Was Mrs. Clinton’s Protest Too Much?

New York Post columnist Cindy Adams was not present at the most heavily protected residence on Old House Lane in Chappaqua for the press conference on the afternoon of Sunday, July 16, which had been hastily called so that the First Lady of the United States could categorically deny that she had called a southern Baptist a “fucking Jew bastard” in 1974, but her favorite trademarked phrase was written all over the event, and the circumstances surrounding it:

Only in New York, kids, only in New York.

Then again, perhaps the press conference-in which Mrs. Clinton, with Westchester Representative Nita Lowey at her side, defended herself against the charge, leveled in a new biography by former National Enquirer reporter Jerry Oppenheimer, that she had thus denigrated Paul Fray, the campaign manager for Bill Clinton’s first, failed bid for public office-was actually occurring at the wild, unique and increasingly familiar intersection that lies equidistant from New York, Washington, D.C., and Little Rock, Ark., where the respective realms of the Clintons and of New York politics most colorfully collide.

It is a place of blinding mutual magnification, where the enormity of Mrs. Clinton’s celebrity meets with the ferocity of press interest in her campaign, mingles with the range and rapacity of her historical enmities, and renders her eternally damned if she does, damned if she doesn’t. In the weekend of debate over whether and how to respond to the allegations in the Oppenheimer book, the campaign was keenly aware that the First Lady’s refuting the charge swiftly, personally and forcefully would thrust the story out of the tabloid trenches and into the mainstream. But this awareness was Siamese-twinned with the campaign’s equally firm certainty that her failure to refute the charge swiftly, personally and forcefully would place the matter on a slow cooker-similar to the one that had been steadily scalding her since she had been less than bold in her rebuttal of Palestinian first lady Suha Arafat after their infamous diss-and-kiss number last November.

By several accounts, though, Mrs. Clinton’s extreme desire to respond to the Oppenheimer allegations had, by the time of the July 16 press conference, widely trumped anyone’s impulse to let things lie. “You might not have felt it on Saturday, but you felt it Sunday,” said a campaign operative, citing the story’s appearance on that morning’s Fox News Sunday broadcast and, worse, in a scathing editorial in the Daily News . Feeling that the First Lady stands an excellent chance of garnering the endorsement of The New York Times and zero chance garnering that of the New York Post , the campaign has been desperately courting the Daily News . But the question remains: When The New York Times ‘ lead editorial on Tuesday, July 18, staunchly defended Mrs. Clinton, did this help dispel the charges, or elevate them?

In the intersection between Clinton the candidate and Clinton the spouse, the rhetorical firepower of the Presidency is brought to bear-and, to hear some tell it, overbear-upon the brawlings of statewide candidacy. Think about it: Last weekend, the leader of the free world used his time-outs from his currently ratcheted-up, blacked-out efforts to bring peace to-where else?-the Middle East to help execute his wife’s campaign play. According to several sources, on Sunday morning, prior to the press availability, Mr. Clinton participated in a conference call with high-level campaign staff, including pollster Mark Penn, media adviser Mandy Grunwald, general guru Harold Ickes, communications director Howard Wolfson, policy adviser Neera Tanden and coordinated-campaign director Gigi Georges. That evening, he issued a statement in defense of his wife through Mr. Wolfson. But then, apparently doffing his team-player cap for his white hat, the President made not one but two calls to the Daily News to defend her in its pages. “Shocked” was the word used by one insider to describe the sensation of seeing the front page of the tabloid on Monday morning. The campaign was surprised and not, it seems, altogether delighted by the President’s chivalry. Not lost on Team Hillary was the downside of such a heavy weigh-in from someone whose every utterance can have a world-shaking impact-and, when it comes to matters that turn strictly on credibility, a potentially inverse impact at that.

“You don’t have to be a brain surgeon to see that this isn’t necessarily the best thing for the story,” said the insider. Then, too, in some ancillary particulars, the First Couple’s accounts did not match quite as closely as the coincidental cream of the pantsuits sported by Mrs. Clinton and Ms. Lowey: Mr. Clinton described how his wife could have hurled an epithet (although never an ethnic one) in the course of an election-night exchange that he depicted as heated, while Mrs. Clinton seemed not to remember the exchange at all.

Perhaps most insidiously, the intersection of Old House Lane and Pennsylvania Avenue is a place where, even if one thinks-and in this instance, one is deeply inclined to think-that the candidate is telling the truth, one hesitates to believe her. Even if Jewish voters should trust Mrs. Clinton, a potentially fatal proportion of them simply do not. And, without imputing this fact to the slightest hint of anti-Jewish sentiment on the part of the First Lady, it is fair to say that they have their reasons, and their reasons overlap with their counterparts from other parts of New York’s ethnic map. This is why the response hurled by her opponent, Long Island Representative Rick Lazio, on Monday, July 17, was not only distasteful, but mysterious.

“Till now, the biggest mistake Little Ricky made was falling on his ass,” said public relations executive Ken Sunshine, who was one of the many Democrats frantically phoned by Clinton campaign manager Bill de Blasio over the weekend-and who is slated to be the First Lady’s escort for her visit, planned for Saturday, July 22, to his Orthodox-but-cool synagogue in Westhampton. “He just had to keep his mouth shut, and for the first 48 hours he did.”

Mr. Lazio gave tacit credence to the charge, when he could have taken her to task on some facts. Whether or not she ever said any such syllables 26 years ago, Mrs. Clinton has never explained what she really believes with regard to the formation of a Palestinian state. She seems to have no definite criterion for when she will expatiate upon Middle Eastern issues, and declined to comment for fear that doing so might harm the ongoing peace process. But the peace process had begun before July 1999, for instance, when Mrs. Clinton wrote a letter to the head of the Orthodox Union expressing the view that Jerusalem is the eternal and indivisible capital of Israel. It was still ongoing in November 1999, when, the day after the Suha Arafat incident, Mrs. Clinton declined to comment on the status of Jerusalem. Many observers would, of course, give her a pass on the latter, in light of the fact that she was asked the question while visiting the Arab state of Jordan-but this has not been the case on other occasions back in New York, when she has selectively sidestepped the matter. (Campaign aides were not able to clarify this by press time.)

It’s not that one suspects Mrs. Clinton actually holds any views worthy of suspicion. It is that her very hesitation to spell out her views arouses suspicion. While doubts about Mrs. Clinton have centered disproportionately on the Jewish vote, they also transcend it. For the First Lady handles Jewish issues the way she handles all difficult issues-and that is a way that all too frequently serves to fuel, rather than quell, the sense that she is slippery.

An example: For months now, Mrs. Clinton has been asked in press conferences whether she shares Vice President Al Gore’s view that Governor George W. Bush’s proposal to allow workers to invest a portion of their Social Security payroll tax in the stock market is altogether risky, or Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s view that such a proposal is altogether realistic. And for months, she has been declining to answer, on the grounds that she has to study the matter, examine some important figures yet to be released and so on. But that is not what she has been telling voters. “I think you’re right-it’s too risky,” she told 86-year-old Hy Rosenblum, within earshot of a reporter, during a visit to Dayton Towers West in Far Rockaway.

To be sure, this is not the type of thing that has the power to shatter a candidate’s credibility-but, repeated in enough versions over enough occasions, it is exactly the type of thing that does have the potential to chip away at it, bit by bit.

“I have known Hillary since she was 23 years old,” said Sara Ehrman, a longtime Jewish activist and the person who drove Hillary Rodham from Washington, D.C. to Arkansas before the Clintons got married; who planted trees in Israel in honor of the birth of Chelsea Clinton; and who was, in fact, telephoning from Tel Aviv-where, incidentally, it was the President’s Daily News interview that occasioned a box in the local papers. “I know her mother, her brothers, I knew her father … Dorothy Rodham is a woman of high ethical standards, and she raised a wonderful daughter to live in this world of diversity.”

The midpoint between New York and Clintonia is a place where no one seems to believe that Mrs. Clinton is remotely anti-Semitic, but where everyone seems to agree that Mrs. Clinton’s candidacy may have been seriously damaged by the charge that she once said something anti-Semitic.

Only in this campaign, kids, only in this campaign.