Year in Review: 1997


Re-rank the list of top news stories of 1997


Find out more about:

Princess Diana's death stuns the world

Weld steps out -
Cellucci steps forward

Mother Teresa is laid
to rest at age 87

Chinese rule returns
to Hong Kong

Supreme Court strikes
down 'Net decency act

UPS strike disrupts thousands of firms

Heaven's Gate cult commits mass suicide

Mars Pathfinder explores Red Planet

Ellen comes out, marking a first in TV

For the first time, a mammal is cloned

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6 1/2 years, never a shortage of style

By Scott Lehigh, Globe Staff, 07/29/97

William F. Weld leaves the State House through the front doors after his resignation ceremony. William F. Weld leaves the State House through the front doors after his resignation ceremony.
In an era when political acts often become practiced and predictable, William F. Weld provided Massachusetts with 6 1/2 years of improvisational theater that never grew stale.

One of his very first moves as a gubernatorial candidate was a study in the unorthodox style he would make his own: teaming up with state Senator Paul Cellucci to run as a Republican team in 1990. Still, though they governed almost as equals, there was no doubt which of the two kept the crowd rapt.

It wasn't always that way. The governor, now thought of as endearingly quirky, took a while to catch on. In his first campaign, a bid for attorney general in 1978, Weld carried only Mount Washington and Dover. And even after Weld's five years of service as US attorney, in the 1990 gubernatorial race relatively few thought he could beat Democratic nominee John Silber, whose grim, Gatling-gun style and relentless will had clearly rattled his Democratic rivals. Indeed, one of the few who believed Weld was the intellectual or political equal of the Boston University president was a certain insouciant redheaded Fayerweather Street resident.

Until their first 1990 debate, that is. Despite Weld's Harvard, Harvard Law, and Oxford pedigree, the debate was billed as a mismatch between a didact and a dilettante. In fact, the tough televised give-and-take established Weld as Silber's substantive and political equal, and showed him as a puckish and personable alternative to the dyspeptic Democrat.

Playing off Silber's reported contention that beavers created so many wetlands that preserving them wasn't a worry, Weld queried: ''Would you tell us, doctor, what plans, if any, you have for the preservation of open space in Massachusetts other than leave it to beavers?''

Voters would see the same rhetorical twinkle again and again once Weld was elected. After the new governor recalled the House in 1991, only to have them ignore a tax-cutting priority, Weld rejoined: ''You can lead the House to order, but you can't make it think.'' In the heat of a 1996 US Senate debate, when incumbent John Kerry pledged that if he did any negative advertising, he himself would appear on screen to make those criticisms, Weld pricked Kerry's solemn bubble by quipping: ''That's 'cuz you're so handsome.''

It was during that same campaign that Weld celebrated passages of the rivers bill with a sudden dive into the Charles River.

Even his critics acknowledged his penchant for fun.

''Bill Weld has treated his tenure as governor as sort of a Hasty Pudding production,'' said Democratic consultant Mary Anne Marsh. ''Who was the last governor who took a dive into the Charles?''

Weld could laugh at himself just as easily. Former Senate President William M. Bulger remembers needling him mercilessly one night before a Clover Club audience, then, feeling rueful, starting to apologize the next day.

''He said, 'Oh, don't start that, you'll take all the fun out of this business,' '' Bulger recalls.

If Weld was amusing, he was also colorful. ''He has a good sense of humor, he obviously is an incredibly smart human being, and his language is completely unusual,'' said Democratic strategist John Marttila.

Whereas his predecessor spoke in cautious, qualified shades of gray, Weldspeak was a burst of technicolor. A Weld press conference was a place where the governor denied political responsibility by saying, ''I don't they'll be able to park that hearse at my door,'' and where differences between Weld and the Democrats were estimated by whether the sides were ''within hailing distance.''

They usually were. Weld was unbending on only one principle -- no new taxes, no ifs, ands, or buts -- but was ready, willing, and able to barter on most everything else.

Nor was he troubled by inconsistencies. During the 1990 campaign, candidate Weld had cast Bulger as a mail-fisted martinet ruling a shadowy patronage empire and called for his ouster. Thus it confounded reporters when after a year in office, Weld showed up for lunch quoting the Senate president as though he were Dr. Johnson himself.

Republican conservatives, suspicious of Weld since he resigned in ethical protest from Ed Meese's Justice Department in 1988, were dismayed when Weld became one of the star attractions at Bulger's St. Patrick's Day breakfast -- and further outraged when he campaigned with Bulger in South Boston, jokingly introducing himself as Bulger's campaign manager. ''He was a crack study at making alliances,'' said former Senate Minority Leader David Locke of Wellesley.

If Weld alienated the conservative cadre that had helped turn the state's once-mighty GOP into a political disaster area, his curious blend of politics -- conservative on crime, welfare, and taxes, moderate on spending, liberal on abortion and gay rights -- worked well in a state where the largest group of voters call themselves independent.

Nor did the burdens of the Corner Office seem to weigh particularly heavy on him. In contrast to Michael S. Dukakis, who, after losing the 1988 presidential campaign, showed up the next morning for work at the State House, Weld liked his free time, always finding time for his twice-weekly squash games, unbothered by symbolism that made his advisers wince. But if critics called Weld an indolent elitist who had little understanding of the poor, the charge never resonated with voters, who returned him to office in 1994 with 71 percent of the vote.

Indeed, Weld's style kept him phenomenally popular even after his failed 1996 campaign against Kerry. At that point, however, his interest in the job, which had wavered since his reelection, seemed mostly gone.

True to form, however, Weld's last move as governor was as unorthodox as his first major move as a gubernatorial candidate. Whereas Dukakis and Bill Clinton retained the safety net of their governorships while campaigning for political promotion, Weld jumped without a parachute into the fight for a far less certain ambassadorship.

In doing so, he gave Cellucci an office Cellucci was unlikely to have achieved on his own. But yesterday the drama of Weld's departure emphasized once again just how hard his act will be to follow.

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