Don Quixote or Mr. Smith? Weld Takes Crusade to D.C.

Ex-Bay State governor tries to get ambassador post

For a guy who says he wants to be an ambassador, ex-Massachusetts Gov. William Weld is acting pretty undiplomatic these days.

He's quit his statehouse job to travel to Capitol Hill and campaign against "Washington rules," he insists. He's tired of living in a country where one man, Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, can block a simple, squash-playing moderate Republican (himself) from becoming United States envoy to Mexico.

In Washington - where people look for the hidden agenda in "hello" - they're pretty sure the real office Weld wants isn't south of the border. After all, a couple of discreet meetings with Senator Helms and the odd grovel or two could have fixed this mess early on.

Instead, Weld has blasted Helms and publicly warned the White House that it shouldn't yield to "ideological extortion." He's alienated his opponent and embarrassed his supporters.

In other words, he's acting a lot like someone who's really trying to shape his public image for a run at the Oval Office in 2000.

"It's hard to disentangle Weld's motives - how much he's just tired of being governor, and his other political aspirations," says Sarah Binder, a congressional-procedures expert at the Brookings Institution here. "What's perplexing to me is that he faces such an uphill battle on the Mexico nomination. It raises the question, is he nuts?"

The Washington practice that has apparently so angered Weld centers on the way the US Senate operates.

As chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Helms has almost absolute say over whether or not Weld receives a hearing for his nomination. Right now, that means not - Helms has said he does not consider Weld "ambassador quality."

As governor, Weld took a number of positions that are anathema to conservatives such as Helms, among them: support for both the medical use of marijuana and needle-exchange programs for drug addicts.

Most senators think Weld would be a perfectly fine envoy. He'd likely win easy confirmation in a floor vote. But one nomination is not a large issue, and few senators want to publicly cross Helms and try to force the issue.

The Senate is supposed to be the collegial chamber. Deferring to individual senators helps protect minority beliefs, in the Washington view.

But from Massachusetts the whole thing may look like a nudge-nudge system that doesn't mind toying with an individual's reputation and future.

"I would invite [Helms] to answer the question why there shouldn't be a hearing," said Weld on July 28 at the press conference where he announced his resignation. "Maybe that is Washington rules ... but I don't play by those rules."

Perhaps Weld's attack will shame Helms into allowing him a hearing. Currently the Washington view is that it will have the opposite effect. A Senate Foreign Relations panel spokesman indicated stiffly on Monday that the chairman still opposes Weld and hinted that he had taken umbrage at Weld's attack.

Of course, Weld's real problem may lie at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. Since floating his name for the Mexico post in late April, the White House has not exactly been relentless in pushing him for the post.

Appearing at the National Governors' Association in Las Vegas, President Clinton said "I hope we can get" Weld to Mexico. But neither the president nor any of his aides have any plans to join Weld in what is likely to be an uncomfortable round of State Department and Senate meetings scheduled.

Weld has also talked about his crusade as a struggle for the soul of the Republican Party. After all, he's a standard bearer for the Northeast GOP, a moderate bunch who have felt increasingly uncomfortable in a party that is increasingly dominated by social conservative Southerners and Westerners.

On this issue, Weld may have some national impact. His resignation and crusade have raised his public persona and defined him as a Washington outsider - Ronald Reagan with a Harvard accent.

But an old GOP truism is that it's tough for moderates to attract the more-conservative Republican primary electorate - whatever their appeal to the nation at large.

And while some Northeast GOP senators are beginning to agitate on Weld's behalf, others may be reluctant to be associated with a Democrat's nominee.

"A Democratic president appoints a Republican governor from the Northeast to an ambassadorship. For that to become a critical test for the future of the Republican Party seems to me a bit of a stretch," says Charles Jones, a University of Wisconsin political scientist.

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