On Her Talking Tour, Hillary Is Careful To Say Almost Nothing

Which would be more damaging for Hillary Rodham Clinton: for her to actually be totally ignorant of New York State abortion law, or for her to pretend to be totally ignorant of New York State abortion law, so as to spare herself fallout from a flip-flop on the issue as it pertains to the rights of minors?

Based on conversations with several pro-choice advocates who flagged this as a potential problem for her campaign-and with one pro-choice advocate who took up the issue with the First Lady in private, at length, in October-it is evident that Mrs. Clinton was feigning ignorance, not embodying it. But that wasn’t entirely clear when the question first came up on the sidewalk outside the Harvard Club in Manhattan on the afternoon of Friday, Jan. 21. Having spoken at a luncheon given by the New York chapter of the National Abortion Rights Action League to commemorate the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, Mrs. Clinton took questions from reporters on the sidewalk.

“I have always been pro-choice,” she said, by way of explaining her presence. Then, to underscore the fact that Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s metamorphosis from pro-life Reaganite to pro-choice centrist conveniently coincided with his first run for mayor in 1989, she added: “My position has never changed and never wavered.”

So far, so fair. But then Mrs. Clinton was asked about a reproductive-rights matter, albeit a decidedly subsidiary one, on which she had, indeed, changed and wavered. In 1992, as her husband sought the Presidency, the future First Lady had been quoted as favoring a legal requirement for parental notification in the case of minors seeking abortion. “I have supported parental notice so long as there is some kind of bypass provision,” she told The New Republic , among other outlets, “because insofar as possible, we honor the family.”

Now, according to her campaign, she opposed the requirement.

Such a matter might seem the faintest curl of gun smoke in the endless war between the forces of life and of choice, but it is precisely the stuff over which many a post-Roe battle is fought-and had been the stuff of some real trepidation among New York’s pro-choice leadership as Mrs. Clinton gravitated toward her Senate run. “This definitely came up,” said Kelli Conlin, president of the New York affiliate of Naral, of an hour-long private meeting she had with the First Lady in October, at the swish Upper East Side home of one of Mrs. Clinton’s donors. “We were very concerned about her position.” Clearly, the First Lady was concerned, too: Asked about parental notification during her summertime listening tour, Mrs. Clinton had simply ignored the question, and her staff had repeatedly declined to answer it for her. It was only fairly recently that her campaign was definitively stating her opposition.

In any event, Ms. Conlin was sufficiently comfortable with Mrs. Clinton’s views to have warmly hosted her at the luncheon, and to stand at her side during the press conference. Hence, the question: How had she happened to progress, as a person well might, from favoring some manner of parental notification to opposing it outright?

“My position is the New York law on informed consent,” the First Lady replied. “I do think that minors should have some responsible adult with whom to speak. There may be some situations where that could be a family member, and other situations where it isn’t.”

So she had never, in fact, favored parental notification as an actual requirement?

“I have favored parental notification, but with a judicial bypass, with a responsible adult provision, and that’s what the New York law, as I understand it, stands for,” she said.

There it is: On this, as on so many other perfectly answerable questions, Mrs. Clinton produced what sounded like a solid, thoughtful, consistent response, but was really a gooey, conflated, meaningless mash. It is exactly the type of mash that, for reasons that have little to do with this question in particular, but everything to do with her candidacy in general, she has got to quit serving up. For if that sentence is true, this brilliant, diligent, fervently feminist attorney does not understand the New York law at all . And if it is not true, well …

Let’s just say, the New York law is not very hard to understand.

“Zero, nothing, nada ,” said actively pro-choice State Senator Eric Schneiderman, who had attended the luncheon, when asked what, if any, parental notification-type steps are required by state law before-or, for that matter, after-a minor has an abortion.

But doesn’t that “informed-consent” stuff, to which the First Lady referred, cover roughly the same territory? Absolutely not: Though “informed consent” does have the same tattletale ring to it as “parental notification,” it represents an entirely separate concept.

“Informed consent has to do with making sure that the patient knows what the risks may be associated with a certain procedure, such as a hip replacement,” said Peter Slocum, director of public affairs at Family Planning Advocates. “Parental notification is something entirely different: telling the parents or guardian what the young person is planning to do.” Though there are many states with informed-consent laws that do focus on abortion, New York is not one of them, and it is hard to imagine that anyone mildly acquainted with the abortion-rights lay of the land would think that it is: New York does not, for instance, appear anywhere on the list, found on the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy’s Web site, of the states that impose any such restrictions. Thus, as things stand here and now, a pregnant 16-year-old can walk into an abortion clinic and, so long as she strikes the professionals on the premises as clear on the procedure and freely willing to undergo it, she can walk out of it as a no-longer-pregnant 16-year-old. No parent, guardian or any other figure from her everyday life need ever find out about it. Therefore, no judge need give her a “judicial bypass,” so as to excuse her from having to tell any authority figure in her life; the point is moot here. (And, anyway, the phrase “judicial bypass” seems to be of cold comfort to pro-choice folk in these parts. “Upstate, you have tiny communities, where the patient may know the judge,” said Ms. Conlin. “And downstate, you have family courts, to which I wouldn’t send anybody.”)

“Her position has always been that a parent or a responsible adult should be involved,” said Mrs. Clinton’s spokesman Howard Wolfson of her. Then again, that has always been the position of every pro-choice person who is sane, including abortion providers: No one is out there banging the drum for pregnant teenagers to go through this process with no input from adults whom they actually know. The question in this, as in all matters of law, is whether the “should” ought to be a “must.” A few years ago, Mrs. Clinton’s answer was clearly Yes. Now, it is clearly No.

Now, as political reversals go, this is not exactly one for the record books: Mrs. Clinton clearly traveled from one position to the other without ever leaving the pro-choice side of the street. The same cannot be said of Mr. Giuliani, who not only made a much larger switch on the issue overall, but whose Presidential pick, Gov. George Bush of Texas, is no friend of Roe v. Wade.

On the other hand, this is a race between two candidates about whom pro-choice advocates speak in positively glowing terms, and therefore a race in which any shade of difference on the issue comes at a premium. (If the only difference were that Mr. Giuliani favored parental notification and Mrs. Clinton did not, can anyone doubt that Team Hillary would seize upon it?) And, in a broader sense, the whole business serves to bring out two political characteristics of Mrs. Clinton’s with which it is increasingly difficult to square her reputation for substance and advocacy. Neither is anything like unique to her among politicians. But, given her unusually pressing need to establish herself as both credible and trustworthy as a person in her own right, both may prove unusually damaging to her.

The first is her nearly palpable horror of saying anything about anything; or, rather, of saying anything remotely definitive about anything remotely difficult. Much like a cad who is furiously figuring out how to dump a woman he is still seducing, Mrs. Clinton frequently seems to be retracting statements she is still making. If, for instance, you ask her how she would have voted on the North American Free Trade Agreement, she will express support for free trade and concern about its ramifications for the environment and labor standards, but leave off the bit at the end, about how she would have voted. If you ask her what should become of Elián González, the little Cuban boy now in Florida, she will express the need to balance his dead mother’s desire that he be free with his surviving father’s desire that he come home; no word on how she would achieve that balance. Asked how she would have voted on the Defense of Marriage Act, which pre-emptively prohibited gay marriage, she said that she would have voted for it … but not because she actually was for it; but because it was going to pass, anyway. And so on.

The second troublesome characteristic is a stubborn refusal to acknowledge, let alone illuminate, how her thinking has changed on a variety of important matters. On a number of issues, from the advisability of a Palestinian state to that of welfare reform circa 1996, Mrs. Clinton has accrued a record of opinions that could conceivably represent either the crooked skating of a rank political opportunist, or the understandably tentative progress of a thinking person facing daunting questions over a period of years. But she seems hell-bent against helping the public to determine which of these she is; or in what proportions she might fairly be considered a bit of both. Here is where the current business about parental notification fits right in. According to Ms. Conlin’s account of their October conversation on the matter, Mrs. Clinton knows perfectly well that she is not today where she used to be. “She definitely did lay out a concern where older men would take young girls [for abortions in Arkansas], and it was not clear that [the girls] were consenting,” said Ms. Conlin. “We really did take great pains to explain New York law on informed consent.” So in private, Mrs. Clinton acknowledged having changed her point of view on a relatively fine point of policy, on the grounds that she did not consider the circumstances that she found relevant in Arkansas to be relevant in New York. Fine. Why, then, in public, did she deny having changed at all?

The answer to that is obvious: In every single thing that she says or does, Mrs. Clinton may be facing the most intense, least forgiving scrutiny ever known to a political candidate. She can certainly be forgiven for fearing that if, on this or any other complex question, she gave the public the same type of real-or at least attempted-answer that she apparently gave Ms. Conlin, she might come across as a carpetbagger, a flip-flopper, an opportunist.

Nonetheless, it is high time for her to start fearing something else, something much more legitimate. If she keeps on failing to give the public reasoned answers about who she really is and what she really thinks, on all kinds of matters, she will come across as a faker, through and through.

And, what’s worse, she will, in fact, be one.