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Pundits Should Stop Cynicism Over Weld

Column by Anders Hove
Opinion Editor

Political courage, however tame, is so rare in this country that columnists and commentators don't quite know what to do when they see it. I'm talking about last week's episode with Bill Weld. Here's a man who stands up for himself, and all the pundits can do is holler for him to sit back down. What's up with that?

First, a little review of the Weld dossier. He'd been idling on the fast plane to Mexico City for one too many weeks, held hostage by Senator Jesse Helms. Helms refused to even call a hearing on Weld's appointment as ambassador to Mexico, calling him "soft on drugs." Soft, in this case, means approving of medicinal use of marijuana.

Nevermind that ambassadorships are diplomatic posts, not policymaking or law enforcement positions. After all, it's clear Helms has it out for Weld for reasons that have nothing to do with drugs and Mexico.

First, there's the ideological differences. Helms is a rabid, right-wing prick who can't stand Weld's relatively tolerant stands on gay-rights and abortion. Helms undoubtedly saw this as his chance to take Weld off the list of contenders aiming to capture the soul of the Republican party.

Then there's the grudge factor. Weld resigned from the Justice Department in disgust when Edwin Meese III, then Attorney General, was a right-wing poster child. Weld's defection was seen then, and is remembered now, as a betrayal of Ronald Reagan. As Richard Nixon taught us, if there's anything an elephant never forgets, it's a stab in the back. Helms to Weld: Take that, Brutus!

Lastly, there's the temperamental differences. One one side you've got a crotchety, Southern geezer who has founded his entire political career on denouncing elite liberalism in its devious disguises, from Fluoride-treated water to Martin Luther King's birthday. And on the other side you have a young, soft-spoken, Harvard-educated Cantabridgian who has spent his life placating the very liberal elites the other so despises. Now, it should hardly surprise anyone the two don't exactly mack on each other in the Senate cloakroom.

But what of Helms? He was born to block this nomination. What gets me is everyone else's reaction. There's Senator Trent Lott on one hand: This man refuses to intervene on Weld's behalf, even though the Senate could have been expected to approve his nomination had it been brought to the floor. Lott would rather leave Weld to twist in the wind, and, more generally, Lott would rather play to his reactionary constituents in Mississippi than build any national base for his own future presidential bids.

And on the other side of the aisle, there's President Clinton, the man who nominated Weld in the first place. Of course, most people have long since dismissed Clinton as unabashedly spineless, but didn't the Weld fight seem perfect? Clinton couldn't really lose: If Weld goes down, it's no loss for the Democrats. And if he puts up a good fight, it might scar Helms, win or lose. Why pass up this cheap and potentially entertaining opportunity?

Most of the debate has centered on the central figure in the drama, Weld himself. What's his game? On one hand, critics have denounced his every move as plays for a national political audience. Now, his nomination effectively in the toilet, an office-less Weld stands up to fight; what do the pundits say?

"A vainglorious performance pitched to the adoring voters of Massachusetts," sniffed long-time Weld critic David Nyhan ("Weld's Undiplomatic Outburst," The Boston Globe, July 18).

"The only thing he can do is play to his own constituents in Massachusetts by creating a bogeyman in Jesse Helms," Stephen Hess, a Brookings Institution fellow quoted in the July 18 Globe article, concurred. "Nobody can claim Weld is fighting the good fight for moderate Republicans ."

There you have it: Weld's move is an undeniably Machiavellian move, unscrupulously designed to ingratiate him with the folks at home. Why else launch the fight in the Massachusetts Statehouse?

Far be it for me to point out that Massachusetts and its struggling news organs are the only public platform Weld has. Did anybody expect Weld to attack Helms from Durham?

And if Weld is anxious to play to the home folks, why scuttle his chances for any ambassadorship? That puts him out on the street. How Machiavellian is that? Nyhan suggests he's angling for a big race against Kennedy in '98, yet that seems like a long shot with or without the posturing.

But let's just consider the other possibility: Weld is acting out a very human drama. He knows he's qualified, and he's pitted against the vile but antiquarian opposition of reactionary Southern Republicanism. Weld did what we would do. He demanded Senator Helms at least grant him a hearing, because he thought he could win once given a fair chance to speak. He stood up - stood up to fight the good fight, one last time.

Are our columnists and pundits too jaded to recognize courage? Our papers' opinion pages solicit a wide range of views, from liberal to conservative. Our television networks recruit commentators from both sides of the aisle. These mechanisms guarantee a balance of ideology, but what about a balance of attitude? Who will speak for the optimists and the dreamers? How can we even have leaders when every potential act of leadership is undercut by such cynicism in the press?