What is public threshold for politicians' lies?
Pressure mounts on Connecticut's governor to resign amid scandal over who paid for home repairs.
KILLINGWORTH, CONN. — Embattled Connecticut Gov. John Rowland has so far insisted that he won't step down.
But Kim Denison at the Killingworth True Value Hardware store is convinced it's only a matter of time.
"He should resign," she says without missing a beat. "He's a liar, and I don't trust him. He should get out, because he's getting in deeper and deeper every time he opens his mouth."
If there were ever a true third rail of American politics, it's lying - at least about things that reflect one's integrity and performance on the job.
But Americans' judgments about veracity and public life have never been simple ones. And that's what Governor Rowland - only two years ago one of the state's most popular politicians who was reelected to an unprecedented third term - is counting on.
He believes his admitted lie about who paid for repairs at his summer retreat was only a mistake that will eventually be forgiven. Others doubt it: A company that won hundreds of millions of dollars in state contracts was involved, a federal corruption investigation is under way, and scandal has nipped at the highest edges of his administration for years.
Calls for the Republican governor's resignation are resounding throughout the state, along with carols and holiday cheer, and not just from political opponents.
"Some are predicting he'll be gone by New Year's, but he's a fighter, he's not going to give up," says Doug Schwartz of the Quinnipiac Polling Center, which last week released a new survey that found that 73 percent of people in Connecticut and 61 percent of Republicans believe he is neither honest nor trustworthy.
Analogies are regularly drawn between Watergate and Richard Nixon, Iran-contra and Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. In each case, the American public has made it clear that deceiving them was a mistake - a big one, unless national security is at stake. It has, however, punished politicians in gradations.
"The public does make distinctions," says Howard Reiter, a political scientist at the University of Connecticut. "Reagan wasn't as badly hurt by Iran-contra as Nixon was by Watergate, because people knew how smart Nixon was. Rowland is more like Nixon."
And to some extent, Professor Reiter continues, the Connecticut governor's situation is less like Clinton's. "This doesn't have to do with his personal life; it deals with state contracts and state money. Those two categories are much more damaging than sex with an intern."
Rowland's administration has been plagued with a range of ethical lapses for years. Smaller ones included his family members' helping themselves to camping gear from a state warehouse, accepting discounted vacations from a large state contractor now under investigation, and charging personal items on a state GOP credit card, all of which the governor simply apologized for, and in some cases paid fines from the ethics commission.
Larger troubles were also brewing. Four years ago the state's treasurer, Paul Silvester, a friend of and fundraiser for the governor, was convicted of taking bribes and kickbacks in exchange for steering business from the state's pension fund.
Last spring, Rowland's deputy chief of staff pleaded guilty to corruption charges for accepting gold and cash to steer state contracts. (The gold coins were found buried in his backyard.) Another top Rowland aide is currently the subject of a corruption investigation by the FBI.
"Rowland's been the Teflon governor for over eight years, none of these scandals around him have stuck to him," says Scott McLean, a professor of political science at Quinnipiac University. "Anybody else would have been brought down. He's just been able to evade it."
But that nonstick surface cracked three weeks ago when he lied to reporters about who paid for some of the repairs at his summer cottage, and got caught.
Suddenly, all of the earlier questions about his behavior were renewed and the spotlight on his behavior and personal business dealings intensified. "He went down the road of Nixon and covered up, and once you start doing that, the coverup becomes worse than the actual incident," says John Orman of Fairfield University. "You just can't look into the camera and lie, and that's what really hurt him."
Just two years ago, Rowland had a job approval rating of 78 percent. It's plummeted an unprecedented 48 points, to 30 percent. "Talk about a fall from grace," says Professor Schwartz. "We've never had a governor with such a low approval rating."
Ms. Denison thinks it's far past time for him to do the right thing for the state. "He's doing all of this double talk and saying things like, 'Oh, no, you're misunderstanding,'" she says. "No, we're not misunderstanding. You're lying. And you should step down."