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Spoiler Alert | Magazine

Bill Weld’s return to politics is brief. (That’s all he can afford.)

The Republican-turned-Libertarian ex-governor works to defeat Donald Trump but may end up helping to elect him.

Former Massachusetts Governor, William Weld, greets supporters outside of the New Hampshire State House in Concord, during a rally for Libertarian Gary Johnson and Weld, who is running as vice president, on Thursday, August 25, 2016. Mark Lorenz for the Boston Globe
Mark Lorenz for the Boston Globe
Bill Weld meets voters in New Hampshire. The new Libertarian admits he enjoys campaigning even more than governing.

Bill Weld strides confidently down Tremont Street, drawing no attention from the people walking past him. He has ditched the lawyer’s pin stripe he favored two decades ago, when he dominated the domed State House that hovers on the hill. Instead, he sports jeans, hiking boots, and a button-down shirt, collar buttons unfastened.

Running alongside repeat Libertarian presidential nominee Gary Johnson, a former governor of New Mexico who’s more casual than a Panera, Weld appears to have adapted easily to this new, looser world. As we walk to Boston Common for a late August rally, I ask the former Massachusetts governor about his Western-style brown leather belt. “It needs another punch,” Weld says. “I had been eating too many three-star meals. Then I discovered something called a salad. I’ve lost 43 pounds.”

I turn to Weld’s wife, Leslie Marshall, to make sure I’d heard him right. “Yes, it’s true. He discovered portion control,” she says. “Still, he’s not exactly skinny yet.”

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Weld finds a break in the traffic and jaywalks across Tremont to the Common, where one of his former advance men who has reenlisted for this run is standing next to a TV news crew. He’s positioned them to capture footage of Weld and Johnson making their entrance, but at the last minute, Weld leads Johnson onto a side path to chat with a supporter. As the camera crew hurriedly relocates to try to salvage the shot, the advance man is livid about his old boss’s inability to take stage directions. “I’m going to tear him a new one in about a minute.”

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Before the rally, Weld and Johnson had fielded questions at a sparsely attended news conference at Emerson College. Johnson had spent most of it looking on admiringly as Weld, his vice presidential nominee, held court like it was 1991. When it came time for him to speak, Johnson confessed in a gee-whiz manner, “I am the lesser half, even though I’m heading the ticket!”

Weld, who turned 71 in July and whose mop of red hair remains defiantly thick, if blonder now, also had kind words about Johnson. But his enthusiasm came through mostly when he was speaking about the 63-year-old’s accomplishments as an Iron Man triathlete, daredevil skier, and mountain climber who had scaled the highest peak on each of the seven continents. (“He climbed Mount Everest with a fractured leg!”) You might be forgiven for thinking Johnson was running not for president of the United States but Lord of the X Games.

Weld would be co-Lord. “This is the Weld-Cellucci model,” he said, recalling the “co-governing” approach he took with his former lieutenant governor, Paul Cellucci. Then, almost as an afterthought, he said: “Except this time I’m number two instead of number one.”

That relationship is clear as Weld and Johnson reach the bandstand on the Common and the crowd begins chanting “Gary! Gary! Gary!”

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This group of about 500 is dominated by young people, many of whom were toddlers, if not zygotes, when Weld resigned as governor in 1997 in a doomed attempt to become US ambassador to Mexico. Judging from the lines that will draw the most uproarious applause, the largest constituency appears to be stoner millennials, and Johnson’s reefer cred as proud toker is without peer in American politics.

Lieutenant Governor Paul Cellucci with his wife Janet (left), and William (Bill) and Susan Weld (right); congratulating each other after their GOP primary victory in 1990.
Globe staff/file
Lieutenant Governor Paul Cellucci with his wife Janet (left), and William (Bill) and Susan Weld (right); congratulating each other after their GOP primary victory in 1990.

First, though, Leslie Marshall puts down her Paris Review book bag and takes to the podium as the warm-up act. Back in 2000, Weld separated from his wife of 25 years, Susan Roosevelt, with whom he had raised five children, and began dating Marshall, a divorced mother of three. Wags clucked about how it must have been a midlife crisis that prompted the brilliant Brahmin to leave a brainy, pedigreed woman, a scholar of ancient Chinese law and great-granddaughter of Teddy Roosevelt, and take up with a writer at InStyle magazine. In fact, Marshall, who married Weld in 2003, is also erudite and articulate, a novelist used to moving in cultured circles. (Her ex-father-in-law was the late Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee.) But where Susan recoiled from political life, Marshall embraces it with the same gusto as her husband. Similar vocabulary, too. She embroiders her smart rally speech with selections from a Kaplan test-prep guide, from “ossified” to “intelligent adaptation.” Another is “befuddled,” which aptly describes the looks on the faces of more than a few stoner millennials.

When Weld takes the podium, slightly stooping his 6-foot-3 frame to clutch the sides of it, he does not disappoint the few on hand who fondly remember his 1990s political speeches for being, as he might put it, “sui generis.’’ Squinting into the blazing sun on this sticky day, he quotes John Stuart Mill’s insights on “self-regarding conduct” and bemoans the “palaver coming out of Washington.

He keeps the crowd hooked, offering up riffs to please every demographic, from anti-taxers (“Cellucci and I cut taxes 21 times”) to anti-scolds (“government cannot tell the individual how to live his or her life”) to extreme-sport enthusiasts (“Gary actually did a back flip off our diving board of our swimming pool out in Canton this morning”).

After introducing Johnson, Weld descends the stairs of the bandstand and watches the head of their ticket ping-pong his way through his speech. Johnson, with sunglasses in his hair, is nothing if not likable. Although he says he stopped smoking weed for this campaign so he can remain extra sharp, he still comes across like one of Owen Wilson’s perpetual college dude characters, chilling out at an off-campus party, smiling through the haze. And like that Wilsonian character, Johnson pipes up from time to time with head-scratching pronouncements, like suggesting the internecine slaughter in Syria could be solved if we just “join hands with Russia” (this is before he made his now infamous gaffe, “And what is Aleppo?”). Or arguing the widening income gap will be reversed by eliminating corporate taxes (for those corporations that still pay them). Or embracing a sort of Tao of Negative Thinking with the curious insight: “Every single day is failure. All of us.”

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Johnson loses his stride just once, after his evangelical advocacy for a fully sharing economy (“Uber everything! Uber doctor! Uber lawyer!”) elicits a fan’s shout of “Uber president!” The candidate is momentarily silent, apparently unsure how to respond to this unwitting suggestion that his services in Washington might actually not be needed.

Running for Massachusetts attorney general in 1978, Weld got 22 percent of the vote.
Globe Staff/File 1978
Running for Massachusetts attorney general in 1978, Weld got 22 percent of the vote.

After the speeches, both Republican-turned-Libertarian ex-governors begin working the Common crowd. Weld flashes a joyful grin as former supporters and newbies to the Big Red fan club swarm him.

I dodge the scrum and slide into the back of Weld’s SUV with his wife as a young bearded aide named Marshall gets behind the wheel. Despite the Libertarian campaign’s stated plan of harnessing free media to get its message out, the national press team failed to return more than a dozen messages from me. Finally, the day before this rally, young Marshall agreed to a sit-down with Weld. Sliding into the idling car is my way of making sure it takes place.

Eventually Weld’s advance man approaches to relay a message: “He wants to the do the interview over there.” But with the throng surrounding Weld, that plan won’t work. “I’ll ride with him,” I say. The advance man looks as if he wants to tear me a new one. Young Marshall says, “Sorry, man, you’ve got to do it out there.”

I hold firm, and then Weld’s wife takes my side.

The advance man huffs off, and young Marshall shifts the car into drive and begins threading the SUV through the crowd to get to Weld.

“Marshall, careful!” Weld’s wife yells. “You almost ran someone over!”

He jams on the brake. “I know, Mom!”

In that instant, it all comes together, though I’m embarrassed it took me so long. Young Marshall isn’t Weld’s spokesman or aide; he’s his stepson, driving the family car. (His mother’s maiden name is his first name. His last name is Bradlee.) I’m pretty sure Chelsea Clinton is not handling similar duties for Hillary.

When Weld approaches, his button-down shirt is drenched in sweat, but he looks the happiest I’ve seen him all day. He talks about how the campaign has caused adrenaline to start “sluicing in my stomach.”

Then the summa cum laude Harvard classics major says two things about his experience on the trail that will later send me to my Merriam-Webster. “It’s totally atomistic. It’s like Brownian motion.” Donald Trump may brag that he has “the best words,” but Weld truly does.

Most politicians grimace through the gantlet of campaigns, but Weld has always seemed to enjoy the gantlet more than actual governing. “I think that’s true,” he says, wiping perspiration from his temple.

So this gig is perfect. He gets to travel the country, raising the level of political discourse, teaching people new words, all without serious expectations. “In five months,” Weld interjects, “and not 24 months.”

He’s on unpaid leave from his law firm, Mintz Levin, and ML Strategies, the Boston-based lobbying group. “A five-month leave I can just barely navigate,” he says. “A 24-month unpaid leave? No.”

This regular-guy concern with meeting the next mortgage payment challenges everything I remember about Weld, a son of privilege and descendant of a signer of the Declaration of Independence. In his first run for governor, a reporter asked him where he got his money. “We don’t get money,” he replied. “We have money.”

Thinking I must have misunderstood him, I ask him to explain his aversion to a longer leave. “Not enough money,” he says flatly.

I remind him of his “have” money joke.

“Well,” he says, shifting in the leather car seat before growing silent.

“Is there an expiration date on that boast?” I ask.

He smiles tightly. “Houses and children eventually take their toll.” Divorce settlements probably don’t help either.

During his 1996 US Senate run against John Kerry, Weld took an impromptu swim in the Charles River.
Gail Oskin/Associated Press/File
During his 1996 US Senate run against John Kerry, Weld took an impromptu swim in the Charles River.

In the past, Weld has traced his unpredictable career moves, such as his aborted bid for New York governor in 2006, to his fear of boredom and desire to seize the day. His father, an investment banker, died of a heart attack at 61. Cellucci, his vibrant friend and successor as governor, was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease before he hit 60 and was gone by 65. “I think about Paul every day,” Weld says, “even more now that I’ve saddled up with Gary.” He admits that Johnson “doesn’t come out and blow you off your chair with a lot of well-rounded periodic sentences, but he delivered in office. In that sense, he’s kind of like Paul Cellucci.”

In the two decades he’s been out of office, Weld says, “I’ve seen a lot more suffering.” But he offers few details on what he’d do differently this time, beyond having greater concern for “the little guy.” The once ardent supply-sider admits he no longer feels his previous economic priority of increasing aggregate national wealth is the right way to go in light of the nation’s troubling concentration of dough at the top.

I ask him if he honestly thinks the little guy would benefit appreciably under Johnson’s plan to eliminate all income and corporate taxes and replace them with a consumption tax, which is by definition regressive.

He tilts his head. “It depends on whether the consumption tax creates tens of millions of jobs or not.”

I remind Weld of the election of 1912, when Teddy Roosevelt, one of our best presidents, formed a third party, the Progressives. That split the GOP and handed the election to Democrat Woodrow Wilson, a reprobate racist who set in motion the resegregation of federal office buildings. Does he worry he and Johnson could have a similar impact?

Weld may have divorced the great-granddaughter of TR, but he still backs Roosevelt’s view that the real blame belonged to the mainstream Republicans who stuck with the party’s nominee rather than its bedrock values. Weld says he sees strong echoes between those Republicans who supported William Taft and today’s GOP leaders who say, “Yeah, Johnson and Weld are actually the real Republicans,” yet hold their nose and back Trump. “I’m surprised more of them haven’t lined up behind us.”

Still, he gets a break from lobbying for Canadian mining interests and other clients as he addresses cheering, if sometimes small, crowds.

I ask Weld what would make the experience especially satisfying for him, short of the Libertarians winning. His answer introduces yet another echo from the election of 1912, when Roosevelt lost but handily beat Republican Taft, his former protege turned rival, for second place. “Well,” Weld says, “I’d like to get Donald Trump into third place. And have played some role in rejiggering the Republican Party.” (The odds of the Republicans slipping to third place this time around are exceedingly slim — and a good deal slimmer now than they were during Weld’s Boston rally, when Trump’s campaign was in disarray.)

Still, given how close the race is between Trump and Clinton, Weld and Johnson could well end up swinging the election. The pair have been polling especially well with younger voters, who, unlike their parents, tend to identify more with candidates and issues than with parties. That suggests the Libertarians might play a national role similar to the Progressives, failing to become a dominant party but attracting enough support to see some of their animating issues get co-opted by the mainstream parties.

Marshall guides the SUV into Hyde Park’s Readville commuter rail station. We sit talking for a long time before Weld gets out and points me to the right platform. He knows it well. Until recently, he’s driven here most weekday mornings to catch the train to his lobbying job downtown.

In a month, he’ll very likely resume his life as just another commuter in a pin-stripe suit. Until then, he’s going to embrace the trail.

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Neil Swidey is a Globe Magazine staff writer. E-mail him at swidey@globe.com . Follow him on Twitter @neilswidey.