Column By John Murray
One year after being released from federal prison John Rowland walked into my home in Morris to begin a year-long book project. The three-term former governor of Connecticut had once been considered a presidential candidate, and now, humbled by a ten-month “government sponsored sabbatical”, he was a different man. He still possessed his wicked sense of humor, but the entourage was gone, and he limped from an old wrestling injury.
While in prison in Loretto, Pennsylvania, Rowland had written a book, and had unsuccessfully tried to sell it to publishing houses in NYC. He asked me to edit the book, and he was determined to get it published even if he had to do it himself. The book had tremendous information in it, especially his descriptions of prison life, but it largely missed the mark. There was little mention of the troubles that led to his resignation, and for someone who had spent 25 years in public office, there were no keen insights into the political process.
I suggested he start the book over, and while frustrated, he agreed. He asked if I would write the book, and I said I would only do it if he addressed his resignation in detail. “You went to prison for ten months and you don’t explain why,” I said. “You wrote that arrogance took you down, but being arrogant isn’t a crime. You have to explain what you did wrong, and you have to directly apologize to the people of Connecticut.”
Rowland bristled, “Nobody talks to me like that,” he said.
Exactly, I told him, that was the problem. He was surrounded by people who repeatedly told him he’d been screwed over, and that he had done nothing wrong. I told him that he was being enabled, and the book would only work if he plumbed around his soul, confessed, and apologized.
It took him less than 20 seconds to decide, and he agreed to move forward with a new book. I would ask the questions, he would answer, and everything was tape recorded for accuracy. The book would be written in the first person, and for next 18 months I would be thinking and writing in Rowland’s voice. We agreed that Rowland would own the material, have the final say in editing, would self-publish the book out of his own pocket, and we would split the profits 60%-40%. Our agreement was scribbled on a napkin, and was later updated to a single sheet of paper.
Rowland encouraged me to challenge him. “Don’t hold back,” he said, “yell at me.” But I never raised my voice. Instead, I coaxed him along with interviews about growing up in Waterbury, emerging on the political scene, and being elected to Congress at the age of 27. It was a slow detailed process, but we were building trust as we moved towards confrontation, which eventually came about the role of the media in his demise, and his relationships with developer Bob Matthews and the Tomasso brothers .
Rowland is an excellent storyteller, and he shared the details of how he recruited President Ronald Reagan to visit the Green in downtown Waterbury, and about the quid pro quo life of being a member of the U.S. Congress where everything was driven by money, and a pay-to-play atmosphere of lobbyists and special interest.
Rowland and I are an odd pair. We are the same age, but while he was prowling the halls of Congress at 27, I was commercial salmon fishing in Southeast Alaska, smoking pot, hitchhiking across America, and dreaming of writing travel books.
I first met Rowland in November 1990 when he was running against Lowell Weicker for governor. I was a photographer for the Register-Citizen newspaper in Torrington, and Rowland was arriving at his Torrington headquarters to pump up campaign workers for a final election day push. He had been napping in the back seat of the car, and when he emerged into the mid-afternoon sun he looked disoriented. Daria Albinger from WSNG radio thrust a microphone in his face and asked, “Do you think you are going to win?”.
Rowland, 33 years old at the time, snatched the microphone out of Albinger’s hand, and started banging it against the side of his head. “There,” he said, “does that answer your question?” He laughed, she laughed, and then he gave her an interview.
A few years later I met Rowland at his home in Waterbury for a story about MIA/POWs that I worked on with David Howard at the Register-Citizen newspaper. While a U.S. Congressman, Rowland had traveled to Vietnam to untangle the mystery of missing soldiers from the Vietnam War. He was 100% convinced that POWs were still being held prisoner in Vietnam, and Rowland became a vital source for our series.
Our paths crossed again in 1993 when I launched The Waterbury Observer with Marty Begnal. Rowland was gearing up for his successful bid in the 1994 gubernatorial election, and gave me access to his campaign. He took me on a personal tour of his old neighborhood, and he visited the Observer headquarters in my apartment above the Bunker Hill Deli. His father, Sherwood Rowland, was so charmed by a feature story we published about the Rowland political history in the city, that Sherwood allowed me into his home to witness election night returns.
When Rowland was officially declared the next governor of Connecticut, I was standing next to him – the only member of the press – in a private room surrounded by his supporters. It was a major scoop for The Waterbury Observer, and it went a long way to dispel the misconception that the fledgling newspaper was a partisan voice for Democrats.
While in office Rowland continued to give me access, and I spent days riding around the state with him attending functions and events and documenting his life as governor. In 1998 and 2002 he again invited me to shadow him on election day to capture the experience for Observer readers. I sat next to him in the back seat of the car as he chatted with Karl Rove, and later on the porch of the Governor’s mansion when he accepted a congratulatory telephone call from former President George H.W. Bush. It was pretty heady stuff for both of us, and Rowland’s future in national politics appeared to be white hot.
I didn’t see him for a few years, and when I did, he was embroiled in the scandal that drove him from office, and ultimately landed him in prison. He was distracted, was being dogged by the media, was sweating profusely and looked like a shell of the man I had covered on election day in 2002.
The Observer documented Rowland’s day in court when he pled guilty to accepting illegal gifts from contractors doing business with state government, and then I didn’t see him again until we sat down to discuss his book in 2008.
Once we agreed to start over again from scratch, we spent 40 to 50 hours taping interviews at my dining room table, and I spent quadruple that time researching issues, reading books about power, leadership and human behavior. I bought books about Richard Nixon, Charles Colson, Eliot Spitzer, Rudolph Guliani and Bill Clinton. We explored politics and leadership, and examined Rowland’s conclusion that he had experienced early political triumph while not being grounded in anything but ego and selfishness.
When the weight of the state legislature, and the Connecticut media, crashed down on him in 2004, Rowland sought spiritual guidance from Pastor Will Marotti of the New Life Church in Wallingford. Marotti continued to counsel him in prison. When Rowland emerged from incarceration he was more spiritual, and spoke at churches around the state about his fall from power, and what he had learned. Rowland worked with troubled adults in Hartford, and began a professional speaking career where he flew around the country to caution politicians and CEOs about the danger of self absorption and arrogance.
Rowland appeared on national TV and spoke about the arrogance of power, and how it had clouded his judgement. He seemed changed, and he spoke from his heart. Yet when I loaned Rowland a book by Thich Nhat Hanh called “The Art Of Power”, he returned my book a few weeks later hacked up with a blue pen where he had underlined passages and scribbled notes to himself. Clearly, despite his efforts, his sense of entitlement persisted.
During our interviews we explored his spirituality, and where he thought his life might be headed. Pastor Will suggested Rowland go into the ministry, while others suggested he get back into politics, or business. When the opportunity arose to work a consulting job for the Waterbury Chamber of Commerce as the economic development czar in the city, Rowland accepted the post, a $100,000 salary, and the battering he received in the statewide media.
While Rowland has been roundly criticized for his performance in the economic development job, he busted his tail the first year in an all-out effort at redemption. The problem was that he ran face first into the worst economic conditions since the Great Depression. Instead of successfully recruiting new business and industry to Waterbury, he spent all his effort trying to stop a mass exodus.
Our book project was an important healing process for Rowland, and while I struggled to manage the Observer, family life, and writing, we chugged forward until he accepted a position as the afternoon talk show host on WTIC radio. The book seemed to be an attempt to get back into the arena. John Rowland wanted to be acknowledged, and after nearly three decades in the spotlight, he wanted to feel its glow again.
Once he landed the gig on WTIC he never brought up the book again, which in some ways was a relief to me. He had been pressing me to finish the book as quickly as possible, and the Observer was starting to suffer. While the interviews are completed, the actual writing is only 30% done. I created a war room in my house to work on the project, and when we both lost steam in 2010, I closed the door, and left dozens of folders, notebooks, tapes, books and photographs scattered around the room.
Three and a half years later I opened the door and returned to my Rowland war room. Instead of finishing the book project, I found myself sitting at an old wooden desk writing a column about my experiences with John Rowland, who once again finds himself in trouble with federal prosecutors. Rowland was arrested last week and charged with masterminding an illegal conspiracy to conceal his consulting role in the 2012 race for Congress in the 5th District (his old seat).
Rowland has hired Reid Weingarten, a powerful white collar defense lawyer from Washington D.C., to represent him against the seven charges filed by the United States Government. Rowland pled not guilty to the charges, and has vowed a vigorous defense.
I texted Rowland two days after his arrest, and asked if he would answer one non-legal question for a story I was writing. Several hours later he responded with, “What’s the question?”
I asked him,”Did a relapse in arrogance trigger this mess?”
He replied, “You’re assuming I have done something wrong.”
“No”, I answered, “I’m asking you to reflect on the premise of our book project, arrogance, and to consider what role it played in going to WTIC radio and getting you in the mess you’re in.”
It is my belief that Rowland’s re-emergence into the public arena, especially controlling a radio microphone for several years, allowed the arrogance and entitlement to come knocking at his door. Arrogance knocked, and John Rowland couldn’t help himself, he answered.
Rowland responded to my theory by texting, “it’s more complicated than that. You have come to a conclusion I would respectfully disagree with.”
I don’t know whether John Rowland is guilty or not. The process will play itself out in the months to come. I wished Rowland well, and suggested one day in the future we’d sit down and talk about this when he didn’t have the United States government breathing down his neck.
His last text simply said, “Thank you.”