When Hillary Rodham Clinton and her closest advisers gather on weekends to discuss her U.S. Senate campaign, they opt for the comfort of the Map Room in the White House. In this makeshift war room, they are joined regularly by a strategist who combines peerless political acumen with an unrivaled grasp of the candidate’s mood swings and temperament: President Bill Clinton.
Far more than has been previously disclosed, Mr. Clinton has functioned as a senior strategist for his wife’s first run for elected office, according to top Democrats who are in touch with members of Mrs. Clinton’s inner circle. Mr. Clinton has repeatedly urged Mrs. Clinton to stop insulating herself from the press, become more accessible to the public and have more fun on the campaign trail, the sources said.
His advice was instrumental in persuading the First Lady to do a guest spot in early January on Late Night With David Letterman , according to the sources. Mr. Letterman had been making fun of her because she wouldn’t agree to appear on the show, a regular venue for her likely opponent, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. The President, on the other hand, is well aware of the power of pop culture and talk-show politics, having famously played the saxophone on The Arsenio Hall Show in 1992.
“The advice he has given publicly to Al Gore-have fun at this, enjoy it, get out there-that’s certainly the advice he has given to Hillary,” one adviser to Mrs. Clinton told The Observer .
Supporters of Mr. Giuliani have long complained that the White House has been acting as an annex of Mrs. Clinton’s campaign. They point out that she is benefiting from her husband’s fund-raising connections and that White House policy has been crafted with her candidacy in mind. Bruce Teitelbaum, Mr. Giuliani’s campaign manager, delights in repeated references to the “Clinton money machine.” And Dick Morris, the former Clinton confidante who is now a columnist for the New York Post , recently surmised that the White House had become a “Senate campaign headquarters for Hillary Clinton.”
That might be overstating the matter. Still, according to Democratic sources and Clinton advisers, Mrs. Clinton, her husband and other members of the First Lady’s inner circle regularly plot the demise of Mr. Giuliani over coffee, tea and ice water in the White House, often in the Map Room, a small, private meeting room on the basement level.
Among those present are Mrs. Clinton’s senior political adviser, Harold Ickes, longtime Clinton pollster Mark Penn, William de Blasio, her campaign manager, campaign spokesman Howard Wolfson, media consultant Mandy Grunwald and issues director Neera Tanden. All but the President, Mr. Penn and Ms. Grunwald commute to the meetings from New York. Many of the First Lady’s top advisers worked on the President’s last two campaigns.
The Clinton campaign declined to comment for this story.
Mr. Clinton’s presence in the First Lady’s campaign represents an intriguing role reversal in a marriage that seems to thrive in times of political crisis. Mrs. Clinton has long acted as the President’s point person, with occasionally disastrous results, on some of his most ambitious and controversial proposals. She publicly displayed herself as a martyred wife to great effect during the impeachment hearings, and was instrumental in rallying Mr. Clinton’s supporters when they were reeling from revelations of the President’s Oval Office dalliances.
A Favor Returned
Now Mr. Clinton is in the perfect position to return the favor at a time when she has become the central character in the First Couple’s continuing political narrative. Aides to Mr. Giuliani said they fully expect the President-who remains popular in New York-to campaign alongside his wife in the closing days of this year’s Senate race. Indeed, Mr. Clinton already has made public gestures on Mrs. Clinton’s behalf.
When the First Lady moved in to her new home in upstate Chappaqua in January, Mr. Clinton canceled a previous engagement to be in Westchester County alongside his wife. Mrs. Clinton’s aides apparently calculated that a solo arrival might draw undue attention to her out-of-state roots.
There are other signs of Mr. Clinton’s deepening involvement. He is prepping Mrs. Clinton on the campaign kickoff speech she will deliver on Feb. 6, according to the New York Daily News . What’s more, some consultants note that she has picked up a good deal about the art of political positioning from the master himself.
Mrs. Clinton’s operatives, for instance, already are trying to paint her prospective opponent as a Newt Gingrich-type Republican, attacking Mr. Giuliani’s efforts to raise money from conservatives as evidence of yet another right-wing conspiracy. And she has displayed signs of her husband’s poll-driven malleability, shifting her positions on issues such as clemency for Puerto Rican terrorists and Israel’s claim to the whole of Jerusalem as its capital.
“She’s taking pages from the playbook of their shared experience,” said political consultant Hank Sheinkopf, who made television commercials for the President during the 1996 campaign.
Mrs. Clinton’s allies are happy to benefit from someone who is regarded as a superb politician by friends and enemies alike-particularly at a time when her campaign has suffered from a string of missteps. “The President is a master campaigner and a master politician in terms of winning campaigns,” Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields said. “He has an understanding of what it takes to win.”
But Mr. Clinton’s front-line role has made it easier for the First Couple’s enemies to suggest that the White House is manipulating public policy to benefit the First Lady and sabotage Mr. Giuliani.
“As President, [Mr. Clinton] interfaces with everything,” Mr. Morris told The Observer . “He can pull things out that relate to the New York Senate race … He says, ‘Oh, that’s a New York issue. Flag it.’ What he does is kind of a sifting mechanism, where everything flows through him, and he can pounce on specific issues that are relevant to Hillary.”
In a recent column, for instance, Mr. Morris suggested that a number of White House initiatives were little more than gift-wrapped trinkets from an adoring husband to his wife-the policy equivalent of flowers and chocolates. Mr. Morris noted that the pardoning of FALN terrorists, the banning of live ammunition tests in Puerto Rico, the expansion of Medicare reimbursements to New York teaching hospitals and an increased White House interest in homeless policy in New York were all designed to help the First Lady.
Whatever the awkwardness of Mr. Clinton’s role, Mrs. Clinton’s supporters see the President as an indispensable partner. “He is singularly the best political strategist I’ve [ever] met,” one adviser said. “She’d be a fool not to talk to him.”
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