The Hidden Hillary: First Lady Speaks, Very Carefully

There was something about the sunglasses.

“I think that one of my problems in communicating effectively is that I assume too much,” mused Hillary Rodham Clinton, her eyes obscured behind a pair of electric-blue lenses.

It was Sunday, July 9. The First Lady was seated at a picnic table at a park in Van Buren, New York, after what felt like her 40th-but was in fact her fourth-Democratic picnic during a five-day upstate campaign swing.

“I have been around so long, I have been in so many battles … I think I assume that people know more about what I believe and what my deepest convictions are and what motivates me to do this than perhaps it is fair to assume,” she said.

It wasn’t that the sunglasses appeared out of place. Though the weather had been in a mood of rain and wind for most of the day, the sun had just made a sufficiently bold appearance for Mrs. Clinton to ask an aide to bring her a straw hat to protect her complexion. In fact, the problem with the sunglasses may have been how very right they looked. Even when she was sounding truly reflective, the sunglasses kept her looking deflective.

What better interview accessory for a candidate who has spent a whole year hoping that New Yorkers will come to feel they know her, while hoping that they don’t want to know her too well?

Since launching her “listening tour” at the farm of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan on a day that was the exact same soft, bright blue as almost all the days of this last trip, it is certainly striking how much more open candidate Clinton has become. No doubt about it: She takes more questions, she shakes more hands, she fires more rhetorical missiles. But it is perhaps more striking-and politically, more relevant-how closed she has remained.

“I recognize in my own experience that people want to know more,” she said, exhibiting a rarely noted flair for understatement. Her reputation for strength and for scandal have rendered her a combustible cultural hybrid. Even before she sought the Senate, she was Margaret Thatcher and the late Princess Diana rolled into one. “But I am always struck by what it is we think we are going to know about a person.”

In the case of Mrs. Clinton, it might be best for New Yorkers not to think that we are going to know much about her that we don’t know already.

“I have a record of perseverance,” she said. “I don’t quit. I keep going.”

Knew that.

“I would use who I am and my life experience on behalf of doing what I think would really be what New Yorkers want done.”

Heard that.

“Yes, I have a library card in Chappaqua.”

Well, that’s something.

For the record, she has been there once and taken out some decorating books. She has not yet joined or attended the church, nor applied for a driver’s license. “I don’t, uh … drive ,” she said, referring to the retinue of agents who must ferry a First Lady. But we knew that, too.

In an average person, Mrs. Clinton’s palpable, almost visceral need for privacy would be fine. In a deeply investigated, routinely vivisected person such as herself, it might be essential. But in an aspirant to public office, it is unquestionably problematic-particularly when that aspirant has adopted a state whose natural children include Ed and Rudy and Alphonse and Pat and countless other outsize political personalities. Indeed, the Senate candidates seem to be setting themselves up as a contrast between being and doing, with Rep. Rick Lazio selling himself as someone who is more like us, and Mrs. Clinton selling herself as someone who will accomplish more for us.

Ironically, it was the oceanic depth of her reserve that came through most clearly when she braved her campaign press bus on Friday,July7. Meant to deflate the issue of her accessibility vis-à-vis that of her rolling chatterbox of an opponent, the ride served rather to define it. Trying to be game, but manifestly discomfited by reporters’ probing as to why she feels that she must be so cautious all the time, Mrs. Clinton illustrated what the accessibility issue in her campaign is really all about. It is far less about the visible trappings of self-protection than the invisible ones; less about the velvet ropes, the dry-cleaned Secret Service agents and the number of press availabilities than about the clear, impermeable covering that descends, like a bulletproof veil, whenever she scents predatory scrutiny.

Then, living up to her billing as one of the very most complicated people ever to have a souvenir glass donkey bestowed upon her by the fine people of upstate New York, she tossed out a glimpse of herself-and it was, in fact, closer to the bone than anything the press was trying to elicit.

“You know, for the last four months, one of my best friends was dying,” she said, referring to the recent death from cancer of Diane Blair, wife of Tyson Foods executive (and cattle-futures scandal character) Jim Blair. “And you know, that really helped keep a lot … I mean, I called her every day … I’d even read her some of what you write … just to kind of give her a flavor of it. Because she’s been such a great part of my life for the last 25 years. And at the end of the day, I just can’t worry about these things. I mean, I really can’t.” The idea that Hillary Clinton does not care about her image is, of course, ludicrous. But for a minute there, the idea that she cared only about her image seemed ludicrous, too. “And I’m not trying to not answer your question.”

But she often does try to not answer your question-preferably in such a way that you will think that she is trying to answer it. You know, though, that she would rather not be asked.

She would rather not be asked about the most benign of banalities. It is not easy to find out who designs her pantsuits or does her hair or what she eats for breakfast; those microscopic grains of specificity that the public has no right or need to know, but that it just, well, likes to know.

“Oh, I’ll tell you that kind of stuff!” Mrs. Clinton laughed-not her earthy, throaty laugh, but her girlish, let’s-have-a-manicure giggle.

Okay, so who does your hair?

“I did it for the last two days,” she said. “There’s a couple of women in New York and Washington, depending where I am.”

Which, of course, is not exactly saying who does your hair.

With the exception of attacks that her campaign finds it explicitly useful to counter, she would rather not be asked about attacks made upon her, even when those attacks are made by the most public of people in the most public of ways regarding the most public of matters. Just in the past week, for instance, the right wing could not possibly have conspired to insult her twice on the same score, but judging from the timing, it might as well have done so. Rep. Rick Lazio had been more or less backing off a line in one of his fundraising letters: “If you’re like most Republicans,” it said, “you believe that Hillary Clinton and her husband have embarrassed our country and disgraced their powerful posts.” But on Saturday, July 8, former President George Bush, and former First Lady Barbara Bush, could be found on the front page of The New York Times saying much the same thing. (“Mrs. Bush was discussing Americans’ lowered expectations for public officials,” said the article. “And when her husband said she could not blame that entirely on Mr. Clinton, she replied, ‘Oh, I can.’”)

Where the Lazio letter evoked the scandals of the Clinton White House, Poppy and Bar’s good-cop, bad-cop routine seemed to refer, as well to, the basic legitimacy of the Clinton White House. After all, long before there was Ken Starr, there was that pungent breeze of disdain blowing from the general direction of Kennebunkport; the feeling that the first couple of Arkansas were not just ideologically or even morally unfit to assume the reins of American power, but also manifestly unworthy of doing so. The Times interview served, too, as a reminder that it is not only Mrs. Clinton whose candidacy is at least somewhat redolent of redemption, if not revenge. So: Had the former President broken his self-imposed vow not to speak ill of his successor?

“You’ll have to ask him,” Mrs. Clinton said, as lightly as if she had been pressed again about her bottle blondness. “I have made a vow not to comment on the political tactics of any Republican.”

That is, of course, a vow that she shatters regularly when it comes to her opponent. “What’s on your mind?” a reporter asked Mrs. Clinton after an afternoon rally in a park in Elmira, when she chose to meet the press for an almost-unprecedented second time in the same day. “I dunno, I just missed you guys,” she deadpanned, before blasting what she called Mr. Lazio’s “dog-ate-my-homework kind of response” to inquiries about the fund-raising letter. The Clinton campaign was on Day Two of its delight at the Congressman’s surprising squeamishness about a line he could easily have defended or shrugged off. “He didn’t write the letter, he didn’t read the letter, he didn’t sign the letter, he didn’t know the letter got sent out,” chided Mrs. Clinton with a sure-footed cadence that suggested how unfortunate it is for her that in a woman candidate-particularly this woman candidate-hammer and tongs can be two dangerously self-wounding implements. Her friends will attribute this to her long, stellar history as an advocate, and her foes will attribute it to her long, sinister history as a ruthless partisan warrior. But whatever its real root, the fact is the fact: She is simply much better at attacking and defending than she is at simple exposition.

And so far, at least, it has seemed that she would rather not be asked to delve deeply into her ideological self, any more than into her emotional self-if only because it is very difficult for such delving to occur in the context of a campaign that is heavily reliant on short interviews and message-of-the-day press conferences. If the First Lady assumes that people have a clear view of her political trajectory, she does assume too much.

“I really see what I am trying to convey as sort of integrating the being and the doing,” said Mrs. Clinton, differing with The Observer ‘s contention that the race was coming down to who Mr. Lazio is versus what Mrs. Clinton would do. Indeed, she portrays her views on public policy as an integral part of her private personality; the one part, perhaps, that she will truly elucidate before the election.

“I feel like I have struggled with my own political beliefs, my ideology,” she said. “I’ve been part of the New Democratic movement; I’ve been part of the so-called Third Way approach. I’ve worked really hard on all of this, but I haven’t been anybody who has written about it or spoken at length about it.”

Considering that this statement was made by someone whose departures from Democratic boilerplate have been few and far between, it may be too much to hope that she will speak at length about such things now. But maybe not. Posed a sticky policy question that places two key constituencies at odds, Mrs. Clinton not only answered it, but seemed almost relieved to be asked such a thing. The question was this: In New York, as across the country, the most pressing issue for real women within the abortion debate is not Medicaid funding or late-term legality or anything else that tends to hog the headlines. It is the practical fact that the epidemic of failing hospitals has resulted in many medical centers keeping their doors open by merging with Catholic hospitals. As a result, the one hospital to which a woman may feasibly have access no longer offers contraceptive procedures, let alone abortions. It is exactly the type of issue on which Mrs. Clinton might be expected to require further study, or to give one of her typically on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand responses. But she didn’t. “Even though I am pro-choice, I do not think it would be constitutional or appropriate for the government to be telling a Catholic hospital, ‘You have to do something which is totally contrary to your religious beliefs,’” she asserted, with a clarity that becomes her.

Of course, this response could reflect pure calculation: She is, after all, better off annoying the pro-choice activists who are securely in her corner than the Catholics who are not. But it could also reflect something in the way of a worldview: “Once the government crosses into that area of appropriate religious authority,” she said, “I think we’re on a slippery slope.”

By interview’s end, the weather’s mood had changed again. The wind knocked a half-empty bottle of Dr. Pepper off the picnic table. “Mother Nature is saying that the interview is over!” intoned Howard “Wooffie” Wolfson, her communications director.

Several questions ago, the sun had gone in and the sky had gone gray. The sunglasses, though, were still on.