Weld’s Altered Ego

Mackerel by Moonlight
By William F. Weld
Simon & Schuster, New York, 1998, 238 pages

William Floyd Weld, as we all know, has led a charmed upper-crust life. He likes to joke that his ancestors came over on the Mayflower with nothing but the shirts on their backs and a few thousand pounds of gold. He once quipped to a New York Times reporter that his life has been “a tangled wreck of failures”–why, he didn’t even make law review at Harvard! When Weld was asked during a debate in his 1996 Senate campaign to describe an actual hardship he had suffered, he recalled that he once got scared when his wife fell off her bike.

Terrence Mullally, the central figure in Weld’s debut novel, Mackerel By Moonlight, could not possibly have a less similar background. “I am underclass Irish, wrong side of the tracks,” Terry says. His mom died in childbirth, and his mob-connected dad was killed in a shootout when he was four, so he grew up in a lonely South Brooklyn orphanage. (“What I remember most about the group home is being cold. It was always cold.”) In ninth grade, he was moved into an unspeakably nasty foster home. (“The less said about that, the better.”) He worked two jobs to put himself through City University of New York and Fordham Law School. Like Weld, he ended up as a federal prosecutor in New York; unlike Weld, he landed the job through his connections with street cops.

Adversity, of course, is supposed to build character. But in Mackerel By Moonlight, it builds an oddly familiar character. Terry is a sharp lawyer, a jaunty conversationalist, an avid hunter, a what-me-worry politician. He slips words like peculation and syzygy into conversations. He drinks a lot. He’s remarkably self-assured, and doesn’t mind when the media make fun of his weight. He’s quick on his feet. He says things like, “You never know where your next coalition is coming from” and “We’re going hunting where the ducks are” and “I’m like Ishmael: There’s a lot of November in my soul.” He actually enjoys fundraising. His political hero is the roguish James Michael Curley.

That’s right: Terry Mullally is Bill Weld, even if he is a hardscrabble Irish Catholic Democrat from the school of hard knocks. And if that sounds ridiculous, given that Bill Weld is a play-Scrabble WASP Republican from the school of silver spoons, well, it is. Mackerel by Moonlight is a ridiculous book. It is also a poorly written book, the kind of book where New York City pedestrians are described as “bipeds perambulating through the canyons,” where middle-aGed lawyers say things like, “This is major cool. Way cool.” It is also a poorly structured book, a 238-page political mystery with about 220 pages of politics (Mullally runs for Suffolk County D.A. and then for U.S. Senate) and 18 pages of mystery (a sketchy murder in Hong Kong and a suspicious shooting in the backwoods of Massachusetts). But it is still a valuable book, because it helps illuminate the fascinating, infuriating character of Bill Weld, the good governor who never really cared about good government, the patrician Yankee who somehow believes he is just like Joe Sixpack.

As Terry points out, much is forgiven anyone who relieves the boredom of the press. The real-life Weld was always a lot of fun: posing for photos with goofy mascots, bantering about his midday squash games and his dubious work ethic, diving into the Charles, casually dropping nine-syllable words, mangling the Macarena. And he was more than just a smart and entertaining guy. He helped tame the Massachusetts beast: cutting taxes, reining in debts, controlling health care costs, boosting bond ratings. He didn’t lie. He owned up to his mistakes. He never got mad when the State House press corps wrote nasty stories about him.

Still, there was something irritating about his utter unflappability; he never got mad about anything. Not about homeless families evicted from emergency shelters. (“Sorry, that doesn’t tug at my heartstrings,” he once said.) Not about sleazy ethics within his administration. Not even about children killed in group homes and foster homes. It’s not so much that Weld’s policies were callous, although a few were. It’s that his policies were never motivated by caring, by concern, by passion for the well-being of the people he was serving. He often did the right thing, because he knew good government made for good politics, but never for the right reasons.

Now here comes Terry Mullally, group home and foster home survivor, declaring that “my governing passion is to have no passion.” Sorry, but only a man who has never faced any real problems in his life could think that way, only a man like Bill Weld, our local version of FDR without the polio. The premise of Mackerel By Moonlight is that background doesn’t matter, that someone with Terry’s upbringing could turn out just like Weld. It’s a typical Weld delusion. He actually used to tell his advisors that when he wanted to know what the common man thought, he just asked himself what he thought. (Who knew the common man felt so strongly about cutting capital gains taxes?)

It is annoying enough that Weld has used an underclass ethnic as a vessel for his political philosophy. But the philosophy itself is just sickening: Politics is nothing but a game. This is clear from the very first scene, when two police union thugs and a “snot-nosed” consultant named Lanny draft Terry to run for Suffolk County district attorney, and inform him of the cynical stances he will take on the various issues.

“Very interesting. It seems I have a mix of positions, some are left, and some are right.”

“Correct,” Lanny said. “And you know why?”

“No, why?”

“Because you’re independent-minded.”

“I’m independent-minded.”

“You think for yourself.”

“I think for myself. I…I call ’em like I see ’em!”

And so on. Terry turns out to be a terrific Weldian candidate, delivering sanctimonious speeches about corruption, strategizing about news cycles, disguising pro-choice views for pro-life audiences, playing the game like a pro. “The question for us is not what is true,” Mr. Snot-Nosed explains. “The question for us is what are Channels Four, Five, and Seven going to show on the noon news?” The day Terry wins the election, his next campaign begins. In his very first staff meeting, he proposes a bill to create drug and gun courts.

“Good politics, maybe, but bad law, Boss,” an aide tells him.

“That’s my point!” Terry replies. “The politics is all that’s there!”

All the savvy characters in Mackerel By Moonlight understand this, and repeat it like a mantra; only saps and goo-goos think politics can be a noble profession. You should never lie or do push-polls, but only because you might get caught. You shouldn’t dig up dirt on your opponent, but only because it might backfire. Otherwise, all that matters is getting out the vote. “Boss, this whole process is calculated to make honest men act like felons,” says Snoopy(! ) Smullins, Terry’s pollster. “Sooner we all absorb that, the better.” It’s kind of depressing that an ex-governor actually thinks like this. And it’s kind of boring to hear it again and again and again.

Mackerel By Moonlight does have a few redeeming features. The first is the title, a clever reference to a classic political putdown: “Your record, sir, resembles a rotting mackerel by moonlight: It shines and it stinks.” Weld offers a pretty accurate rendering of Billy Bulger’s St. Patrick’s Day breakfast, complete with an amiable Republican governor whose ancestors came to America with nothing but the shirts on their backs and 8,000 pounds of gold, and a fairly amusing satire of a Boston Globe editorial meeting. He also includes some enlightening trivia about the Quabbin Reservoir, the Hong Kong currency markets, and the arcane jargon of federal prosecutors (involving “Feebs,” “hockey sentences,” “eyeballs,” and “sirenes”).

Still, Weld reportedly dictated his first draft of this novel in just six weeks, while he was serving as governor and trying to get confirmed as ambassador to Mexico in his spare time. It shows. Most of the book borders on self-parody, with awful descriptions (“high-riding pink mackerel sky”), ludicrous dialogue (“Let me come back at you jamokes with a slightly more fundamental problem…”), and horrible imitations of New York tough-guy prose (“Rudy and I gave each other a one-arm hug. Friendly like, but not too close.”). There is also a laugh-out-loud sex scene (“It was the most natural thing in the world for us to become intimate, as we did.”) and an unforgettable description of a Jewish girls school (“What a salad! Olive-skinned girls, big ancient-seeming eyes, vulnerable eyes.”). The point is, Weld shouldn’t quit his day job.
Meet the Author
Oh, that’s right–he already did. It’s too bad, really. Weld’s record shines, even if his attitude stinks. As for his novel, well, it doesn’t pass his famous smell test, either.

Michael Grunwald, a former Boston Globe reporter, now covers the Justice Department for the Washington Post.