With a sarcastic attack on Washington’s ways, former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld abandoned his uphill quest Monday to be confirmed as ambassador to Mexico in the face of unyielding opposition by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms, R-N.C.
In an extraordinary news conference, the former Republican governor stood on the White House podium of a Democratic president and blasted one of the most powerful GOP lawmakers in Congress as a scourge on both his party and American government.
“I think Sen. Helms is where the problem is,” Weld said after referring to him repeatedly with visible disdain as “this man.”
Helms used his power as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee to block Weld’s nomination single-handedly. He even denied Weld a public hearing despite pleas from senators of both parties.
The Helms-Weld fight ultimately was less about the merits of who should represent the United States in Mexico than it was about politics and power in Washington - and inside the Republican Party.
After crusading for months to build a wave of public indignation against Helms’ display of muscle - with little visible effect - Weld surprised the White House early Monday by quitting the fight. In announcing his decision, Weld again cast himself as Main Street’s hero vs. Helms, whom he depicted as the tyrant inside the Beltway.
“Washington sure is a funny town,” Weld said in reviewing his fate. He said all he wanted was a fair hearing, but the wise men of Washington told him, “First you have to go on bended knee and you have to kiss a lot of rings. So I said I wouldn’t go on bended knee, and I wouldn’t kiss anything,” Weld said, to laughter.
Invoking the legacy of Republicans Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, Weld said most people in his party support simple fairness, “but to the extent people are looking at Jesse Helms as the face of the Republican Party, I think that carries a certain amount of freight with it.”
White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry happily concurred: “I suspect there will be some price paid on that (GOP) side of the aisle” for Helms’ power play, he said.
“There’s no sense of elation or victory here,” Helms spokesman Marc Thiessen said after Weld withdrew. “It was an unfortunate episode. It was unfortunate it escalated the way it did, but Sen. Helms didn’t escalate it. We wish the governor well.”
Helms said he opposed Weld because the former governor supported use of marijuana for medical purposes and giving free needles to heroin addicts. Weld’s support of abortion rights also puts him at odds with Helms.
Political insiders speculated Helms’ ire toward Weld might also be rooted, however, in Weld’s refusal to commit himself to support Helms as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee when Weld was running for the Senate last fall. Weld lost that race but hinted Monday he might seek public office again some day.
“I intend to remain an active, involved and vocal member of my party,” said Weld, who is independently wealthy. For now, he said he intends to return to the private sector. “I’ve had enough of Washington for the next little while.”
He clearly has positioned himself to carry the banner of moderate-liberal Republicans in the next round of presidential politics, however. And Sen. Edward Kennedy, the paragon of Democratic liberals, is up for re-election in 2000, too.
Republican consultants are skeptical Weld’s joust with Helms helped his future prospects much.
“I think deep in his heart, Bill Weld would like to cleanse the party of the Jesse Helmses in it, and he saw himself leading the brigade over the hill to do it. But when he looked around there wasn’t any brigade,” said Tony Fabrizio, pollster to Bob Dole’s 1996 GOP presidential campaign. “If he is seriously considering running for president, I would reconsider.”
The Clinton White House initially viewed Weld’s nomination as a bipartisan gesture but soon grew to relish the division and acrimony it sowed in GOP ranks. When Weld wanted to denounce Helms Monday, he was given the rare privilege of doing so from the White House podium, the better to publicize his case.
For the record, Clinton issued a statement accepting Weld’s withdrawal “with great disappointment. He would have been a superb ambassador to Mexico,” Clinton said.
Taking his own oblique shot at Helms, Clinton observed that “the American people have not been well served” by the way Weld’s nomination was handled. The White House has not chosen a new nominee for Mexico City, McCurry said.