Hillary Clinton was late getting to the library in Bath and reporters stood in the front door looking at signs people were holding up across the way, in front of a Coastal gas station. “That’s harsh,” a reporter said. I thought she meant the one that said, “I Want to Be Your Intern.” A skinny, hard-looking woman with bare feet was holding it.
I went across the street to talk to the locals. It was starting to rain, finally, and some of the signs were running. A 15-year-old kid with a pale blond mustache was walking around with a T-shirt that pictured Bill Clinton and a naked Monica Lewinsky and said, “Head Is Not Sex! Says Clinton.” “Do you believe that?” I said. “I actually do believe it,” he said. Some pro-Hillary women got angry with me for talking to the kid and pulled me away. “I know why you’re interested in that, but that’s all over with,” said Sandy Heffron, a housewife. She and her friends talked about how much they admired Hillary for gutting it out through the last year.
“Sometimes love is blind but love is overpowering also,” Mrs. Heffron said.
An aide called out that it was time to go back into the library, so I left and stood by a bookshelf, near a bunch of 5-year-old kids on the floor waiting for Hillary. The Secret Service kept telling reporters to move out of the aisle between two sets of bookcases. “She’s going to be coming through here,” they said.
A door opened in the back wall and the First Lady came in. She has a quiet, stately presence. She wore a dark blue pantsuit and dark blue flats, a quiet string of pearls. She sat down with the kids. “Hi, everybody, how are you?” Then she read a story, Madeline . She read well and the kids were captivated. Then Mrs. Clinton went around asking the kids their names. She was good with them, she touched them on the heads. The odd thing was that she didn’t tell the kids her name. She’d just started in talking as if they knew who was coming.
We moved down to the other end of the library for the “listening event.” A hundred or so citizens were seated in rows, and Mrs. Clinton sat down with a panel of four women. The others all introduced themselves but the First Lady didn’t. She just started in talking as if we all knew her, and of course we did.
The panel was superb. It was Mrs. Clinton’s subject, and she moved effortlessly from the importance of reading aloud to children to teen pregnancy to class size. She was engaged and lively.
Outside, there were suddenly torrents of rain, sheets of rain ripping against the windows.
Then Mrs. Clinton said, “There are a lot of reporters here,” and with that she held her third press conference of the listening tour. The reporters asked sharp, narrow questions about politics and her intentions. I leaned against a post and started to dissolve inside. I thought about a simple question, “Do you believe Juanita Broaddrick?” She had just spoken about the need to protect young women from predatory men, and she had lived with and enabled a man whom several women have described as a sexual predator–Mrs. Broaddrick’s allegation of rape going back to 1978. I thought of the famous Watergate question, What did you know and when did you know it? Still, it seemed terribly rude, and I felt a great band tightening around my chest as I waited not to ask the question. Then she said “Thank you” and stood up, and I was relieved.
Mrs. Clinton went across the street to the Coastal station to work the rope line. The Secret Service made a tense phalanx around her, big guys in dark suits, several of them black. As Mrs. Clinton went down the rope line, a loud black man pushed through the crowd toward her. “Mrs. Clinton!” he called out. “Mrs. Clinton!” It was an intense moment that all campaigns are full of, not knowing if the guy was going to be hostile or supportive. Mrs. Clinton tried to ignore him. He finally got close and shouted, “Your husband should introduce a bill to build a statue of Martin Luther King in Washington.”
Right after that Mrs. Clinton broke away and got into her multicolored Ford van. The uncontrolled moment seemed to throw her. It is a wonder how someone as controlled as she is would handle a campaign, having to deal with common people about whom, I don’t imagine, she could care less. There is something tone deaf about her, a lack of awareness of common concerns. Think of the rain. In upstate New York, they have been waiting and waiting weeks for rain. When the rain came down against the library windows it had felt like a great blessing. A good New York politician would have said something about that. Mrs. Clinton said nothing.
I got back on the press van, to go to Elmira. Reporters were on cell phones, hunched over in shows of secrecy, talking with their editors, about Hillary’s latest shift in rhetoric. One reporter was arranging his dinner reservation back in New York City.
It was Friday night and I went out to dinner with a bunch of reporters. We drove in a caravan out College Avenue to Elmira Heights, passing the Woodlawn Cemetery with Mark Twain’s grave, and I thought about Twain’s spirit. He would have made sport of the Listening Tour. He would have had fun with Hillary in her dark blue flats gliding out to the people without saying her name to them, with the bullying Secret Service guys, with the reporters in their black jeans on their cell phones making dinner reservations. As it was, everyone was being polite.
We ate at a fancy place called Pierce’s 1894 Restaurant. Most of the men kept going back and forth on what wine to order, and I talked to The Observer ‘s Tish Durkin. Tish had asked Mrs. Clinton about her position on requiring parental notification for minors seeking abortions, and the First Lady dodged the question. “But this is a woman who has been thinking about these issues for 30 years,” Tish said. All the reporters seemed frustrated by the First Lady’s cool opacity, her refusal to reveal herself. I thought what I always thought about Mrs. Clinton, she is inauthentic and power-hungry.
We drank wine and argued about the coverage of John F. Kennedy Jr. I said it was appalling that reporters had followed Caroline around. “What were they going to learn?” A serious-looking woman down the table said, “Why is it appalling–people want to know?”
“Don’t you draw the line anywhere in terms of what you’ll do?” I said.
“Personally, I might, but not professionally,” she said.
Next to me, Tish said, “If I said that to my father, he would say, ‘Then don’t do it.'”
I admired Kennedy’s authenticity. It seemed to me the reason his death was not so tragic, why it had not set off the orgy of grieving that Diana’s death did. Six weeks earlier, he’d broken his ankle paragliding into a tree, now he was flying his airplane into the night. Most people would have hung it up after the ankle. But John was a lady’s man and a sportsman. He understood the risks of his behavior; and he died doing what he loved.
The next morning, “the listening event” was on agriculture, at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. I drove to the school through a fancy university neighborhood and saw Hillary’s van in the driveway of a stucco, ivy-covered house. She was probably having breakfast with professors and they were eating it up. The winding street outside the professorial house was filled with nervous aides in dark Italian suits, walking around, looking up and down. As in all her movements upstate, there seemed something otherworldly about the First Lady’s presence, the red-and-gray swirl-painted van in the driveway, the dark glowering people fanning out as a neighbor started up his garage sale. It was slightly alien.
Inside Cornell’s Biotechnology Building, about 75 people were sitting in soft light in an auditorium. “She’ll be here in three or four minutes,” a dulcet-voiced administrator said, almost clucking. Then a Secret Service guy parted a dark curtain on a curved railing in the corner, and Mrs. Clinton floated in from the building’s atrium. She wore the same pearls as the day before and seemed to have on the same flats and suit. After a polite spattering of applause, she sat down with a panel of four people and started in.
“There are so many issues to cover,” she said with an air of excitement.
Once again, Mrs. Clinton did not introduce herself, and it was disconcerting. Yes, we all know who she is, but there is a tradition in politics of introducing yourself to strangers, of showing respect to the people. As in, “Good morning. I’m Hillary Clinton and I’ve come to Tompkins County to learn about farming issues.” There is a kind of plainness we expect in a democracy, even from the famous. It is a sign that they do not hold themselves above you. The uniformity of Mrs. Clinton’s appearance, the way she appears quietly, surrounded by the big black men in their good dark suits, and the silent aides with cell phones and irritated expressions–it seemed a little like a cult leader. I bet David Koresh did not introduce himself either, or the Guru Maharaji. They just start in with their talk. We have so many issues to cover today. It was arrogant, and the black Secret Service men seemed Mrs. Clinton’s version of Louis Farrakhan’s Fruit of Islam. I suppose celebrity-worship has made monsters of all of us.
This panel went poorly. Everyone was impatient for it to be over, the reporters and the aides. Agriculture is not Mrs. Clinton’s area, and toward the end she seemed fretful about cutting it off and getting to the airport.
I focused on two farmers on the panel. One was a handsome dark-haired man in a good suit, David Irish. He said that beans imported from China were making it so that he was getting offered less for his crop than production costs. Next to him was a tall, striking blond woman of about 40, named Mary Beth Holub. She and her husband run a dairy farm that has been in his family for three generations. “What is going to happen to profitability in the next 10 to 20 years?” Mrs. Holub said.
Mrs. Clinton nodded her head respectfully, and said, “I agree,” a lot. She took notes.
Once again, contempt rose inside me. I wanted to shout, “You’re so concerned about dairy farms, how much did you make in the cattle futures market?”
When it was over, Mrs. Clinton glided back through the curtain with the farmers. A big Secret Service guy stood there forbiddingly. Photographers got him to pull the curtain back a little so they could shoot her in the atrium.
An aide came back waving his hands. “O.K. She’s gone. She’s out. You can leave.”
“Good,” a reporter said.
I went up to Mr. Irish. He seemed different from the slightly bent-over man on the panel, he was satirical and vigorous. “I came here to convey the concerns of farmers,” he said. “She might take those notes home to her husband–or she might make a paper airplane out of them.”
I waited as Mrs. Holub talked to some farmers. I felt she must be supportive of Mrs. Clinton. But when I asked her why she was there, she distanced herself.
“I came here because I thought it was an opportunity to get some agricultural issues spoken about in the press,” she said. “Let’s face it, she’s got this whole entourage following her.”
We talked for a few minutes and both relaxed. We walked out of the dimly lit room and it felt like we were shaking off our zombie skins, exchanging a monstrous media-power-induced reality for a reality that was more ordinary and meaningful. She described all the camera shutters going as she spoke, and I told her about wanting to say, “What about cattle futures?”
“You know, they’ve just started speculating in milk futures,” Mrs. Holub said. “And farmers are worried that the same companies that are buying our product can use futures to try to control the market. Someone asked me to say something to Mrs. Clinton about that. But I thought, how can I do that when she made so much money speculating in cattle futures?”
“Why didn’t you?”
“I would have liked to see her reaction, but it would have been an embarrassment,” she said. “I felt obligated to keep it civil. But the whole thing was so staged, I have no clue what she really thinks about anything.”
The dean of the agriculture school, Daryl Lund, came up and thanked Mrs. Holub for doing such a good job on the panel. She smiled and thanked him, then he went away and I told Mrs. Holub about the press conference, about wanting to blurt, “Do you believe Juanita Broaddrick?”
“Look,” Mrs. Holub said. “The whole time I wanted to ask her, How are you going to pay that $90,000 fine?”
“Why didn’t you?”
Mrs. Holub laughed. “Well, I don’t want to end up like Vince Foster.”
“But what is the right time?” I said. “She’s getting the ball rolling. You had power to say something and you said nothing, you played into her hands.”
Mrs. Holub nodded thoughtfully. “It’s true,” she said. “They’ve been very successful at getting people to ignore stuff. And whose fault is it. The media? Or the public. Does anything matter at this point? I don’t know.”
We shook hands and I drove off down Highway 79. I went by a church that had a portable sign out front that was aimed at the First Lady. “Listen–I Love Right and Despise Wrong. –God.” I felt trapped by the sign. Which was worse, dishonesty or righteousness?