That’s the bad news. But here’s the thing: It was precisely Weld’s never-let-them-see-you-sweat attitude that Massachusetts’s blue bloods and blue collars alike loved about him. “Like most people,” says Marty Linsky, a 30-year friend and political confidant of Weld’s, “Bill’s greatest weaknesses are also his greatness strengths, only more so.” In fact, the TV interview in which Weld breezily labeled “laziness” as his worst flaw played a significant role in Weld’s getting elected as a Republican in the country’s most Democratic state. Weld may have given the impression he was off playing contract bridge, but he wasn’t, at least not all of the time. As governor, he repeatedly cut taxes, reduced state spending, and balanced the budget in his first year—in a state where Republicans were outnumbered in the Legislature two to one—after his predecessor, Mike Dukakis, had left it $1 billion in the red. All the while, the goofball smile never left his face.
Weld’s mellow brand of Republicanism—a Pataki-esque, suburb-friendly mix of small government and live-and-let-live (unless-you’re-a-criminal-and-then-we-have-a-nice-lethal-injection-for-you) social policy—has a comfortable familiarity to New Yorkers. And while Spitzer is no doubt a talented and honorable man who may well go on someday to become president of this great land, no one is going to mistake his do-gooder goodness for charisma. The recent spate of “Spitzer as hothead” stories, fanned by Weld and his team, if not planted by them, suggests there may be traction in the idea that New Yorkers want a friendly face—and the Weld persona is nothing if not friendly—coming into their house on NewsChannel 4, not a humorless screamer perpetually reminding them how corrupt their state government is.
Can Bill Weld win? Those who say they know at this point are either fools or communications directors. This much is certain: New York is about to be vastly entertained and at times befuddled by a Republican blue-blood, patrician job-jumper who slurred his speech at his second gubernatorial inauguration, is a close friend of Bill and Hillary Clinton, has written three novels, and is a fan of Nabokov’s trilingual puns.
Bill Weld’s choice of Michael’s for a get-acquainted lunch seemed more appropriate for a Condé Nast raj than a GOP gubernatorial candidate. At first, our conversation was stilted, and we made small talk about our mutual love of Los Angeles. “Whenever I’m out there, I stay with my friend Terry Malick, off Doheny,” said Weld, alluding to lone-wolf filmmaker Terrence Malick, whom he met while studying at Oxford in the sixties. “I helped him raise money for Badlands. You can see my shoulder in a couple of frames.” Later, I made a joke about who in their right mind would want to spend four years in Albany. Weld didn’t offer any lofty response about his keen desire to help the people of the great state of New York or his intention to clean out the barn in Albany. Instead, he made the first of what would be many literary allusions. “Are you familiar with William Kennedy’s Ironweed?” Weld asked as he speared a scallop. “I can’t wait to walk the streets those characters walked.”
Weld is a Michael’s regular, it turns out, so we had a prime table in the front room. If the state were limited to this one posh precinct, Weld would win by acclamation. We were repeatedly interrupted by well-wishers, the last time by a Cablevision executive who pumped Weld’s arm for nearly 30 seconds. Weld is a favorite of the smart set, and has become known as a swell dinner guest in the five years since he returned to New York. It’s not hard to see why. By turns, our conversation touched on Malick, Weld’s squash game, and a new Edmund Wilson biography. Weld calls Wilson by his nickname, “Bunny.” Not that his New York friends would ever venture north for dinner. “I keep talking about how when I get to Albany we’re going to do a lot of entertaining,” he said with a wry smile. “No one seems excited about that but me.”
When George Pataki announced in July that he would not seek a fourth term, Bill Weld looked like the Republicans’ can’t-miss candidate (Weld declared he was running three weeks later). He had credibility in all the key areas: a proven track record as a fiscal conservative and social liberal, an established ability to raise money, seven years as a Justice Department hard-ass to counter Spitzer’s legal-crusader persona, and the tacit support of the GOP’s Big Three. Pataki and Weld are longtime friends, and Weld’s campaign offices are across the hall from the governor’s fund-raising team. Rudy Giuliani and Weld are even closer; they have been pals since their days as U.S. Attorneys in the eighties, and Giuliani sits on the board of Weld’s investment firm, Leeds Weld & Co. And if you went down a checklist, Weld’s and Mike Bloomberg’s policy stands are nearly identical. Weld seemed like a godsend to a party that was preparing to be steamrolled by Spitzer.