Mrs. Bill Clinton’s N.Y. Birthday Love Fest

If you were a Martian hovering over Manhattan on the evening of Monday, Oct. 25, and you happened to land your spacecraft on the crowded patch of pavement that was 42nd Street between Seventh and Eighth avenues, and you decided to assume the form of a New York donor to the Democratic Party so as to infiltrate the humanoid festivities getting under way at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts, you might have found Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Broadway birthday bash simply delightful.

The guest of honor, smartly turned out in a smoky, borderline snazzy pantsuit and a cool, chunky necklace, certainly seemed delighted, and no wonder: Some 1,500 supporters had happily paid $250 or $1,000 for the privilege of wishing her a happy birthday. Voices from the Great White Way enveloped her in swells of show tunes especially reworded to flatter her. (“She’s tough as nails and half again as bright as Rudy wants to be …” one performer belted to the tune of “My Boy Bill”; though perhaps, given all the campaign-finance unpleasantness of recent years, the “I’ll go out and make it or steal it or take it … for Hilllll!” part should also have been reworked.)

When it came to the naughty fun of tweaking Mrs. Clinton’s dim bulb of a nemesis, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, her boosters took a merrily gluteal approach. (“Should he lose the Senate race,” announced mistress of ceremonies Rosie O’Donnell, “he’s going to be touring as John Merrick in Elephant Dung .” And as for Alec Baldwin, fast becoming the Cal Ripken of New York Democratic wingdings-just the night before, he had made the scene at a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee meet-and-greet, over at the Sheraton-he really turned on that Cary Grant charm of his: “We’re going to kick Rudy’s ass!”) For a dash of edification, Wit ‘s Judith Light, whose artistically shaven head and stark black attire lent her a veritably nunlike gravitas, compared Mrs. Clinton to (three guesses and the first two don’t count!) Eleanor Roosevelt. And for sheer luxuriation in the language, Mia Farrow read several sentences from It Takes a Village .

There was more, but, if you were an extraterrestrial, or even an amnesiac, the best, most moving moment of all was undoubtedly one that came after the performances and before the cake; the moment when the penultimate power woman took the stage with her penultimate power man and they visibly reveled in a reversal of their public roles. Betraying not so much as a hint of a hankering to steal her spotlight, the President of the United States sun-showered his wife with praise. “The only thing that really worried me about our getting married,” mused Bill Clinton, having just mentioned the First Couple’s celebration of their 24th wedding anniversary on Oct. 11, “was that somehow she would be denied the opportunity to share her gifts in the most important way.” He went on to sprinkle his spouse with compliments for her work on health care and education and the rights of women worldwide, and then, in the end, just poured on the plaudits. “The best gift that I can give the American people now,” he said, “is to do my best to make sure that they know the person I love most in the world is without any doubt the most able, the most passionate, the most committed, the most visionary public servant I have ever known.” And then they stood together in a lingering, loving embrace, as warm torrents of applause washed over them both.

Truly, if you were a creature from another planet, you would have been touched.

If, on the other hand, you were just an earthling with a television set and a memory, you could not help but be weirded out. And you wouldn’t have to be a Clinton hater, either. You would not have to wish that the President were out of office, or that the First Lady were not contemplating office, or that the pair of them would just disappear off the map of our national life. You would only have to remember how deeply, vividly, lengthily and recently he humiliated her, and contrast that with the fact that they were now acting like the two happiest kids Cupid ever came across, with no appreciable bridge from one status to the other, to shift a little in your seat at the sight of them. The birthday celebrants looking on at the lovebirds “saw two people who are obviously and genuinely very much in love,” said Howard Wolfson, a spokesman for Mrs. Clinton’s exploratory committee. Maybe so, but they were Democrats, and paying ones, too. For the rest of us, it is like tuning into Melrose after missing six key episodes: There’s something hanging.

Never a good feeling to leave with viewers, can it be all right to leave with voters? Without for a moment forgetting the fact that Mr. Giuliani has neither been an Ozzie nor had a Harriet for a very long time, nor undertaking to find the unfindable facts of a marriage, one could be forgiven for wondering what an unconverted, swing-voter kind of crowd might see in the same tableau, and how it might attract or repel them from the notion of the First Lady. For whatever the private reality of their respective relationships, the politics of it is much more delicate for Mrs. Clinton than it is for Mr. Giuliani. In the first place, Donna Hanover has long been visible only on the farthest periphery of her husband’s public life, while Mr. Clinton has stood at the epicenter (some would say that he is the epicenter) of his wife’s. And that’s before broaching Mrs. Clinton’s generally greater burden to prove herself a “real” New Yorker to whom other “real” New Yorkers can relate.

“In terms of the electoral impact, the President is a huge asset,” said Mr. Wolfson, declaring that “the success of Democrats in New York in ’98 was a referendum.” But mightn’t a different mental picture pop up in the mind of a voter seeing the President with Chuck Schumer, versus seeing the President with Hillary Clinton? “There are not these grandiose strategy sessions going on,” said a longtime Clinton camper of whether they are weighing the pros and cons of putting the couple together.

It’s hard to believe that the Presidential pros and cons have never crossed the mind of anyone over at Hillary headquarters; it is easy to believe that there’s really no clear idea of what, if anything, is to be done about it. To whatever degree Mrs. Clinton has a problem on this front, it may be one that she can never really solve.

Mrs. Clinton can, as the evening’s estimated $1 million take attests, raise a great deal of money. She can hire somebody smart to oversee the spending of it. (Bill de Blasio, the extensively titled Secretary of Housing and Urban Development’s representative for New York and New Jersey, is widely expected to be named Mrs. Clinton’s campaign manager by the first of the year. If so, press accounts will differ as to whether he is to be viewed primarily as an Andrew Cuomo guy or a Harold Ickes guy.) She can methodically remove the bricks of Mr. Giuliani’s wall of Democratic endorsements from his 1997 steamroll over Ruth Messinger, as she seems to be doing with remarkable ease: At a Sunday, Oct. 24, press conference during which she called for an increase in the minimum wage, Mrs. Clinton did not attack Mr. Giuliani by name, but the same could not be said of Assembly member Brian McLaughlin, who still heads the same Central Labor Council he was heading when it cross-endorsed the Mayor for re-election. Representative Gregory Meeks of Queens may or may not succeed in his Hillary homework of winning his Congressional predecessor, the earnestly pro-voucher Rev. Floyd Flake, back from the ranks of Rudy Democrats, but don’t be surprised if you soon see Mrs. Clinton praying in the pews of Mr. Flake’s Allen African Methodist Episcopal Church. She can do all those things a candidate can do. But it’s hard to see how she can pre-edit the strange subtexts of the story of that marriage.

At the beginning of the birthday gala, the singer Christine Pedis swung herself out of a snappy pink jacket and into a sexy pink coat to mark her segue from “I’ll Take Manhattan” to a saucier, throatier “New York, New York.”

“Those practical pumps are longing to stray …” and one couldn’t help but think, “From whom?”

“Those Washington blues … are melting away,” and one couldn’t help but think, “Who brought on those blues? Was it Mr. The-Person-I-Love-the-Most?”

“She’ll make a brand-new start of it …” Politically speaking, how brand-new a start can she make? Should she make? Will she make?

That wasn’t in the lyrics.