“I knew nothing about the decision.”
“I didn’t know about it, I was not told about it, it was not brought to my attention.”
Hillary Rodham Clinton was expressing the same quality-total ignorance-on the same subject-clemency for the Puerto Rican terrorists (or freedom fighters) recently released from prison by the conciliatory hand of her husband. But each of her denials referred to a different strand of the political spaghetti in which she was swimming, and each described a different difficulty in getting out of it.
Now, one can, of course, adopt-well, almost everyone has adopted-the assumption that Mrs. Clinton and her ever-slick spouse have been lying all along: that the President offered his wife the clemency as one of the many charms he plans to put on her political bracelet; and that she went merrily along until the gift so sullied her that she had to toss it publicly away. But what if that assumption is wrong? What if the First Lady really knew nothing, ever, about anything concerning this matter? What if he never said, and she never asked, and their respective staffs followed in strangely silent suit? What if they have been telling the truth?
Then the questions get really good.
Isn’t Bill aware that Hillary is running in a state with a lot of Puerto Ricans who already love her and loathe Mayor Rudolph Giuliani ?
Isn’t Hillary aware that whatever Bill does, or fails to do, that has the slightest impact on New York, it will be seen as a function of her political aspirations and therefore could potentially wreak havoc on same?
In short, given the predictable, if unprecedented, field of landmines political, perceptual and ethical just waiting to blow up in the path of a First Lady running for office while her husband holds the highest office, what is the policy for New York-related interaction between the first couple and among their staffs? Is there a policy? Guys?
“I would touch base with Howard about that,” recommended Marcia Berry, spokesman to the First Lady-as-First Lady, referring to Howard Wolfson, spokesman to the First Lady-as-protocandidate. Mr. Wolfson, alas, declined to comment.
The President’s press office bounced the call back to the First Lady’s press office. Top adviser Harold Ickes did not return calls. “We’re navigating new ground,” offered a former Clinton Administration official.
Exactly. If you were navigating new, not to say history-making, ground, wouldn’t you have, like, a map? If you were the President and the First Lady, and you had already spent some seven years being hounded about who knew what when and who spoke to whom about what in the context of a slew of scandals, and then one of you decided to run for the Senate, thereby raising suspicions about everything the other one might be doing to help you, wouldn’t you have the relevant lines of communication either opened up or sealed off or at least kind of kicked over?
Not, it seems, if you are a Clinton. To take the Clintons at their word-and remember, the point of this exercise is to take them at their word-they haven’t given this all that much thought. They haven’t even pillow-talked over the whats and hows of their staffs’ interaction. They haven’t figured out how she will be briefed on his points of view, and vice versa.
Unless F.A.L.N. Fun Week was a pretty good acting job, they kinda seem to be making it up as they go along. Indeed, there is every reason to believe that is exactly what they are doing.
And they’re not, to hear some of their political friends (!) tell it, doing it all that well. “Unless they really get a real campaign manager, and a team of people with authority with the candidate here in New York, this is looking like the Arthur Goldberg campaign,” grumbled a very well-connected Democrat. Indeed, to ask most Democrats, the main potential problem threatened by the F.A.L.N. fiasco is not anything that’s already been howled about. It’s not that it makes the First Lady look opportunistic. (Hey, she’s a Clinton.) It’s not that it makes her look insensitive to the concerns of Puerto Rican voters. (She doesn’t have a primary, and in the general election, she’s up against Rudy. “At the end of the day, it is better to be with a friend who has hurt you than with somebody who has been knocking you all along,” said political consultant Luis Miranda; a year from now, Mrs. Clinton’s backers have reason to bet, that will be the reigning sentiment.) It’s not that it makes her marriage look weird and distant. (If that’s a deal breaker, she’s been done from the get-go.) It’s that it makes her look clueless, especially in comparison to the battle-ready Mayor. “The opponent has obviously got a well-oiled machine that’s operating here all the time,” said the Goldberg-minded Democrat, evincing an increasingly common impatience that Mrs. Clinton hurry up and get the same.
A common impatience, but perhaps not an altogether fair one. For months, she has basked in the preseason glow of all the advantages of her icon candidacy: a primary field pre-empted, an awesome fund-raising ability at the ready; 100 percent name recognition. But as the games begin, the disadvantages start to peek through. Talk to 20 anonymous Democrats, and you will get 25 different descriptions of what is wrong with the candidate they had begged to run: She takes bad advice, she takes no advice, she takes, worst of all, her own advice. “The biggest problem that they face is that she’s trying to run her own campaign,” said a Washington-based Democrat who might take umbrage at the New York-based Democrats, who feel that the biggest problem they face is the overinfluence being exercised from Washington. She has no political instincts, bad political instincts, unformed political instincts. She has too many chiefs, not enough Indians. She still has the skeleton staff of the prospective candidate she is, rather than the entourage of the full-on standard-bearer that the press has been treating her as. (Mr. Wolfson, for instance, has been handling the mammoth media operation solo, though Karen Finney, a former deputy press secretary to the First Lady, is soon to sign on as his assistant.) Even her successes have risks: If her competing lives come across as calm, cool and coordinated, she will be accused of using the White House as a live-in political launch pad. But to achieve, or even affect, willful ignorance is to look … willfully ignorant.
But if Mrs. Clinton’s growing pains are easily described, they are not so easily assuaged. And not all the pains that the F.A.L.N. caused to flair were strictly operational. Indeed, an unkind reading of Mrs. Clinton’s above-mentioned denials might suggest tendencies that look bad, but are worse.
The No was in response to whether any of the leading Puerto Rican Democrats in New York-from Local 1199 chief (and key Hillary booster) Dennis Rivera to Representatives José Serrano and Nydia Velasquez to Bronx County Democratic chairman Roberto Ramirez, who had vigorously supported the clemency for years-had ever mentioned the matter to her. (Question: Given the leadership’s failure to clue her in to this issue, and her failure to clue them in as to how she was going to dispose of it until after she had done so, how deep can the roots of her New York political relationships really run?)
The “I knew nothing” referred to the President’s decision, announced on Aug. 11, to grant the clemency, but could also go for the particulars of the subsequent dealings between jailhouses and White House, even as those dealings were morphing into a monster that the First Lady could not slay without some self-injury. (Question: If there is anything at all to the “constant conversation” that Talk magazine depicted the Clintons as perpetually engaged in, why the lull when it came to clemency, especially after the President’s decision was made public, and its political implications became clear?)
The “I didn’t know about it” refers to a press release, issued on Thursday, Sept. 2, in which the lawyers for the Puerto Rican prisoners attested that their clients had “unconditionally reaffirmed their commitment to nonviolence upon their release from prison.” The press release was sent to the White House counsel’s office in the evening of Sept. 2, and was picked up by at least one major newspaper (the Chicago Sun-Times ) on Sept. 3, but did not, by her own account, make it to her campaign in order to inform her decision, announced on Sept. 4, to call upon the President to rescind the clemency. (Question-indeed, the prickliest question of them all: Quite apart from whether such a press release would have made any difference in her decision, how did the fact of it slip by? Can’t they do a Nexus a day? Who is in charge here? Can we see the manager?)
Ah, but there is no manager. Hillary Clinton has a burgeoning war chest, a mile-high profile, and, theoretically, a pillow next to the President’s. But she does not have a campaign manager. Now, if the President really wanted to give her a little something for her campaign …