Good Night, Weld: Ruddy Candidate Throws In Towel

Bill Weld entered the New York Governor’s race as a red-haired, ruddy-cheeked savior for the state’s declining G.O.P. establishment—a former two-term Massachusetts governor and classical scholar who was once considered a strong potential candidate for President.

He left humbly, heaping praise upon John Faso, a former minority leader in the New York State Assembly.

“Sometimes it takes a little while for things to settle in, and it was no one thing,” he said to a room full of reporters at his office in midtown, as Mr. Faso stood by and beamed. “John has made a very convincing case for himself politically and as a policy matter.”

Mr. Weld’s withdrawal, which followed a heavy defeat at the party convention last week, cleared the field for Mr. Faso to run this fall against the likely Democratic nominee, Attorney General Eliot Spitzer.

For many Republicans, the civilized departure of Mr. Weld, 60, came as something of a relief. “It makes a big difference,” said state chairman Stephen Minarik, who originally backed Mr. Weld but pleaded with him last weekend to drop out of the race.

But why did Mr. Weld fail? After all, he was hyper-qualified—he was a former federal prosecutor in the Reagan administration—and seemed, in a paper match-up at least, to provide his party with the best chance of winning a difficult race for the state’s top office.

As it turns out, New York may not have been ready for “straight baseball,” the phrase Mr. Weld used last week in describing his stream-of-consciousness, come-what-may style of political discourse.

An old-money native of eastern Long Island, Mr. Weld’s substantial charms were apparently lost on the party’s rank and file, who overwhelmingly chose the stolid, conservative Mr. Faso at their convention last week by a margin of 61-39.

For the campaign, it was a crushing blow. For Mr. Weld, whose approach to the campaign at times leant him the air of an adventure-seeking hobbyist, it was the slightest of setbacks.

At a barbecue at his Bellport home shortly after the heavy convention defeat, Mr. Weld almost seemed not to have noticed what had happened earlier in the day. “I’m going to be myself whether that is the right strategy or not,” he said as he sat on the white rail of his wooden back deck.

It was, for him, effortless—working a small group of reporters with cocktail-party chatter about how Nancy Reagan was “a real hoofer” and sharing stories about his time as the governor of Massachusetts.

While he walked around the renovated house, admiring the blue paint job and noting that it once “had holes in the ceiling all the way up to the sky,” Mr. Weld seemed not to have a care in the world. Certainly, there was no suggestion that his run for New York Governor was on its last legs.

That attitude is typical for Mr. Weld, according to those who know him from his days in Massachusetts. “I do think he gets bored easily,” said long-serving Massachusetts State Representative Byron Rushing. “And he does have a pretty remarkable sense of humor. So you are never sure whether what he’s doing comes from interest, boredom or that he thinks it’s funny.”

Either way, the end of Mr. Weld’s current gubernatorial bid came quickly: Less than a week after his barbecue, he had been abandoned by the same party leaders who had encouraged him to get into the race—Governor George Pataki chief among them—and spared himself and the party any further pain by dropping out.

Mr. Weld’s problems with the party faithful were about more than his unapologetically intellectual style.

For one thing, there were the issues: Mr. Weld is a moderate on social issues such as abortion and gay rights, which put him at odds with the long-frustrated conservative base of the party.

Then there was the ill-timed meltdown of Decker College, a trade school where Mr. Weld was an executive in 2005. The school went bankrupt last fall amid highly publicized state and federal investigations into allegations of financial-aid fraud.

But for all of that, Mr. Weld’s allies saw something darker at work in his surprising defeat: a revolt against the party leadership, and the Governor, that doomed the campaign’s plan of running as the organizational champion.

Some of Mr. Faso’s supporters seemed to agree. “I think there was a negative reaction to what appeared to be some overt attempts to pressure people to support Weld,” said Michael O’Connor, who is chairman of the Warren County Republican organization.

Mr. Weld, for his part, insisted that he had no hard feelings about any of it. Here’s Mr. Weld recounting for reporters at his press conference the story of how Mr. Minarik and another former state chair, Alexander Treadwell, suddenly withdrew their support after his convention setback:

“I’m entirely comfortable with where things are, and I totally understand the impetus behind Chairman Minarik’s moves, and even Sandy Treadwell—who is the most dug-in Weld supporter you’d ever hope to find—called yesterday and said, ‘Look, I just don’t support people who are not endorsed by the party, so I’m taking my act over to John Faso. Hope you don’t mind.’ I said, ‘Sandy, I absolutely don’t mind at all.’”

It was a typical reaction for man who has always managed the trick of being haughty without being proud.

In 1998, after Mr. Weld suffered a stunning run of bad career fortune—he narrowly lost a U.S. Senate race to John Kerry in Massachusetts and then resigned his governorship to accept a post as ambassador to Mexico in the Clinton administration, only to have the appointment blocked in the Senate by a hostile Jesse Helms—he was asked by a columnist for The Washington Post if he wasn’t a perfect illustration of downward mobility.

“Absolutely!” Weld replied. “Downward mobility is the secret of the American system! That’s what makes room for upward mobility!”

Of course, that sort of optimism, while admirable, only goes so far.

Though New York Republican Party leaders insisted that Mr. Weld’s voluntary withdrawal from this year’s race would stand him in good stead for any future endeavors in state politics, the nature of his latest setback surely raises questions about whether politics is leaving him behind.

Mr. Weld’s friends, at least, doubt it.

“I don’t think staying in one place is Bill Weld’s style,” said Paul Cellucci, the former governor of Massachusetts who ran with Mr. Weld as lieutenant governor in 1990, when they staged a dramatic come-from-behind victory. “I can see him running for public office again or receiving a cabinet position from a President. We haven’t heard the last of Bill Weld.”