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A Look Back, And Up

The former Connecticut governor and ex-convict prays at a Hartford church, where he volunteers with parolees; below he's with running mate Jodi Rell on election night in 1994.
The former Connecticut governor and ex-convict prays at a Hartford church, where he volunteers with parolees; below he's with running mate Jodi Rell on election night in 1994. (By Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)

" 'Jailhouse conversion," he says. ". . . 'Rowland is making money off his mistakes.' " He shrugs, reaching behind him to pet his dog. "People are gonna say what they want to say." He is driving past a lush park near the governor's residence where he used to take the dog on walks during the best days. He slows to stare at some trees. He absently fingers an empty case that once held a very nice Dominican handmade Romeo y Julieta cigar, a reminder of the old days.

"I'm past having those moments when I think a lot about what I lost," he says. "I don't care anymore about the loss. I think the best thing that ever happened to me was going to prison. My arrogance was huge. I don't want people making the same mistakes I did."

He's coy about some of the mistakes. He says he never knew much about the free work done by the construction contractor and others at his vacation home until it had been completed ("I didn't know exactly what people were doing."). He insists that he never viewed the goodies he unlawfully accepted as payoffs; "there was never any quid pro quo."

His critics see his admissions as a half-confession at best. Still, seldom has a disgraced politician opened a window so far onto his motives and the circumstances behind his misdeeds.

'A Sense of Entitlement'

During a weekday evening in Hartford, he is drinking a brandy in a hotel restaurant when he says, "Everyone was always blowing smoke at me and I wanted to believe it." He has donned one of his natty dark blue suits from the good days, having just come from a banquet for a women's group. His crisp white shirt has a monogrammed R on the breast pocket. He is musing about the culture of graft.

"From the time you arrive, the job of everybody in the office is about making you look good and feel good, and after a while you believe that is the way your life is supposed to be -- people doing things for you. The sun is rising with you -- that's what everybody believes. You end up believing it, too. The people in your office and the lobbyists, they're all saying the same thing: how great you are, and how hard you work for the state, and how much everybody appreciates you, and how you deserve to be rewarded. It starts there."

He motions for another brandy. "Somewhere around then is when the sense of entitlement takes over. People wanted to give me things, make my life easier, allow me to relax. A night on vacation for $100 less at somebody's house who had a contract [with the state]? It never crossed my mind to worry about that, the ethics of it, the wisdom. I told myself, 'I've earned it. I work hard. I'm often away working, my kids suffer, and I only make $78,000.' At the time I was paying about -- whatever it was -- close to $45,000 in child support to my ex, which left only 33 [thousand] for me before taxes or whatever it was. I was living on 15 to 20 grand [a year].

" . . . A lot of people in state government made more than me most of the time. My chief of staff made $125,000 or something like that. I think my press secretary made a buck ten. You begin thinking, 'I'm making nothing compared to a lot of other people, and I'm working all the time.' . . . My sense of entitlement was the evil -- the feeling that everybody owes you. After a while the favors took on a life of their own. . . . You're just doing your job and more people are telling you that you're great and wanting to help you in any way. And you have financial people telling you that one day you're going to be president, that there's no stopping you."

By his second term, his star was soaring. In an irony, he resisted efforts to raise his salary at the time to $150,000, worried about political fallout (the raise would take effect only during his final term). His state's budget surplus was so large that taxpayers got rebate checks. School test scores showed marked gains.

On the night that he stayed with his wife, Patty, in the Lincoln Bedroom, he couldn't fall asleep right away. "I was just looking around the room," he says. "There's a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation under glass, and it's, like, 11 feet from the bed. And you're just lying there and thinking, 'I'm really here.' Seems a little unreal. You're thinking a little about the future. I'd never really thought of running of president. But you're in that room and you're thinking, 'Yeah, I could do this. I could be president.' "

He chuckles wanly.

"And then a couple of years later or whatever, I'm lining up for toilet paper in prison."

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