Bertie Wooster’s Party Tricks

Former Gov. Bill Weld.

Illustration by Philip Burke

Anyone whom Jesse Helms brands as his enemy is instantly sympathetic. Helms says he will use his powers as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to derail William Weld’s nomination to become ambassador to Mexico because Weld supports the decriminalization of marijuana for medical use. But unlike other Clinton nominees who have given up when Helms opposed them, Weld has girded for battle. Earlier this week, he resigned his position as governor of Massachusetts to combat Helms’ “ideological extortion” full time.

Weld wants his fight with Helms to be a “battle over the soul of the Republican Party.” And where does Bill Weld think the soul of the Republican party should lie? He declares himself a philosophical libertarian who discovered Hayek in law school. But his alleged libertarianism is inconsistent, and may be no more than a convenient, fancy formulation for the combination of policies–fiscally conservative, socially liberal–needed to get elected as a Republican in a Democratic state. Weld certainly did not advertise himself as a libertarian when he worked for the Reagan administration, running the Criminal Division of the Justice Department.

Weld’s popular appeal is based less on the perception that he’s a libertarian than the perception he’s that even rarer animal, a moderate Republican. With the crusty, rural, reactionary Helms as a foil, Weld seems a moderate, cosmopolitan thinking man, above petty politics. He is even willing to accept a job in a Democratic administration. But Weld’s moderation, his “independent spirit,” like his libertarianism, may actually reflect two less admirable qualities: first, a Clintonesque political slipperiness; and, second, a lack of seriousness. He’s a flake.

He’s a flake because he’s an aristocrat. And he brilliantly fuses these two politically disadvantageous conditions into a political plus. Weld comes from wealthy, pure WASP stock and married a great granddaughter of Theodore Roosevelt. Far from playing this down, he revels in Brahmin shtick, incessantly gabbing with reporters about his prep-school days, publicly proclaiming the sacrosanctity of his twice-weekly squash games, and cracking jokes like “The Welds arrived in 1630 with only the shirts on their backs and 2,000 pounds of gold.”

More successfully than Ross Perot or Steve Forbes, Weld’s demeanor plays on the ancient myth of the Cincinnatus–the notion that a man of wealth makes the best statesman, because he will never be tempted to act in his own self-interest and will work solely for the common good. Unlike Forbes and Perot, Weld never seems to be straining to garner the public’s approval. An obsequious 1992 New York Times Magazine profile put it this way: “In the Governor’s office, Weld has restored a tradition of aristocratic Yankee lordship, he has made governing look easy and WASP ascendancy seem an expression of natural law, if not of divine right.” He can drink a martini while balancing a budget.

But all is not aristocratic ease and devil-may-care frankness. Weld came to national prominence in 1988, when he resigned as head of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, allegedly in protest over Attorney General Edwin Meese’s interference in the investigation of Meese’s friend E. Robert Wallach, accused of using his company Wedtech to abuse government contracts. Weld later conceded that he had planned months before to leave the Justice Department. He didn’t mention this when he struck his headline-grabbing stance.

And then there’s his claim that as governor he restored the health of the Massachusetts economy. Remember back to Michael Dukakis’$2 1988 presidential run. Mid-campaign, the state’s economy, which Dukakis was referring to as “the Massachusetts miracle,” sank, creating a huge government budget deficit and threatening the state’s financial solvency. To stave off collapse during his last two years in office, Dukakis stewarded over $1 billion in tax increases through the state legislature.

When Weld campaigned for governor in 1990 against Boston University President John Silber, he vociferously supported a ballot measure that would have reversed the Dukakis tax increases. Silber argued (correctly) that repealing the tax increases would ruin the state’s bond rating, and result in irresponsibly large social-spending cuts. Silber was too persuasive for his own good. As it became clear that the disastrous tax cut would not pass, the liberals of Cambridge, Newton, and Boston–disliking Silber for his cranky hard-line views on social issues–felt it was safe to vote for Weld. The Republican won by less than 3 percent.

Weld’s combination of positions on issues plays to the great weakness in today’s liberalism: its obsession with social issues and relative indifference to economics. Because Weld is pro-gay, pro-choice, and pro-affirmative action, liberals overlooked his strident economic conservatism. As promised in the campaign, he slashed social spending and welfare rolls. However, taxes remain at nearly the same levels as when he entered office, and government spending has increased more than 50 percent during his six-year tenure. If he had got his way about repealing the Dukakis tax increases, he and his state would be up shit creek. He has the unpopular stands taken by Michael Dukakis and John Silber to thank for creating the conditions for solid growth that have buoyed his popularity.

The pose of the post-partisan suits Weld because he can change his positions on a dime. Three years into his term he dropped his strident opposition to gun control when the position began hurting his poll numbers. Though he describes himself as being “to the right of Attila the Hun on crime,” he authorized the Willie Hortenesque early parole of more than 700 sex offenders in 1992. Despite twice campaigning actively against Bill Clinton, he has begged for a post in his administration.

Weld’s capriciousness is key to his success. Even when it would seem blatantly self-serving, his unpredictability jibes with the public’s expectation that his personal wealth will allow him to do whatever he thinks is right. His whimsy can be downright charming. During a signing ceremony for a bill, he dove headfirst fully clothed into the Charles River. And he once sent pictures to reporters of himself with a giant boar he claims to have hunted down–though it turned out to be in captivity.

His decision to resign and run for the ambassadorship few expect him to win should be treated like these other nutty episodes. Even reporters who describe the move as quixotic express admiration for his audacity. He has already demonstrated his acumen at milking the confrontation with Helms for its maximum theatrical and political value. And since he clearly has further political ambitions–he has talked about becoming attorney general or secretary of state, and no doubt thinks of even higher office–the spotlight will serve him well. He can indulge in the self-serving grandstanding and self-effacing silliness that only William Weld could possibly pull off.