Politics & Policy

Bill Weld’s Long, Strange Trip

Weld in 2006 (Keith Bedford/Reuters)
From coddled Brahmin scion to liberal Republican crusader to Libertarian vice-presidential contender, the former Massachusetts governor has led a rich life.

Libertarians will descend on Orlando later this week to select their party’s nominees for president and vice president. The ticket most likely to emerge consists of two former Republican governors, Gary Johnson of New Mexico and William Weld of Massachusetts.

Johnson, the 2012 Libertarian nominee who supported subsidies for film production and public financing of campaigns, is the more familiar face on today’s political scene. But Weld, who’s been largely forgotten since his unsuccessful 1997 fight to become President Bill Clinton’s ambassador to Mexico, is one of the most unlikely figures to emerge as a potential major player in the 2016 election.

The Welds are one of the quintessential Boston Brahmin families. Once, during Weld’s gubernatorial years, then-Massachusetts Senate president William Bulger quipped that Weld’s ancestors had come over on the Mayflower, prompting Weld to jokingly correct him. “Actually they weren’t on the Mayflower,” he said. “They sent the servants over first to get the cottage ready.” Another time, a reporter covering Weld’s first gubernatorial bid for the Boston Globe asked him where he got his money. “We don’t get money, we have money,” he replied.

Indeed they do. After a childhood spent at a home on Long Island’s north shore that later became a nature preserve, Weld graduated summa cum laude from Harvard with a degree in economics, studying the subject further at Oxford before returning to Cambridge, Mass., to earn his JD from Harvard Law School. Three years later, he was hired to work on the U.S. House of Representatives Impeachment Inquiry into Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal. “If I was the first staffer, Hillary Rodham from Yale Law School was the second staffer,” Weld told the Nixon Library Oral History Program. “She’s just a very decent person, and if I recall correctly, on the occasion when I got in the middle and [special counsel to the Judiciary Committee] John Doar himself got frowny-faced with me — which he should not have, by the way, I was doing my duty — I think Hillary intervened and defended me on that and I’ve never forgotten that.”

(Weld isn’t kidding: Earlier this year, he dismissed the scandal surrounding Clinton’s private e-mail server as much ado about nothing. “I’ve never bought that e-mail thing,” he told Boston Herald radio on February 29. “I don’t think anything was classified when she did it, it got classified later. . . . I don’t think she would lay a lot of stuff on the table that she thought would compromise our national security.”)

Earlier this year, Weld dismissed the scandal surrounding Clinton’s private e-mail server as much ado about nothing.

Following his work on Watergate, Weld took a job in the U.S. attorney’s office. In 1986, President Reagan promoted him to assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division. But by 1988, he had resigned as Assistant Attorney General, citing ethics concerns about Attorney General Ed Meese’s involvement with the Wedtech Corporation, a Bronx military contractor at the center of a scandal involving improperly won government contracts. Weld contended Meese’s decision to remain in his office while under investigation damaged the reputation of the department. A month after he resigned, Weld and another colleague who resigned met with President Reagan in the Oval Office, making the case for Meese’s dismissal. He later testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that he believed, “If Mr. Meese were an ordinary public official, he would be open to prosecution.”

Two years later, in the Massachusetts governor’s race, Weld faced Democrat John Silber, the president of Boston University, whose abrasive comments from the time sound Trumpian today. During the race, Silber contended expenditures on medical care to the elderly should be cut because, “When you’ve had a long life and you’re ripe, then it’s time to go”; he wouldn’t campaign in certain Boston neighborhoods because, he said, “There is no point in my making a speech on crime control to a bunch of drug addicts.” A week before the election, he denounced working mothers for believing “a third-rate day-care center was just as good as a first-rate home.”

Against such a gaffe-prone opponent, Weld won 52 percent to 48 percent, becoming the first Republican governor in the Bay State in 20 years. He was elected on a pro-choice, pro-gay-rights, pro-medical-marijuana platform, and he set about urging the rest of the GOP to adopt the same positions.

“I happen to think that individual freedom should extended to a women’s right to choose,” Weld told the 1992 Republican National Convention. “I want the government out of your pocketbook and your bedroom.” Later the same night, he predicted to the Harvard Crimson that, “In 1996 the Republican Party will be neutral or pro-choice.”

#share#In a detailed assessment after Weld left office, Jeff Jacoby offered a mixed portrait of his influence on Massachusetts government. While he undoubtedly improved upon the disastrous budgetary mess that outgoing governor Michael Dukakis had left him, he didn’t actually manage to reduce state spending.

“Measured against the standard set by his predecessor, Weld stands tall,” Jacoby wrote. “But measured against the standard he set for himself, Weld has been a singular disappointment. Under his supervision the government grew up, not down; more powerful, not less. On Beacon Hill the ‘failed dogmas of big government’ are as entrenched as ever. The Weld revolution has yet to happen.”

While failing to keep his fiscal promises, Weld also managed to make some moves on cultural issues that are seriously inconvenient for a Libertarian candidate in 2016. In 1993, as governor, he endorsed a slew of gun-control proposals: a statewide ban on assault weapons, a waiting period for buying handguns, a limit on the number of handguns an individual could buy, and a prohibition on handgun ownership by anyone under 21.

“The purpose of this common-sense legislation is to remove deadly guns from our streets and to take weapons out of the hands of many teens who themselves are becoming deadly killers,” he said at the time. Nowadays, he’s singing a different tune. “Today, almost 25 years later, I would make some different choices,” Weld explained in a recent Facebook post addressed to Libertarians. “Restricting Americans’ gun rights doesn’t make us safer, and threatens our constitutional freedoms.”

In 1996, Weld ran against Senator John Kerry, giving Kerry the toughest reelection fight of his career before ultimately falling short. The following year, President Clinton nominated Weld to serve as U.S. Ambassador to Mexico. Weld accepted, resigning the governorship with the expectation that he would be confirmed.

Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina, the chairman of the foreign-relations committee, had other ideas. Helms was no fan of a Republican who supported abortion, gay rights, and medical marijuana. He was also close friends with Meese. Helms began publicly complaining about Weld’s drug positions, noting that the governor hadn’t prosecuted many drug cases as U.S. Attorney, and arguing that he was too soft on drugs to be an acceptable ambassador to Mexico. Weld returned fire instead of trying to win over the chairman.

Weld hopes that Libertarian delegates will forgive his past ideological sins and accept him as one of their own.

Today, John Podesta is chairman of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Back in 1997, as Bill Clinton’s deputy chief of staff, he was charged with shepherding Weld to Senate confirmation. But the president never really pushed Helms on Weld. Podesta told the New York Times, “We don’t need to add a new log on to the fire of antagonism.” After five months, Helms wrote to Clinton that the Weld fight endangered their “positive working relationship”; six weeks later Weld withdrew himself from consideration for the position.

He hasn’t done much of consequence since. He tried his hand at thriller novels featuring a thinly veiled alter ego, Terry Mullally, described as “a smart-ass prosecutor-turned-politician who loves Latin and grammar, takes on the Establishment, excels at snappy patter, and has no qualms about ruthlessly cutting corners to get ahead.” He briefly attempted a political comeback in 2006, entering the Republican primary for governor of New York, but failed to secure the nomination.

Later, in 2008, Weld turned some heads by endorsing Barack Obama for president: “It’s not often you get a guy with his combination of qualities, chief among which I would say is the deep sense of calm he displays, and I think that’s a product of his equally deep intelligence.” He called the choice “close to a no-brainer.” Four years later, Weld told reporters he regretted his choice: “I supported Obama in ’08 because I felt he was more serious about the economy. You can see how wrong I was!”

#related#It wasn’t the last time Weld had to apologize for an endorsement. In February, Weld endorsed Ohio governor John Kasich for president, declaring that, “His tremendous record and results-oriented conservative leadership in Ohio is exactly what we need in the White House.” That decision irked Libertarians, who have their own beef with Kasich.

“Based on [my] work with Governor Kasich, I believed him to be the best choice among the many candidates for the Republican nomination,” Weld said. “At the same time, I am now aware that Governor Kasich has taken actions to make ballot access in Ohio much more difficult and costly for Libertarians. At no point did I have any knowledge about efforts to restrict ballot access.”

This weekend, Weld hopes that Libertarian delegates will forgive his past ideological sins and accept him as one of their own. But he shouldn’t worry. If anyone gets “frowny-faced” with him, he can always count on Hillary Clinton to have his back.

— Jim Geraghty is the senior political correspondent for National Review.

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