Lowell P. Weicker Jr., a liberal Republican who earned a national reputation for pugnacious political independence — first as a young United States senator during the Watergate hearings and later as a third-party governor of Connecticut — died on Wednesday at a hospital in Middletown, in central Connecticut. He was 92.
His family announced his death in a statement.
Mr. Weicker was an obscure junior senator from Connecticut and a member of President Richard M. Nixon’s own party in 1973 when he took an assignment on the Senate select committee that was investigating the Watergate affair — the break-in at the offices of the Democratic opposition by a White House team of burglars and the administration’s attempts to cover up the crime.
But after the committee’s televised hearings were over, he was famous, demonized by some for the harshness of his attacks on Nixon but lionized as a hero by others.
In one memorable moment, the White House counsel, John W. Dean, was in the witness chair, having revealed that Nixon had kept an “enemies list.” Mr. Weicker declared, to enthusiastic applause:
“Let me make it clear, because I have got to have my partisan moment: Republicans do not cover up; Republicans do not go ahead and threaten; Republicans do not go ahead and commit illegal acts; and, God knows, Republicans don’t view their fellow Americans as enemies to be harassed.’’
He later wrote in his autobiography, “Maverick: A Life in Politics”: “As a politician, I wasn’t hurt by Watergate. I was made by it.”
To Mr. Weicker’s admirers, the Watergate hearings revealed a man who was willing to buck power, question authority and follow his convictions, whatever the cost. To his critics, they transformed him into a contrarian with a robust ego who often went against the grain for the sake of the fight itself.
Indeed, through a 30-year career in public life either serving in or representing Connecticut — as a state representative, as the first selectman of Greenwich (the equivalent of its mayor), as a one-term member of the U.S. House of Representatives, as a three-term U.S. senator and as governor for four years — Mr. Weicker, a hulking presence at 6-foot-6, never seemed happier than when he was in the middle of a good toe-to-toe slugfest.
In the Senate, where he served from 1971 to 1989, his closest friend and mentor was Senator Jacob K. Javits of New York, another liberal Republican. His favorite enemy, through many a battle in the 1970s and ’80s, was also a Republican, Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina.
Attempts by social conservatives like Mr. Helms to advance their agenda — whether through enacting legislation regarding prayer in public schools or restrictions on abortion rights — particularly enraged Mr. Weicker, who saw the increasing power of the Christian right in his party as a grave threat to its future.
“No greater mischief can be created than to combine the power of religion with the power of government,” he wrote in his autobiography. “History has shown us that time and time again.”
Mr. Weicker’s politics — he usually sided with Democrats on social issues and with Republicans on taxes and spending — always made him an outsider, and in 1990, two years after losing his Senate seat to Joseph I. Lieberman, he walked away from two-party politics completely.
His political comeback, when he ran for governor of Connecticut, would make him into what he said he had always been: an independent. Founding a third party — its official name was A Connecticut Party — he took office in 1991 in the trough of a national recession that had not spared his state. That year, he pushed through the creation of an income tax — long a taboo in Connecticut — even though he lacked the vote of a single member of his party in the state’s General Assembly.
“I sometimes did see myself as a maverick,” he wrote. “Independent, unafraid.”
Lowell Palmer Weicker Jr. was born in Paris on May 16, 1931, the son of the chief executive of the Squibb pharmaceutical company. A grandfather, Theodore Weicker, a German immigrant, had founded the pharmaceutical company Merck & Company with George Merck and later, with a partner, purchased Squibb & Sons.
Lowell Jr. attended the private Lawrenceville School in New Jersey and Yale University, graduating in 1953. After a two-year stint in the Army, he enrolled at the University of Virginia Law School and received his degree in 1958. He served in the Army Reserve until 1964.
Though he grew up in privilege, in his later public life Mr. Weicker often took the side of the underdog. He credited some of his political views to his mother, Mary Hastings (Bickford) Weicker, a Democrat, but just as much to his father, a Republican who he said taught him that having luck and wealth was no excuse to look down on those who had neither. (His parents later divorced, and his mother remarried.)
As an overweight teenager, Mr. Weicker said, he also learned early that standing in place and punching back was probably his best strategy in life.
“A man has to learn to do one of two things,” he quoted a school coach as saying: run or fight. “One look at you and I suggest you learn how to fight,” the coach said. The lesson stuck.
Along the way, Mr. Weicker became a devoted operagoer — so much so that he accepted walk-on parts with the Connecticut Opera.
He was elected to the Connecticut General Assembly in 1962 and was first selectman of Greenwich before winning seats in the U.S. House in 1968 and in the Senate two years later.
With his national profile raised after the Watergate hearings, Mr. Weicker in March 1979 announced his candidacy for the 1980 Republican presidential nomination. But within two months the campaign collapsed, after a poll in his home state had him running third behind Ronald Reagan and former President Gerald R. Ford.
Mr. Weicker left public life in 1995, after one term as governor. That same year he published his autobiography, written with Barry Sussman, who as an editor at The Washington Post had helped steer its Watergate coverage. Mr. Weicker subsequently served as founding president of the Trust for America’s Health, a nonprofit group working on disease prevention, from 2001 to 2011.
He is survived by his wife, Claudia Weicker; his sons, Scot, Gray, Brian, Tre and Sonny; two stepsons, Mason and Andrew Ingram; 12 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren. He lived in Old Lyme, on Connecticut’s coast.
In the 2008 presidential election, Mr. Weicker endorsed Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee, rejecting the self-described maverick Republicans John McCain and Sarah Palin. He also backed President Obama in 2012, arguing that his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, was too willing to adjust his positions to win favor with the far right.
Similarly, he had no affection for former President Donald J. Trump, who had once called Mr. Weicker a “fat slob who couldn’t get elected dogcatcher in Connecticut.”
“I think the man is a total con artist,” Mr. Weicker told Hearst Connecticut Media in 2015. “Maybe it’s a reflection of the Republican Party more than Donald Trump, if it allows any nut case like Trump to make it as if he was a valid presidential candidate.”
In 2019, he predicted that Mr. Trump would lose his bid for re-election.
In his book, Mr. Weicker admitted that idiosyncratic politics afforded him few allies. By the time he left the Senate, he wrote, he was close to few people in either party.
To many voters at home, he had perhaps come to seem almost too much the loner, fighting one-man battles. Mr. Lieberman neatly captured that image in a series of television commercials that helped swing a tight election. They portrayed Mr. Weicker as a great lumbering bear who came out of his cave only to roar at the world.
In a 2012 interview with Connecticut magazine, Mr. Weicker was asked what was harder: being a senator, being a governor or being retired.
“I think probably being retired,” he said. “To sit here and watch this world go by — and this world is having a tough time — and I can’t do anything about it.”
Neil Vigdor contributed reporting.