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The Weld we know

THE FIRST thing New Yorkers ought to know about Bill Weld is that he is built for speed, not for endurance. He is at his best in the heat of a challenging political campaign: focused, brilliant, iconoclastic. If he succeeds in his bid for the Republican nomination for governor of New York, a debate between him and the brainy Democrat Eliot Spitzer would be worth paying real money to see. Weld will give New York a thrilling ride of new ideas, quirky expressions, and grand gestures for as long as it takes to win. Then it will come time to govern, and he will start nodding off.

Seemingly everyone in Massachusetts remembers the televised interview that anchorwoman Natalie Jacobson conducted with Weld's Democratic opponent in 1990, John Silber. When asked to name his greatest weakness, Silber obliged with a demonstration: a snappish, intemperate mini-meltdown that torpedoed his candidacy.

Few in Massachusetts, however, recall Jacobson's parallel interview with Weld. When asked the same question about his own weaknesses, Weld genially offered ''laziness."

A mind as sharp as Weld's can be a dangerous thing when bored, and Weld is easily bored with mundanities. He has a weakness for spectacle: destroying a toll booth with a sledgehammer; diving fully clothed into the Charles River. He likes his amusements: boar-hunting in private reserves; attending Grateful Dead concerts. He always made time for a squash game, often arriving at afternoon press conferences with his signature red hair still wet from the postgame shower.

when not thus engaged, a restive Weld can develop cocktail party eyes: always looking around for the next diversion. He drew a bead on John Kerry's Senate seat shortly after his reelection campaign (which didn't challenge him enough; see above). When he lost that race, the Republican started brashly campaigning for an ambassador's post in the Clinton administration. He lost that chance not just because he supported medicinal marijuana, as some claim, but because he insulted the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Jesse Helms, accusing him of ideological extortion. No less a model of diplomacy than Trent Lott, then Senate majority leader, opined that Weld ruined his chances at the ambassadorship when he ''shot his foot off" with Helms.

Another possibility: Key Republicans still remembered how Weld dissed Attorney General Ed Meese during the Reagan administration, quitting ostentatiously as chief of the Justice Department's criminal division because of Meese's ethical lapses. Whatever, the important point for New Yorkers is that Weld thought so little of his job as governor of Massachusetts that he quit cold to pursue an appointment he had little chance of getting.

One consolation: Weld will come with a ready-made upstate state house in the Adirondacks. It was always something of a sore point for us that he didn't spend all his vacation dollars in Massachusetts.

It is hard to know whether, like New York's incumbent governor, George Pataki (or the incumbent Massachusetts governor, for that matter), Weld will eventually begin to flip-flop on social issues to curry favor with the national GOP. He ought to have few illusions after he took the podium at the 1992 Republican National Convention to preach big tent messages on abortion rights. And his views on some social issues are so liberal as to be libertarian. He appointed the Supreme Judicial Court justice who wrote the country's only decision finding it unconstitutional to deny gays a right to marry. After boasting about it (before gay marriage was identified as a poison pill in the 2004 presidentialrace), Weld now says gay marriage ought to stay confined to Massachusetts.

Meanwhile, the social positions should not blind New Yorkers to Weld's equally fierce conservativism on economic matters. One of the few legislative initiatives Weld really fought for was a tough welfare reform law that predated Clinton's by several years. Almost his first act as governor was to repeal a tax on business and professional services. And he was famously tough on crime --at least rhetorically -- pledging to reintroduce Massachusetts prisoners to ''the joys of busting rocks."

New Yorkers are accustomed to having their governors for long stretches -- Mario Cuomo served 12 years, as will Pataki by the end of his term. Weld says ''my juices are really flowing for this campaign," and we don't doubt it. But if the Athens of America couldn't hold his attention, how long will he stay focused in, excuse us, Albany?

The voters of New York ought to press Weld on his intentions. Our advice: Get him to pledge that if elected, he will serve no more than one term. After four years in one place, Weld's juices tend to congeal.

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