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Running Weld


During his law-school summers, Weld interned in the Boston office of State Representative Martin Linsky, negotiating his way through antiwar marches without ever publicly taking a position on the war (Weld got a medical deferment for a back problem). In 1973, as the Watergate crisis exploded, Linsky was asked by Republican friends on the House Impeachment Committee for help in hiring a smart, nonideological young lawyer to research the legal grounds for impeachment. Linsky immediately called Weld, who was working as a young lawyer-drone in the Boston office of Hill & Barlow. Linsky offered the job, and Weld blithely said no, not wanting to lose his place at the firm. Weld then looked out his window, thought for a minute, called Linsky back, and took the job. It was on that D.C. trip that he met a young Democratic lawyer doing the same work named Hillary Rodham. Thirty years later, when asked what he took from the experience, Weld answers, “We researched and realized impeachment was whatever the Congress and the public thought it was.” The answer comes across as glib, dismissive, and, as Hillary’s husband found out 25 years later, absolutely correct.

Weld returned to private practice in 1974, and in 1978 launched his bid to unseat then-Massachusetts Attorney General Francis Bellotti. When I asked Weld what inspired him to first seek elective office, he didn’t cite policy reform or any of the obscure political philosophers that he drops into conversation like the rest of us drop the names of Yankees outfielders. “I had been electrified by Teddy White’s The Making of the President book about JFK,” Weld told me. “It seemed like great fun.”

Weld lost his first political battle, 80 percent to 20 percent, and carried only two towns in the state. Still, he impressed state GOP leaders and was named U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts after Reagan’s 1980 victory. Like his possible opponent, Spitzer, Weld earned a reputation for taking on high-profile targets. He drew headlines, for example, for his aggressive attacks on political corruption in Massachusetts, indicting 48 officials and convicting 46 of them, including ten staffers in the administration of Boston mayor Kevin White. Only a U.S. Attorney from New York named Rudolph Giuliani scored more positive buzz.

In September 1986, Attorney General Ed Meese nabbed Weld to run the criminal division at the Justice Department. Some saw it as an odd fit—the libertarian blue blood taking a job with Reagan’s right-hand man—and, in fact, it took just a few months for the two men to clash. In November 1986, the Iran/contra scandal began to break and Meese decided he and a few cronies would conduct the initial investigation themselves. Weld strenuously disagreed and announced at a staff meeting that it was inappropriate for the attorney general and his lieutenants to handle the case. He argued that his criminal division and the FBI should handle it. After several related ethical disputes, Weld lobbied for Meese’s resignation. “It got to the point where Meese was defending himself by saying, ‘If I’m so corrupt, then why is Mr. Anti-Corruption Bill Weld still saluting me every day?’ ” says Mark Robinson, Weld’s top aide at the time. “That just became intolerable for Bill.”

On March 29, 1987, Weld resigned along with Deputy Attorney General Arnold Burns. That day, he went over to the White House to explain his resignation to President Reagan, who promptly fell asleep during their meeting.

At a November speech before a lunchtime crowd of bankers at the St. Regis Hotel, Weld began by bringing up Sam Houston. “Sam was governor of the state of Tennessee and then the first governor of Texas,” said Weld. “When my friend Lamar Alexander from Tennessee heard about my interest in running for governor here in New York, he gave me a copy of the famous Sam Houston biography, The Raven, and told me, ‘You’ll like Sam. He’s a quitter, just like you.’ I told him he was right. I think, like Sam Houston, I’ve always been a principled quitter.”

The line didn’t ring true, not entirely, anyway. Later, a Weld confidant suggested another reason for his friend’s peripatetic career. Shortly after his second Massachusetts inauguration, Weld sat in his office with the friend and expressed private amazement at his accomplishment. “I never thought I would live this long,” Weld said. “I have so much I want to do, and I don’t know how much time I have to do it.”

Weld’s father died in 1972, at 61. “It was a heart attack, clear out of the blue sky. He was never sick a day in his life,” Weld told me at Bellport. In June, Weld buried his brother David at the age of 66. “The Welds have never had the longest life expectancy,” Weld said. I asked him if that fact might explain some of his career impatience. “It’s possible,” he answered. “I certainly was very taken with Achilles as a figure. Achilles was vouchsafed to a brilliant life full of valor but a short one, and he knew it was coming. I think Aeneas is down in book six in the underworld and he sees someone there, and I think it’s Achilles, and he says, ‘I would rather be a slave among the living than a king among the dead.’ ”

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