Sometimes, it is easy to forget that Buffalo is 100 miles closer to Detroit than it is to Manhattan. Tonight isn’t one of those times. On an early December evening, the Grand Island Holiday Inn conference room is half-filled with Erie and Niagara County Republican Party regulars drinking bad coffee as the featured guest prepares to speak.
“I should have put up the Christmas lights today,” moans one man kicking at the green carpet with loafers lightly coated with road salt. “It’s probably going to be the last day above 20 degrees for four months.”
The faithful have turned out to hear from a long-shot gubernatorial candidate who could have sat next to them yesterday at the Bills-Panthers game without a flicker of recognition. What people out here know of William F. Weld, if anything, is that he was once the governor of a different state, might be in favor of gay marriage, at some point jumped into a river with all his clothes on, and once got into some inside-the-Beltway scrape with Jesse Helms. Those with Netflix subscriptions might recall his cameo in Traffic.
These are not Bill Weld’s people. Few are. Weld, the scion of two old-money Long Island families, grew up on a 600-acre oceanfront estate; was valedictorian at the Middlesex School, in Concord, Massachusetts; then headed to Harvard, Oxford, and Harvard again, for law school. As an undergrad in Cambridge, he was known for snoozing at the Fly Club, shuffling out pithy put-downs in Latin, and dressing in drag for Hasty Pudding shows. A Weld friend told me that he views a spirited squash game as the perfect metaphor for politics.
So here, not far from the Canadian border, the stage is prepped for comedy: Frasier Crane stumbling onto The Honeymooners set. Weld, a six-foot-four redhead, plays perfectly to type. He thrusts his hands, patrician-like, into his Brooks Brothers suit pockets and promptly drops a Waiting for Godot reference when mentioning Rochester billionaire Tom Golisano’s will-he-or-won’t-he run for governor. This is quickly followed by a shout-out to an “obscure French anarchist,” as if there were any other kind, who once said that “taxation is theft.” A few minutes later, he properly uses the word fricassée in regard to the carving up of his Democratic opposition in the Massachusetts Legislature.
And yet. And yet the 26 attendees in the Grand Island Holiday Inn eat it up. Maybe it’s his 60-going-on-6 demeanor or the mention of the nineteen tax cuts he signed as Massachusetts’s governor. Maybe it’s the argument that his years as a U.S. Attorney and then U.S. assistant attorney general will defuse Eliot Spitzer’s Eliot Ness shtick. Maybe it’s his self-deprecation—in 1990, when a Boston newscaster asked Weld to name his greatest flaw, he happily answered “laziness.”
Whatever. In the end, he gets a standing ovation. After shaking hands, Weld piles his lanky frame into the front seat of Erie County Republican chairman Bob Davis’s black SUV and stares into space as we motor toward Davis’s house for a cocktail party. “There’s nothing I like better than sitting in a car or an airplane seat, staring straight ahead for hours,” Weld had told me earlier. According to Weld, it was during one such moment that he came up with his plan to reform the Massachusetts penal code.
Davis, a brush-cut Buffalo adman, fields a blizzard of calls on his BlackBerry. “That’s another guy who was thinking of backing Golisano but now wants to bring two friends tonight,” says Davis. He clicks over and gushes to a Buffalo News reporter on deadline. Weld nods and continues his search for meaning somewhere far away in the electroclash of headlights and stars.
A few minutes later, Davis steers his cargo into the driveway of his split-level home. In the front yard stand three monumentally oversize snow globes—Christmas Snoopy, Frosty, and the Grinch—overkill at Rockefeller Center, strangely appropriate here. Inside, it’s clear the Davises do a fair amount of entertaining: There are two life-size televisions, a full-service bar, and a fully functioning Buffalo Bills Coke machine.
At the Davises’, everyone knows everyone’s favorite drink. Cocktails are mixed, and jabs traded about ne’er-do-well kids. Everyone is exceedingly friendly, but I feel like an intruder in a secret society. The toes curl up in my shoes as a platinumy Mrs. Davis steers me into a corner of the bar so she can show me dozens of pictures of her family’s alpaca farm. Just as I am about to fake thrombosis in order to extricate myself, a giant freckly hand pushes a tall vodka-tonic in my direction.
“It looks like you could use one of these,” says William Floyd Weld.