Don Pesci: Abe Lincoln and the trials of John Rowland



Former Connecticut Gov.  John Rowland, now a former radio talk show host, may have been “guilty,” in a metaphorical sense, of using his position to advance the political interest of one particular candidate over another.  It has been said that Mr. Rowland had subjected poor Andrew Roraback, at the time a Republican Party candidate for the U.S. House in the 5th District, to a severe interrogation on his radio program, formerly called “Church And State.”

Since being appointed to Connecticut’s Superior Court by Gov. Dannel Malloy, Mr. Roraback has moved out of the political into the less contentious judicial arena. Apparently, Mr. Roraback had suffered no permanent harm, and losing a Hartford Courant endorsement to his Democratic opponent certainly cost the socially progressive Republican Party endorsed candidate more negative votes than Mr. Rowland’s barbed questions.

Mr. Rowland’s preferred candidate for the slot, it has been said, was Lisa Wilson Foley. At the time Mr. Rowland was hard grilling Mr. Roraback, the talk show host was employed as a consultant for Apple Rehab, a business owned by Mrs. Foley’s husband. Mr. Rowland implausibly claims he was assisting Mrs. Foley’s campaign on the side as an “unpaid consultant.”

Similar impostures – though news of them may shock the willfully ignorant – have been deployed in the news business from time immemorial. Abe Lincoln came very near to fighting a duel with one of his outraged political competitors when it was discovered that editorials in a Republican paper had been written on the sly by Mr. Lincoln; actually, one of two of the newspaper pieces had been written by his intended wife. Because it would have been ungentlemanly for Mr. Lincoln to involve his fiancée in the quarrel, he accepted responsibility for the satires but characteristically refused to issue an apology.

Eventually, the matter was settled outside the law courts, without either of the antagonists having used against each other the large military broadswords Mr. Lincoln had selected as his choice of weapon. Mr. Lincoln, who towered over his opponent, hacked off a tree branch with his sword while the two stood facing each other on Blood Island, and the display of superior reach led to an amicable resolution.

Charlie Morse, for many years the chief political writer  of  The Hartford Courant and an unabashed Lowell Weicker-liker, produced tons of columns favorable to then Sen. Lowell Weicker, one of the papers most pampered political pets. The Courant, during Mr. Weicker’s push for an income tax, was solidly in Mr. Weicker’s gubernatorial corner; and so was Mr. Morse, who left The Courant to work on Mr. Weicker’s campaign – even though he continued his column in the pro-Weicker Courant.

There are no laws criminalizing journalistic bad habits.  The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects partisan and non-partisan journalists alike. Even if the accusation against Mr. Lincoln had been correct, he easily could have won his case in court by draping across his chest the breastplate of The First Amendment – or at least that portion of it that guarantees freedom of political speech.

The freedom-of-religious-expression clause in the very same amendment is not as hotly defended by the media because modern journalism tends to be instinctively anti-clerical.

Some of us who understand why a watchful media should resist authoritarian displays of power cannot for the life of us understand why the same media should be so willing to bed down with gray-headed incumbents whose first term in office coincided with the arrival of Noah’s Arc on Mount Ararat. Surely in our day, incumbent politicians are much more powerful than the ministers and priests who now preside over  the "Bare Ruined Choirs''.

Though Mr. Rowland’s defense attorneys have focused in a motion to dismiss on the charges brought against him, the First Amendment conceivably could be brought into play as a sleeper defense during the promised Rowland trial -- “promised” because it is always possible the trial may be ditched in favor of some plea agreement never made public between Mr. Rowland’s high priced Washington attorneys and prosecutors. Neither Mr. Rowland nor Mrs. Wilson-Foley were practicing politicians at the time Mr. Rowland, essentially a journalist, allegedly “favored” Mrs. Wilson-Foley, an aspiring politician, on his radio program. This means that no political favors either way could have been exchanged for allegedly “corrupt” money received by Mr. Rowland.

It is still very early in “the judicial process.” During Lincoln’s day, matters were adjudicated in courts of law, and instructive precedents were established. Nowadays, justice itself hangs from “process” nooses. Deals are made in private between Star Chamber prosecutors and defense lawyers, and precedence is a stranger at the hidden proceedings. Grand Juries, many political commentators understand,  are Star Chamber proceedings, and Grand Jury findings released to the media are always highly prejudicial. They should be taken by a truly non-partisan critical media with tons of salt.

 Don Pesci is a writer who lives in Vernon, Conn. He may be e-mailed