A Republican Flack’s Stealth Attack on Hillary

Over the past few months, we have been hearing a lot of cigar-chomping chatter about the “tough New York media,” whose guys and gals and goons are said to be itching for a showdown with Hillary Rodham Clinton. (She’s from out of town , you know.) If this sounds like a professional wrestling commercial, such is the current condition of political journalism around here.

The only truly tough gang in Manhattan is over at the New York Post , although after the impeachment rumble it would be surprising if they still have one full set of teeth among them. Lots of loud barking and determined gnawing, but not that much bite. That must be why we are already hearing about real right-wing muscle coming in from the Beltway, looking for a lucrative payoff in next year’s $20 million Senate race.

A political action committee calling itself Conservatives for Effective Leadership has sprung up in Washington for the express purpose of influencing New York state’s choice of a new senator to replace the retiring Daniel Patrick Moynihan. According to its own press release, this outfit “will conduct a media blitz in the Empire State to ensure that New Yorkers will have a qualified, scandal-free senator who really wants to lead for New York, not just improve their résumé for a run at the White House.” Now who could they be talking about?

The putative leader of this Hillary-bashing expedition is a radio talk-show host and conservative agitator named Gary Nolan, whose claim to kibitz here seems to be that he once lived in Syracuse. But everyone in Washington knows that Mr. Nolan is actually a front for Craig Shirley, one of Washington’s ubiquitous Republican public relations consultants.

Back in February, Mr. Shirley told a national TV audience that he doubted Mrs. Clinton would enter the New York Senate race. “The reason she won’t run,” he quipped, “is it would require her to come down off her cross.” Now that his prediction has proved wrong, he is happily raising money from gullible ‘wingers all over the country to mount an “independent expenditure” campaign against her.

Whether Mr. Shirley himself will emerge publicly from behind his new group’s letterhead remains to be seen. Officially he is just the P.R. man. Among his favorite tactics is setting up bogus grass-roots groups whose special interest backers don’t wish to be known. This dishonest technique is frowned upon by the Public Relations Society of America, but ethical criticism by his peers doesn’t faze Mr. Shirley. In recent years, he has operated a front called Citizens for State Power, a lobby opposing Federal utility reforms. Its real backers are known to be major electric companies, but that is a subject Mr. Shirley refuses to discuss. “When the law compels us to reveal that, we will,” he once told a reporter.

Someday, Conservatives for Effective Leadership will have to file a report with the Federal Election Commission that reveals who is paying for its forthcoming assault on Mrs. Clinton. In the meantime, the group’s political coloration can be discerned by examining Mr. Shirley and his long list of prestigious clients.

For example, Craig Shirley & Associates has long represented the National Rifle Association. The P.R. firm’s corporate Web site features blurbs from N.R.A. president Wayne LaPierre and N.R.A. chief lobbyist Tanya Metaksa, whose favorite target is the Clinton White.

Mr. Shirley’s firm also represents leading companies in the insurance industry, such as Prudential, Aetna and Cigna. These are Mrs. Clinton’s victorious adversaries from the struggle over national health insurance. No doubt they worry about her making more trouble for them in the Senate.

Generally, Mr. Shirley’s clients are institutions on the far right: the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation and the Christian Action Network. It’s an impressive array, especially if you’re antichoice, antigay, anti-union and pro-gun. It’s somewhat less impressive if you’re a mainstream New York voter, Democrat or Republican.

A hint of Mr. Shirley’s approach to political debate can also be found on his résumé. Three years ago, he flacked former F.B.I. agent Gary Aldrich’s book about the Clinton White House. It turned out that Mr. Aldrich’s most sensational charges about the Clintons were scurrilous fabrications, but Mr. Shirley is still proud of making Unlimited Access a cult best seller. He fervently believes that Republicans should keep fighting the lost impeachment war, a strategy that can only help Mrs. Clinton.

Incidentally, Mr. Shirley also lists the Republican National Committee among his firm’s “past and present” clients, which raises an interesting legal question. If he represents the R.N.C., would his involvement with Conservatives for Effective Leadership violate Federal election regulations? The law mandates strict separation between independent expenditure committees and party or campaign committees. I wanted to ask Mr. Shirley about this problem, but he didn’t return my call. Maybe he’s afraid of the tough New York media.