For Candidate Lazio, Hillary’s Brouhaha Was a Nice Slowball

Mike Murphy, the fast-talking media adviser to Republican Senatorial candidate Rick Lazio, held an Italian ice outside a Harlem school on July 17 as he entertained a group of reporters with his best impression of an outraged Hillary Rodham Clinton.

“I’m so angry!” he said in a quavering falsetto. He was mocking Mrs. Clinton’s passionate denial of charges by a former associate that she had called him a “Jew bastard” a quarter century ago. The reporters snickered knowingly.

Mr. Murphy had good reason to be upbeat, because he and Mr. Lazio had finally found a way to break their five-day silence on “Bastardgate,” a story they hoped would erode Mrs. Clinton’s support in the Jewish community and give his own campaign new energy. Mr. Lazio emerged from the school surrounded, as he so often is these days, by a flock of photogenic African-American children.

“I don’t know who to believe,” Mr. Lazio said, articulating what would be the line of the day. “I don’t know if New Yorkers know who to believe. And therein lies a good deal of the problem.”

Those few simple words may be a shiv in the back of Mrs. Clinton’s candidacy. With one deft stroke, Mr. Lazio and his aides have managed to do two things. First, they’ve given new legs to a story that by now should have been a double amputee rattling a cup for attention. Second, they have turned the story’s main defect-nobody knows what really happened-into a virtue. It is, after all, a quarter-century-old tale, recalled by a confessed liar and relayed by a former National Enquirer reporter. But by simply pointing out that the story still can’t be dismissed, Mr. Lazio’s advisers have reinforced what they have identified as their opponent’s main weakness: her credibility problem.

Above all, they have done all this without addressing the niggling question of whether the story is true.

“I don’t think we ever wanted to be in a position to decide whether it was true or not,” one of Mr. Lazio’s senior advisers conceded to The Observer .

Even some of Mrs. Clinton’s supporters expressed grudging admiration. “I think his response was very, very potent,” said Ryan Karben, a Rockland County legislator and an informal adviser to Mrs. Clinton on Jewish issues. “He’s made it a referendum on credibility. It was artful and the smartest response under the circumstances. He’s trying to exploit people’s fears, which is shameful and dangerous but unfortunately very effective.”

As early as July 14-when news of the alleged slur broke-Mr. Lazio’s advisers were debating how to approach the unfolding tale. “Our strategy from the beginning was to sit back and see how this thing developed,” the adviser said. “We let them build the fire themselves.”

Mr. Lazio followed the plan closely. Pressed on July 16 for his opinion of Mrs. Clinton’s alleged outburst, he reacted with the embarrassment of someone who had just been asked about the sleeping arrangements in the East Wing of the White House. He demurely refused comment, content to let the tabloids keep the story alive for him.

A day later, however, Mr. Lazio was acting as if he had undergone a long and sleepless night of soul searching. Asked again, outside the Harlem school, to respond to the affair, he eagerly obliged.

“I think this is a very disturbing comment-sort of a ‘she said, they said’ situation,” he told reporters. “Three people say Mrs. Clinton said one thing, she says she said another. I don’t know who to believe, quite frankly.”

A New York Post reporter asked him why he was suddenly so talkative on a question he had refused to answer the day before. Mr. Lazio paused, struggling to stay on-message. “I just don’t know who to believe,” he said.

Mr. Lazio’s advisers say the Clintons themselves inartfully provided an opening for Mr. Lazio. Mrs. Clinton called an impromptu press conference on her Chappaqua lawn on July 16 to angrily deny the charges. Later that day, President Clinton interrupted the Middle East peace summit in Camp David to call New York Daily News managing editor Michael Kramer and publisher Mortimer Zuckerman with a denial and an insinuation that the Lazio campaign was behind the charges.

The President’s statement set off a flurry of cell-phone calls among Mr. Lazio’s senior aides, many of whom were in different parts of the country on weekend business. The Clintons had dragged Mr. Lazio into the fray by suggesting his campaign might be behind Bastardgate. Now Mr. Lazio had a chance, indeed a right, to respond without sounding like a grandstander. Mr. Lazio’s senior advisers immediately determined that they could issue a statement the following day. Their calculation was simple: Mr. Lazio, by responding to the President, now could join the attack on the First Lady-even as he acted as yet another aggrieved victim of the Clinton spin machine.

It’s Tabloid Hell!

Mr. Clinton’s cameo appearance had other unforeseen consequences for his wife’s campaign. It inserted the White House into New York’s newspaper wars, a move that tampered with the carefully balanced ego-system that is the New York media.

For one thing, the President’s phone call to the Daily News ran far afield of New York Senate politics-he also discussed the ongoing Mideast peace talks. The New York Times indignantly noted that the President’s interview violated a “news blackout” on the Camp David talks, and it insinuated that Mr. Clinton was merely trying to damage the Daily News ‘ main competitor, the New York Post , an organ not especially friendly to the President and his wife.

What’s more, The Times had been politely ignoring Bastardgate. But Mr. Clinton’s remarks, in addition to his wife’s Chappaqua press conference, gave the paper just the excuse it needed to acknowledge the allegations. And the paper did more (and, in some ways, less) than just acknowledge them. As of July 18, it had yet to print several pertinent facts that cast substantial doubt on the sources of the allegation.

For instance, one of Mr. Oppenheimer’s key sources has suffered from memory lapses, and another has been widely denounced as untrustworthy by a cousin. And both sources have at various times offered other journalists substantially different accounts of what happened. None of these points has been mentioned in The Times .

Gail Sheehy, who conducted extensive research on Election Night 1974 for her own critical biography of the Clintons, told The Observer that she doesn’t believe the incident happened and said that The Times had yet to call her. “I found it dismaying that the best of the mainstream press did not first go to check out the credibility of the sources that Oppenheimer uses or the authors who have already written about these events,” she said.

The Times ‘ editorial page, perhaps not as miffed over the exclusive interview Mr. Clinton gave the Daily News , has been more supportive. The paper’s lead editorial on July 18 contended that Mrs. Clinton had made a “convincing case” that she did not use an anti-Semitic slur. Whatever the long-term repercussions, Mrs. Clinton’s handling of Bastardgate seems to have Mr. Lazio’s supporters delighted.

“We are just amazed,” contended the Lazio senior adviser. “After hundreds of scandals, you’d think the Clintons would be better at this.”