View Header


Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release September 15, 1997


The Briefing Room

2:08 P.M. EDT

MR. MCCURRY: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. The President has just concluded a meeting in the Oval Office on the subject of his nomination for a new U.S. ambassador to Mexico, and it is my pleasure to introduce to you for a statement on that subject the former Governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, William Weld.

GOVERNOR WELD: Thank you, Mike. Thank you very much for coming, everybody. I won't keep you too long, but since it is back to school time around the country, or at least everywhere except Washington, D.C., I thought I might take just a minute to tell you how I spent my summer vacation.

I sure had a funny summer. In late April, President Clinton reached across the aisle in the interest of bipartisanship and asked me to be ambassador to Mexico. And I said I would. Then in June I saw this man on television saying, Governor Weld is not ambassadorial quality. Governor Weld is unfit to be an ambassador. Governor Weld is soft on drugs. And I won't permit the United States Senate to have a hearing on this nomination.

I asked who this man was, and I was told it was Senator Jesse Helms. So I asked another senator, who was a friend of mine and a friend of his, to ask Senator Helms if he would meet with me -- anyplace, anytime, day or night. Then I asked another senator and also a third person, a close friend of Senator Helms, to ask him the same thing. Same answer: No meeting.

I was puzzled because I thought I had a pretty good record on narcotics enforcement in the Justice Department under President Ronald Reagan. And actually, the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration under President Reagan thought so too. He wrote a piece about it in the Los Angeles Times. So I didn't think that narcotics enforcement could be the real reason for Senator Helms's opposition. And even if it was, I thought I'd do okay at the hearing and be able to satisfy any worries that Senator Helms or the 17 other senators on his committee might have.

So in July I left Boston and I came down here, and I said, I want a fair hearing. And I met lots of people who were experts in the way the 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. (Laughter.)

Well, my mother and father taught me that I'm no better than anybody else, but also that I'm no worse. So I said I wouldn't go on bended knee and I wouldn't kiss anything. (Laughter.) In this, I had the backing of President Bill Clinton, who felt that a fair hearing was the way to proceed.

Then I met some other senators who agreed there should be a hearing. In fact, this was a majority of Senator Helms's own committee, and they told him he had to have a meeting. So I went to the meeting, and you know what I found out? In Washington, the rule is all the senators don't have to advise and consent, even though the Constitution says they do. And in Washington, you do have to go on bended knee, even if you only want the government to do what the Constitution says.

Well, I sure learned a lot this summer. Washington sure is a funny town.

I've just met with the President, as Mr. McCurry said, and this morning 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.

Over the weekend I was reading a biography of John Buchan, the Governor General of Canada, who is also the author of "The 39 Steps." And my eye fell on the following quotation: "There is more in bad government than hardship for the private citizen. It means the weakening of the intellectual and moral nerve of the society which tolerates it."

The spectacle that we witnessed in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing room last Friday was very bad government indeed. Even that spectacle would not in itself have been enough to send me back to the private sector in New England. I think that with a major effort in the Senate, there is a fair chance we would have been able to shift the political center of gravity over the next two months so as to get a fair hearing. A majority of the U.S. Senate, after all, agrees with us.

I am equally confident that a majority of voters in the party of Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln believes in a fair fight in an open forum, and let the chips fall where they may. The Republican Party, of which I intend to remain an active and vocal member, must keep the tax burden down and stand for a conservative fiscal policy, to be sure. That is part of what unites rather than divides me and Senator Helms. But our Party must also reclaim its tradition of defending individual rights. We must reawaken the tradition that says our churches, neighborhoods, and families should teach us how to make moral decisions and get government back to doing what it does best: defending public safety, educating the citizenry, and helping those who cannot help themselves.

If I had that fair hearing, I am confident that my record in the Justice Department and my record as Governor would have earned the votes necessary for confirmation.

But it has become evident that this major effort in the Senate, whether it took the form of further meetings or petitions or even a filibuster, would have been at some cost to the effective working of the Senate. Worse, I've concluded it would have been at some cost to the measure of cooperation between Congress and the administration on issues of supreme importance to our nation, such as free trade and the further development of international institutions.

As I have said for many years, I'm a dyed in the wool free trader and an inveterate internationalist. One of the major reasons I wanted to go to Mexico as ambassador was to help promote the causes of international cooperation and free international trade, as well as to help both countries with their fight against illegal drugs and to control the border.

It would be ironic and counterproductive if, in urging my allies in the Senate and the White House to press further for my appointment, I should become the instrument of harm to those very interests. But I did enjoy my summer vacation. Thank you very much.

Q Do you think the President fought hard enough for your nomination?

GOVERNOR WELD: Absolutely. I've met with the President four or five times on this, spoken with him at length on the telephone three or four other times. I know we share an analysis of the up-side for our relations with Mexico. I can't think of a more important bilateral relationship in the entire world, and the President has stood treetops tall in this entire matter.

Q But the President is not standing with you now.

GOVERNOR WELD: I just met with him two minutes ago. I mean, the man's got a day job.

Q What do you say to Senator Helms, who had several dozen at least, or more than a hundred precedents when the Democrats were the majority in the Senate and simply refused to grant a hearing to Republican nominees for a whole host of positions -- that he was doing only what other chairmen have done in the past?

GOVERNOR WELD: I say Senator Helms is mistaking the problem for the solution.

Q Governor, do you have any regrets about the way you handled yourself, including your early comments about Senator Helms?

GOVERNOR WELD: No, I think given the fact that Senator Helms was right out of the box on this in May and early June as though shot from guns, saying that no way would he allow a hearing on the nomination, it's evident that for some reason he was laying in wait for me. I don't know whether it was holdup or payback. I can't prove it because he's never said, but I don't think any other course would have produced a different result. And I'm proud of the course that the President and I both took.

Q Governor, what advice would you give to whoever succeeds you as the nominee?

GOVERNOR WELD: I would say stand up for your own rights; if you don't they'll run right over you.

Q Are you still engaged in a war for the soul of the party, the Republican Party?

GOVERNOR WELD: Well, I think that the refusal of Senator Helms to hold a hearing is a sad commentary. I don't think it's a commentary on every member of the Republican Party. I do think a majority of the party of Theodore Roosevelt and Lincoln favors the idea of a free hearing, as I said. But to the extent that people are looking at Jesse Helms as the face of the Republican Party, I think that carries a certain amount of freight with it.

Q Governor, what is the real reason, do you think, that Jesse Helms disliked you so, or was he just using you as a test case to take a stand for the conservative wing?

GOVERNOR WELD: I don't really know that. It's hard for me to prove in that Senator Helms, apart from value-laden and conclusory statements, really hasn't expressed himself very much on this topic.

Q What was it over the weekend that decided you on this? Was it the hearing, or the nonhearing, or was it the discussions over the weekend? What actually finally --

GOVERNOR WELD: The major tipping point in my deliberations was the danger that my nomination could get embroiled with issues such as fast track and the expansion of NATO. I mean, at that point, it's getting ridiculous. Now, I'm not saying that would have been reasonable for Senator Helms to do, but he came pretty close to threatening it in that letter he sent to the President in August.

Q Just to clarify, it was that letter, then, was what really convinced you that your nomination process could be dangerous?

GOVERNOR WELD: As I say, I think if we had pressed with weekly meetings, which Lugar and company would have had a right to do, and circulation of a petition among Republicans saying let's have a fair hearing, and I think we would have gotten a lot of signatures on that, and maybe even a shutdown move, as happened earlier with other nominations, I think we could have very well moved the center of gravity. And I think people would have heard from Main Street, because people out there beyond the Beltway don't understand why there shouldn't even be a hearing. They can be for me or against me, but they don't understand why there shouldn't be a hearing.

But that would have come at some cost, potentially, given the dynamic of relationships between the Congress and the administration, which has been quite effective in some other matters, to the execution of national policy.

Q Governor, is this the end of Bill Weld's public career?

GOVERNOR WELD: No, not at all. I intend to remain an active, involved, and vocal member of my party. I do plan to go right back to the private sector now 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.

Q Would you run for office again, Governor?

Q How much regret do you have about your own personal career? A couple of months ago you were Governor, you just had been reelected by the voters of Massachusetts, now you're a private citizen.

GOVERNOR WELD: I have no regret at all. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is in very fine hands with Governor Paul Cellucci and I feel good about the future of Massachusetts and I feel good about my own personal future. I'm not addicted to public office.

Q Governor, there were reports that Senator Kennedy wanted you out of the way in the first place, and that's why the President appointed you. And it's been no secret that the Democrats have enjoyed watching this inter-party feud. Do you feel, in looking back on this, that you were used by the Democrats?

GOVERNOR WELD: No, that whole story about Senator Kennedy was a complete canard. In fact, I think that my getting out and giving Governor Cellucci a chance to shine for the next 16 months probably helped the Republicans' chances of holding the governorship in 1998, rather then the Democrats' chances. I do think that Senator Kennedy has been a splendid ally on this matter, just as he and I have been allies in the past.

Q Do you support the medical use of marijuana?

GOVERNOR WELD: I think that that's an issue that it would have been very interesting to explore at a hearing. And as the President's ambassador I would have represented his position.

Q To follow on my earlier question, is there room for a moderate in the Republican Party right now?

GOVERNOR WELD: Yes. I think part of the lesson that I hope comes out of this proceeding on sober reflection is, as Senator Gordon Smith has said, there has to be room in the Republican Party, if it's going to be a viable national force, for both Jesse Helms and Bill Weld. I don't think the lesson should be lost in all this that my record in Massachusetts on the signal issues of my administration -- crime and welfare and taxes -- was probably as conservative as that of anybody in this town.

It's on the social issues where Senator Helms and I part company and party company rather dramatically. But we cannot afford to have a litmus test applied even for leadership in the Republican Party or we're not going to be competitive at the national level.

Q Governor, you said that you have had enough of Washington for this next little while. Are you ruling out ever running for an office that would require you to live in this funny town?

GOVERNOR WELD: No, I don't think so. I do think it's a funny town, as I said, but my ambitions are firmly set in the private sector right now.

Q Governor, what is your reaction, then, to the fact that after what we saw, what everybody saw on Friday in the committee, there's no public outcry against Helms or against the process. How do you feel about that?

GOVERNOR WELD: Well, I think Senator Helms is where the problem is. I have noticed something of a miasma of fear in some quarters, which I would rather see dissipated.

Q Why do you Lott opposed you? Why was Lott against you?

GOVERNOR WELD: Oh, I think Trent was just carrying water for his chairman. I'm not blaming him, I'm blaming the chairman.

Q Governor Weld, even though you're sick of Washington for the moment and you're going back to the private sector, you made a very strong statement about your view of what the Republican Party ought to be from here on out. How do you anticipate being able to go about articulating that view? What forum will you use, and how do you expect those views to be taken into account, say, by the next Republican Convention?

GOVERNOR WELD: That remains to be seen. I suppose that, even though embedded in the private sector, I'd still have the right of free speech and I haven't hidden my light under a bushel too much in the last 10 years or so, so I'd probably keep on speaking out.

Q Sir, why didn't you accept the ambassadorship in India?

GOVERNOR WELD: I thought once President Clinton and I had made a decision, we should not reverse it simply because Senator Helms felt the other way.

Q Is the miasma of fear in the committee, in the Senate, in the administration? Where?

GOVERNOR WELD: Not in the administration. The administration has been very strong on this. Just comments that people made in the newspapers -- I don't think it's a healthy thing for one senator to make a decision that's vested in the whole Senate behind closed doors with no discussion, no cross-examination. Who knows, it could be that Jesse Helms was just dead wrong on some of the things he said about me. In fact, I think he was. But now we'll never know, will we?

Q What was the reaction of the President or anyone else in the White House as you went through the process of informing them that you were withdrawing?

GOVERNOR WELD: They're not quite as upbeat as I am. I kept telling them, don't be sorry, don't be sorry.

Q Did anybody tell you to stick in and fight?

GOVERNOR WELD: No, we discussed the percentage chances of ultimate success in the Senate if we really kicked up this ruckus for the next couple of months and I think it was a substantial chance. I'm not prepared to say whether it's a majority or a minority chance. I think others were slightly more optimistic.

Q Could I ask you one question, please, Governor? You studied Mexico very closely. You even learned Spanish. You went through the Foreign Service Institute. You probably know as much about Mexico as most people in the Clinton administration. As a private citizen, now that you have retired your nomination, what would you tell the government and people of Mexico? What would you --

GOVERNOR WELD: I'm thrilled about the future for Mexico. I think the recent political developments there, together with the liberalization of economic institutions and free international trade, really create a period of unparalleled opportunity for them and I just hope that the relationship with the United States becomes a support to that opportunity rather than an obstacle to it.

Thank you very much, everybody.

THE PRESS: Thank you.

END 2:24 P.M. EDT