Former Massachusetts Gov. William F. Weld gave up his fight Monday to become ambassador to Mexico, issuing a caustic, highly sarcastic attack on Washington and its politics as he bowed out.
"I asked President Clinton to withdraw my name from the Senate so I can go back to New England, where no one has to approach the government on bended knee to ask it to do its duty," he said bitterly during a 10-minute statement to reporters in the White House press room.
Weld also used the occasion to outline his differences with Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and the far right wing of the Republican Party--a position many believe is calculated to enhance his prospects for national elective office.
Weld's comments marked the final act of a very public Washington summer drama in which the liberal Republican sparred defiantly with Helms, a conservative whose post as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee gave him the power to block the nomination single-handedly.
Although his withdrawal was not unexpected, the timing apparently caught the White House by surprise. He had scheduled courtesy calls Monday on Capitol Hill to build support for his nomination.
But Monday morning Weld reportedly telephoned Clinton and then met with the president in the early afternoon at the White House before facing the news conference.
Clinton expressed "great disappointment" in Weld's decision. "The American people have not been well served during this process," Clinton said in a statement read by White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry.
McCurry said no new nominee is waiting in the wings for what he called "arguably one of the most important ambassadorial postings that we have anywhere in the world."
"In a sense, our review process is back at the starting point now," McCurry added. The United States has been without an ambassador in Mexico City since last June.
The popular, aloof governor gave up his job to pursue the ambassadorship, but failed at the first hurdle mainly because he trampled on congressional feet and ignored the unspoken rules that guide politics in the capital.
Admitting as much Monday, Weld said: "I met a lot of people who are experts in the way that government in Washington works, and they said, 'We can't just have a hearing. First, you have to go on bended knee and you have to kiss a lot of rings.'
"Well, my mother and father taught me that I'm no better than anybody else, but also that I'm no worse," Weld said. "So I said I wouldn't go on bended knee and I wouldn't kiss anything."
During his comments, he referred to Helms as "that man," labeled Washington "a funny town," and implied that a majority of senators had buckled under to what he termed "a miasma of fear" spread by Helms.
The Foreign Relations Committee passes initial judgment on all ambassadorial appointments made by the president before sending them to the full Senate. But, as chairman, Helms refused even to convene a hearing on the nomination, accusing Weld of being soft on drugs and thus an unsuitable candidate as ambassador to Mexico.
Helms made his pronouncement even before Weld's nomination was formally announced last spring. Despite months of pressure, he never budged from that position.
Finally forced last Friday by a majority of committee members to hold a meeting--although not a confirmation hearing--Helms used his considerable powers as chairman to attack his opponents and prevent any debate on Weld's nomination. Then he simply declared the meeting adjourned.
"The spectacle that we witnessed in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing room last Friday was very bad government indeed," Weld said. "If I had that fair hearing, I am confident that my record . . . would have earned the votes necessary for confirmation."
Although Weld gave every indication Monday that he planned to remain active politically, he said he would initially take a job in the private sector.
"I intend to remain an active, involved and vocal member of my party, [but] I do plan to go right back to the private sector now," he said. "And I think many of you will probably believe me when I tell you that I've had enough of Washington for the next little while."
Some analysts believed Weld's decision to withdraw stemmed from a combination of Friday's meeting and strong comments made Sunday by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who, by reiterating his own opposition to Weld, signaled that he would do nothing to try to persuade Helms to send the issue to a committee hearing.
Weld's only remaining option at that point was to try to develop a groundswell of public anger against Helms, but that seemed too much of a longshot to continue.
Reaction to his withdrawal Monday was decidedly mixed, with Democrats and liberal Republicans expressing dismay, but several voices of the political right voicing support for Helms.
Several political analysts have speculated that Weld's willingness to give up the governorship, together with the personalized nature of his fight with Helms, indicated an agenda aimed as much at establishing himself as a moderate national figure in the Republican Party as at actually securing the ambassadorship in Mexico City.
Monday, after first aligning himself with Helms as a fiscal conservative, Weld cast himself as a defender of individual rights within his party.
* WAR ON DRUGS
U.S. report finds corruption but some progress in Mexico. A13