.”

The 1980 election put Reagan in the White House and escalated Mr. Weicker’s conflict with conservatives. With Republicans taking control of the Senate, he gained power as chairman of the small-business committee, a Labor and Human Resources subcommittee responsible for programs that served people with disabilities, and of the Appropriations subcommittee on labor, health and education programs.

There were conflicts with the Reagan administration as it sought to restrict domestic spending while increasing defense appropriations. Mr. Weicker joined Democrats and a shrinking number of other GOP liberals to protect appropriations for education, public health and civilian basic research. Reagan’s priorities, he said, “ranged from sheer madness to absurdity.”

Mr. Weicker played a crucial role in support of biomedical legislation. He obtained funding for important vaccines, helped establish research centers to study Alzheimer’s disease and helped prevent cuts in the funding of the National Institutes of Health.

He also was viewed as an important advocate of assistance to AIDS patients. He was credited with helping increase the Reagan administration’s requests for AIDS funding, reportedly from $61 million in 1984 to more than $900 million in 1988.

The renowned cardiac surgeon Michael E. DeBakey told The Washington Post that Mr. Weicker “has a tremendous understanding and appreciation of scientific research and its meaning to the nation.”

In 1988, the senator received the prestigious Lasker Award for Public Service in recognition of his support of medical research and public health programs. At the time, he was asked whether his legislative priorities were shaped by the fact that one of his sons was born with Down syndrome.

“I really get bothered when people say that I would be motivated by a personal issue,” he told The Post in 1988. The turning point, he said, came years before his son was born. He was new to Capitol Hill and saw how much deference was paid to the defense industry at the expense of programs to help people with disabilities.

In Washington, he added, “the business of life in its various forms is just totally ignored.”

Lowell Palmer Weicker Jr. was born on May 16, 1931, in Paris, where his father headed a subsidiary of E.R. Squibb. He graduated in 1949 from the private Lawrenceville School in New Jersey and in 1953 from Yale University. After two years in the Army, he received a law degree from the University of Virginia in 1958.

His marriages to Marie Godfrey and Camille Butler, a former aide in his Senate office, ended in divorce. In 1984, he married Claudia Ingram, a former chief of staff of a Senate subcommittee.

In addition to his wife, survivors include three sons from his first marriage, Scot, Gray and Brian Weicker; two sons from his second marriage, Tre and Sonny Weicker; two stepsons, Mason and Andrew Ingram; 12 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

Mr. Weicker was a lawyer in Greenwich, Conn., when he won his first election, in 1962, to the state House of Representatives. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1968 and to the Senate two years later.

After being unseated in 1988, Mr. Weicker monitored events in Connecticut and sensed an opportunity to reach the governor’s office in a state with a shrinking economy and an expanding deficit.

With conservatives in control of the GOP, Mr. Weicker created A Connecticut Party for the 1990 election in an effort to seize the middle ground between Republicans and Democrats. He won a three-way race with 41 percent of the vote, becoming the state’s first third-party governor since the mid-19th century.

With a ballooning deficit that was the highest, per capita, in the nation, Mr. Weicker’s only solution appeared to be a state income tax — long opposed in Connecticut — and a draconian program of spending cuts.

A bitter seven-month stalemate with the legislature ensued. Mr. Weicker vetoed three budgets, and he found one measure so unacceptable, the New York Times reported, that he told legislators to “pour it back into the horse.”

As the state threatened to tip into chaos, Mr. Weicker finally won approval of a state income tax and other elements of his plan. “It was a lasting achievement,” said Ronald Schurin, a University of Connecticut political scientist, in a 2013 interview. “Weicker made a crazy-quilt finance system rational.”

With the state economy mending slowly, Mr. Weicker declined to run for a second term. He said that, for family reasons, he could not continue in the $78,000-a-year job. But he threatened to return to politics if anyone meddled with his legacy.

“If anybody looks on this individual as a lame duck on a pond,” he said, “you better think twice because you’re going to find something coming out of Jurassic Park at you.”

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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