Crocodile tears, laughter and old-time politicking
BRISTOL — Picture one of those old black-and-white photos from 100 years ago. A huge ballroom is filled with long tables and men — always just men — with long curly mustaches, slightly glazed over from the booze.
They’re wearing freshly-stained white butchers’ aprons, the ruins of the steak feast cornered on their plates. There’s a haze in the room from the cigars. They’re posing, briefly, for a glimpse into eternity.
That’s what the Crocodile Club, in theory, conjures up for me. Guys off the leash, getting hammered, talking politics. Maybe there are political enemies sitting next to each other, but really, that class of individual has always had more in common with each other than with the people they are elected to represent.
In some ways, the nasty polarization of the moment underscores the high stakes of our futures.
I mean, take the two millionaires running for governor. Republican Bob Stefanowski of Madison and Democrat Ned Lamont of Greenwich have more in common with each other than they do with people nearly anywhere else but certain enclaves in the state that we all can name.
So, I wasn’t expecting much at the 137th annual Crocodile Club gathering in the historic Ballroom at Lake Compounce, America’s oldest amusement park, which opened as a picnic area in 1846, quickly graduating to hand-cranked swings and ten-pin bowling. Now the merry-go-round, once the height of sophistication, is dwarfed by the stomach-bottoming roller coaster and its kin.
About 200 people, a small crowd compared with 20 years ago, showed up Friday for lamb, corn and what passes these days for bipartisan political comedy. The group was maybe two-thirds men. Everyone but a few reporters, a political handler, and news photographers were white.
Insults have mostly replaced wit in this dumbed-down age, but hey, it was my last chance to wear the white linen pants before the Labor Day fashion shutdown.
Plus, there was a rumored Stefanowski appearance.
Breaking away from the vague TV campaign he successfully waged to market his GOP primary victory, Bob was actually on the hustings! And Surprise: he’s human. He doesn’t shrivel up in daylight and, for a corporate-exec type who’s not used to answering to anyone, he’s nearly capable of self-deprecation. But that was later.
During what is called the fellowship hour, between noon and 1, when those who dared actually ordered alcoholic libations from the half dozen bartenders, Bob wandered in. He’s tall, maybe 6-foot-4, open-collared, khakis, GOP casual, with yet another new communications handler.
He deflected a half dozen questions from reporters seeking details on his promised elimination of the income tax over eight years, to which he made his standard reply about how as a corporate exec, whole divisions had to explain why they deserved any money at all. He backed it up with his Reagan economist spiel and the glories of the tax-slashing supply-side, not mentioning the chaos it caused in Kansas. Ho hum.
Where was the bar?
Nope. I certainly don’t drink or eat at these events. I’m there for you with a tape recorder and a notebook, and a pile of questions that mostly will not be answered.
Gad Norton, whose ancestors settled the lake area in 1684, started the park and later was a state lawmaker representing the district. In 1875, in an act of flagrant quid pro quo, he invited lawmakers to a party. He wanted to thank them for moving the Southington town border, so his farmhouse could be in Bristol, three miles away, instead of six miles distant — in that age of horse-and-buggy — to Southington.
But he demanded that no politics be discussed “just pleasant sociability, good fun and good food” and that only “crocodile tears” be shed over past events.
Stefanowski hit the stage. “I still get a little bit nervous giving speeches,” he admitted in the most-telling remark of the nascent race for governor. “I’m getting better, but I’m still a little bit nervous.” He recalled that Sen. Joe Markley, his running mate from Southington, reminded him that he was supposed to be funny.
“That’s two strikes against me,” he said, to about five laughs from the crowd. “When you’re anointed ... or you get the Republican-governor candidacy, it’s very easy to get a little bit arrogant, and you find yourself thinking that you’re pretty important. But I’ve got three daughters.” He recalled a recent evening when one of them saw his ad on TV and fast-forwarded through it. “She said ‘I am so tired of hearing about you Dad, I don’t want to hear about you ever again.’”
I couldn’t join the crowd in the ripple of crocodile laughter.
Ken Dixon, political editor and columnist, can be reached at 860-549-4670 or at email@example.com. Visit him at twitter.com/KenDixonCT and on Facebook at kendixonct.hearst.