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Politics as Usual: Life without Robert Watson will be quite different (OPINION)

June 26, 2012

It’s just not going to be the same walking into the House Chamber next January and have Bob Watson not be there.
Rep. Robert Watson, an East Greenwich Republican, has been an integral part of the House of Representatives since 1992, when he arrived after a two-year stint in the Senate. I can’t imagine a place for which Watson could be more ill-suited than the Rhode Island Senate, where members are expected to be, like obedient children, seen and not heard. Watson agrees with that; he bailed after one term and later ran for a House seat, and he has seldom had a good word for the opposite chamber since that time.
I could take the easy route and talk about how funny Watson has been all of these years, pulling some of his memorable bons mots out of the archives, but that would miss the point. (Okay, one: Watson, who famously had some brushes with the law in the last couple of years for marijuana possession and DUI, prompting him to do a stint in rehab, compared the debate on marijuana decriminalization to the effort to crack down on sugary drinks, “We’re going to legalize pot and make soda illegal; it’s a hell of a time to be in recovery.”)
Bob Watson ALWAYS had a point. Yes, Watson on the House floor could be howlingly funny, but like Joe Pesci in “Goodfellas,” he was not there to amuse you.
He was there to get his point across and one of his most effective ways to do that was with humor. If Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl could have caught Watson’s act on the House floor, they would have invited him to their table to talk comedy and politics.
His satire could be vicious; he was often angry but seldom mean. That was his style. Watson’s wit doesn’t tickle; it stabs, but always for a purpose. He would chew up people’s ideas and gleefully spit them back at their feet. But he never attacked someone personally, just for the sport of it, although that would often be an easy thing to do during some debates.
Watson was not a clown on the House floor, but a court jester, saying the things out loud - in front of the leadership - that no one else had the guts to say and that few others would think they could get away with. The vitriol was leavened by the laughter, but it was still there after the chuckles died down.
If the emperor had no clothes, Watson was going to be the first one to jump up and say so -loudly and raucously. He wasn’t going to let anyone keep secrets, or quietly slip some new provision into a bill that no one had heard of until then. He would shine a light on whatever they were trying to do, scream at it, then jump up and down upon it, or use his microphone like a hammer to whack it repeatedly on the head.
Watson seldom got his way, in terms of passing or killing specific pieces legislation, but he nonetheless was quite effective at doing what he really wanted to do, which was to draw attention to the things others were trying to slip through, or sweep under the rug, without anyone noticing. It’s the kind of thing that happens a lot in the General Assembly. In that, he was the quintessential minority leader; the GOP was foolish to dump him in the embarrassment over the marijuana arrest in Connecticut last year.
Watson wasn’t the conscience of the House of Representatives; that would be overstating the case, even he would hoot at that. But he did like to nag on the consciences of his fellow members.
He knew that they knew when the leadership was pulling a fast one and they were going along to get along. He knew he wasn’t going to win his fight, but he was determined to not make it easier for representatives who were voting in favor of what they knew was a bad bill. (Watson cast the one and only vote against the loan guarantee program that later funded 38 Studios. He called it a “scandal waiting to happen.”) Gee, how did that work out?
He may, however, have made it a bit easier for a few reps to vote against a bad bill, once they knew there were enough votes for it to pass and they wouldn’t get in too much trouble for voting no.
It is easy to get ticked off at Watson – he is inviting it half the time – but it is impossible to hate him. That’s because, as irascible as he could be on the House floor with his game face on, making a full-throated defense or denunciation of the topic of the moment, he was just as much a gentleman and downright nice guy when he wasn’t debating legislation.
This was made clear by farewell speeches made by fellow lawmakers at the end of this session, passing the resolution acknowledging that he would not seek re-election next year (I bet some of you, having read this far, might have assumed that he had died). His colleagues expressed a genuine fondness for the guy many of whom had engaged in exasperating verbal battle.
One thing I appreciated about Watson is that he was just as feisty and combative when he returned from rehab earlier this year as he had been before he went. It would have been tragic if he had come back all docile and quiet. Someone may have been moved to put a pillow over his face, like Chief Bromden did for McMurphy when he came back from a lobotomy at the end of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Or they might have sent him to the Senate, which would have amounted to the same thing.
Watson told Jim Taricani and Bill Rappley on WJAR’s 10 News Conference on Sunday that he could very well find himself returning to politics in a few years. I know I won’t be the only one in the press corps rooting for that to happen. No reporter worth the title could ever turn his or her back on someone that quotable.

Jim Baron covers the State House for the Rhode Island Media Group. His opinions are his own and do not reflect the opinions of The Pendulum or SRI Newspapers. He can be reached at

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