Two days before the election, and just minutes before a Gary Johnson rally at Colorado Christian University, I asked the Libertarian Party's 2012 vice presidential nominee, Judge Jim Gray, what he thought went especially well with the party's historically successful yet emotionally disappointing run at the White House this year. The answer surprised me.
"I really believe that Bill Weld was a really great addition to the campaign," volunteered the anti-drug war Orange County jurist, who had been hoping to repeat as veep nominee until the better-known ex-governor of Massachusetts became available. "I didn't get any national media, particularly, on my own in the 2012 campaign. Tried it, didn't work. When Gov. Johnson and Gov. Weld decided to do this, I think he was on [television] like 25 times before the convention.…What's the use of having the best message if nobody hears it?"
Sure, I countered, but what about Weld's appearance five days earlier on MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show, in which the candidate said, after a campaign full of similar hints, that he was "here vouching for Mrs. Clinton"?
"I would prefer not to say anything about that," Gray replied.
William Weld has been provoking schizophrenic responses from Libertarians since at least 2006, when the Boston Brahmin decided to run for governor of New York on both the Libertarian and Republican tickets. (The Empire State has unusual ballot laws.) When seeking the L.P. nomination back then, Weld vowed that he would continue to run under that banner even if the GOP declined to select him. When Republicans indeed chose a different path, Weld reneged on his promise. ("That was a semi-disastrous race," he sort-of-explained to me at the Libertarian National Convention in Orlando this past May. "I crashed and burned as a carpetbagger.")
The New York debacle was only one of several objections raised to Weld's candidacy at the Convention. His conversion to the party came less than three months after he had endorsed John Kasich for president. (Not only did the hand-flapping Ohio governor propose serial military interventions during his ill-fated run, but Libertarians loathe him for his role in denying the party ballot access in his home state. Johnson had to run as an independent there.) Weld has in various iterations been a drug warrior and a gun controller, and he gives off the distinct whiff of a man who is in it chiefly for himself.
And yet outside the Orlando convention hall, and especially in the Northeastern-dominated political media, Weld was seen as his running mate's clear superior, a ginger Cary Grant to Johnson's mountain-biking Don Knotts. Mitt Romney said in June that he might just vote Libertarian if only the ticket were flipped. (That and many other high-rent hints at possible endorsements failed to materialize.) In September, Weld's pal Carl Bernstein said on CNN that "Weld by now must have a pretty good idea that he is running on a ticket headed by a flake." Every single reporter I talked to at the Libertarian Convention could not believe that delegates were hesitating even for a minute to embrace the guy.
And yet Johnson himself was booed lustily at the convention for defending his preferred V.P. choice in a debate as "the original libertarian." Running against an unknown New York management consultant named Larry Sharpe and a fire-breathing southern radical (and convert to Islam) named Will Coley, the man who in the 1990s was floated as a future Republican presidential candidate got just 49 percent in the first round, seven votes short of the needed majority.
That's when things got weird. The convention floor erupted in politicking and protest. Coley, who had come in third, dropped out to consolidate the anti-Weld bloc behind Sharpe. Fellow V.P. candidate dropout Alicia Dearn then brought Weld up onstage during her concession speech for an excruciating attempt to extract a promise not to "betray" the party. Somehow, Weld, a noted lawyer and orator who is married to a novelist and meticulous about language, could not bring himself even after repeated attempts to mouth those exact words, saying instead "I'm a Libertarian for life!" He won the second round by all of five votes.
Over the next month, Libertarians experienced four new-to-the-party developments that can in large part be attributed to his selection:
- The ticket was included in most national presidential polls. (In 2012, fewer than 10 surveys included Johnson's name all campaign long. That figure was surpassed within two weeks of the 2016 convention.)
- Those polls routinely showed Johnson/Weld in the double digits.
- Instead of begging pathetically for media attention (including, in July 2012, a straggly protest outside of CNN demanding coverage), the candidates were in constant television demand.
- At the highest-profile such appearance, a June 22 CNN town hall, Johnson and Weld showered praise on prominent Democrats.
Moderator Chris Cuomo at that appearance asked the Libertarians to play word association with various politicians, starting with President Barack Obama. "Good guy," said Johnson, simply. "I think he's been statesmanlike the last couple of years," Weld added. A nation of libertarians groaned.
Things got worse when the subject moved to their direct competitor, Hillary Clinton. "A wonderful public servant, I guess I would say that," offered a jaw-clenching Johnson. Weld was more chipper: "Old friend. Nice kid. Knew her in her 20s. We shared an office in the Nixon impeachment, real bond, lifelong. Seriously. Not kidding."
The candidates spent months attempting to walk this moment back, including in more than a half-dozen interviews with me. ("Gary would like to have back those three little words, 'wonderful public servant,'" Weld told me at FreedomFest three weeks later, while also copping to his own over-enthusiasm.) But in mid-September, starting with Bernstein's suggestion that his friend was considering "renouncing the Libertarian candidacy" to make sure Donald Trump didn't win (which Weld dutifully dismissed as "speculation" and Johnson described as "bullshit"), a series of reports sourced from Weld's inner circle alleged that the Libertarian V.P. pick was panicking over spoiling Clinton's election and reorienting his campaign activities to prevent that from happening.
Weld told me in early October that reporters were "making that up," but then on October 26 he took the remarkable step of releasing a prepared statement encouraging Republicans to vote against an "unhinged" Donald Trump, even if they weren't quite ready to pull the trigger for a third-party candidate. "In the final days of this very close race, every citizen must be aware of the power and responsibility of each individual vote," he concluded. "This is not the time to cast a jocular or feel-good vote for a man whom you may have briefly found entertaining."
Even with that extended foreshadowing, Weld's performance the next week on Maddow came as a shock to the campaign. Not only did he not warn Johnson that he would be "vouching" for Johnson's competitor in a key liberal venue, but he also smirkingly disavowed a campaign press release reacting to news over investigations into Hillary Clinton's emails. I asked Johnson on Election Day about whether the two had talked about it after, and he said, "Yeah, we've talked about it a lot. Bill's really got it in for Trump, OK? So just give Bill a break. And I say that lovingly. Look, we started this out as friends, and we're going to end this as best of friends."
The same cannot be said about Johnson's inner circle. At the Colorado rally, the campaign decided at the last minute to bring Gray on stage. In a rare campaign speaking appearance, Johnson's logistics chief and bodyguard Tom Mahon, a garrulous and enthusiastic Libertarian from way back, introduced the judge. "This man," Mahon said of the 2012 V.P. candidate, "embodies honesty, professionalism, and most importantly, loyalty." The subtext was clear for those listening closely.
At the campaign election night party in the Hotel Albuquerque, Mahon, who had brought his wife and family to the proceedings, let his fury boil over in an outburst at Weld's moptop stepson and ubiquitous right-hand man, Marshall Bradlee. Mahon was soon asked to leave the premises.
Right around that time, the consensus projection that Hillary Clinton would sail to victory began to break down. I tried frantically to find Weld and ask him how he felt about his alleged nightmare scenario coming true. After a lot of misdirection and curious body language from campaign staffers, Bradlee sheepishly told me that Bill was enjoying a private last supper with Gary right now.
The next thing we knew, Weld was onstage, looking and sounding strangely buoyant. "I feel that my brain has been opened," he declared, slurring slightly. "I've had a breakout year!" I caught up with the controversial candidate on his way out of the party and asked if he had any regrets.
"No, you know, I came to think that it's important enough for the country to have the Libertarians to have a third seat at the table in our ongoing national dialogue," he said. "I always thought, and the polling recently bore that out, that we were taking more from Trump than from Clinton. So I wasn't worried about electing a Donald Trump. Gary was worried about electing Hillary Clinton!"
So what does Johnson say about his lightning rod of a running mate? "I can't say enough about Bill Weld," he told me the morning of the election. "He brought a stamp of credibility.…Up and down the East Coast, where he's really well-known—and that is where all the major media hangs out—[people were saying] 'Gee, why would he be hitching his wagon to the Libertarian Party, to Gary Johnson?' Well, there's a reason, and I think it's showing up right now."