Don’t blame Chelsea-at least not entirely.
When President Bill Clinton and Hillary-as she is now, Cher-like, known-suddenly shortened the long Labor Day weekend that they were going to spend vacationing upstate, the official reason given was that their daughter was “under the weather.” Indeed, it is entirely plausible that the First Daughter was, after all her globe-trotting of late, exactly so, and that her parents would rather have spent Sunday with her at the White House than with the full complement of stalkers and gawkers following them in central New York. But according to a well-placed source, there was also at least one other factor at work in the First Couple’s flying back to our nation’s capital on the evening of Saturday, Sept. 2, rather than on the afternoon of Sunday, Sept. 3, as previously scheduled. And, as with so many other wifely complaints, it can be blamed on the game of golf.
It had been arranged for the Sunday morning in question to feature a round of golf including the President, Terry McAuliffe-Presidential friend, Democratic fund-raiser and son of Syracuse, N.Y.-and none other than Michael Bragman, the Syracuse-based former majority leader of the New York State Assembly. As the weekend approached, Albany was, as one Democratic operative put it, “abuzz” with the news of Mr. Bragman’s imminent teeing-off with the Commander in Chief. And some of Albany was, in fact, bewildered: “You’ve gotta wonder what they were thinking,” said another Albany-based Democrat, of Team Hillary. For back in May, Mr. Bragman staged a coup attempt against Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who gets the kid-glove treatment from the First Lady, among other reasons because of his status as a key ally in the Orthodox Jewish community. Mr. Silver successfully beat back Mr. Bragman-and he has been beating him up ever since, up to and including Mr. Silver making it known, in no uncertain terms, to Mrs. Clinton’s campaign manager, Bill de Blasio, that Mr. Silver was Not Pleased at the prospect of his archenemy enjoying such a prized Presidential perk.
Mr. Clinton was scheduled to play golf both on Saturday and Sunday. And Mr. Bragman’s only chance to link up was to have been on Sunday.
“Mike can’t,” Mr. McAuliffe replied to a reporter who asked him, during a fund-raiser on the evening of Friday, Sept. 1, whether Mr. Bragman would be included in a golf party scheduled for Saturday. “He’s taking his daughter to Hofstra University.” True enough, Mr. Bragman was dropping off Leslie on Saturday. “But he was going to be back by Sunday,” the source pointed out to The Observer.
“Why,” squawked Mr. McAuliffe when contacted about the intra-party pique, “it’s a stupid golf game … I know Shelly (Silver) very well. I never heard anything like this. Silver won. It’s over.” But in New York politics, of course, it isn’t over till the vanquished pol puts alone.
Come to think of it, Mr. McAuliffe left quite a few fingerprints on the Clinton jaunt upstate. It was, after all, a childhood friend of his-an insurance salesman named John (Duke) Kinney-who, along with his wife, Billie Jean, was hosting the fund-raiser where he was holding forth. And it was Mr. McAuliffe who fired the first salvo of the sausage war that would rage-well, sizzle-over the slow-news weekend. As he was chatting with White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart by the Kinneys’ garage, on which there hung a sign which said “Senator and President Clinton,” Mr. McAuliffe spotted reporters planted on the next-door neighbors’ driveway, just northeast of the Blue Bowl Sanitation port-a-johns.
“Hey, free beer and barbecue over here, guys,” he teased. “They’ve got you near the porta-potties!” (Both beer and barbecue were eventually served to the Fourth Estate-in the next-door neighbors’ garage.) Then he threw down the meaty gauntlet: “Where’s Lazio? He’s not up here!” taunted Mr. McAuliffe. “I hear he’s done like a 10-minute drop-in here in Syracuse. Then he goes to the fair the other day, I’m told, and they offer him a sausage sandwich and he says, ‘I don’t eat sausage sandwiches. ‘”
A reporter who had witnessed Rep. Rick Lazio’s alleged vicious anti-sausage slur characterized the moment as something less than that, but Mr. McAuliffe would have none of it.
“You go to the New York State Fair, you eat sausage!” he declaimed.
Remember the Lusitania !
As political exercises go, there is perhaps nothing more simultaneously boring and interesting than observing Mrs. Clinton when she is traveling with Mr. Clinton. On the boring side, it is when her path to power crosses with the path of the President that life with Hillary is most likely to involve standing in the driveway of the people who live next door to the people who are hosting the people you are interested in. Close enough to see, but not smell, the smoke rising from the barbecue grills. And being grateful that an actual guest-a good guest; the highest of Democratic rollers-will wander over and toss you some words, even if those words serve only to tweak you about your location in Siberia and spark a story about sausage.
On the interesting side, there is nothing like a trip with the President as Mrs. Clinton’s candidacy comes into its home stretch to give you a good cold splash of water on the face and re-alert you to the fact of who this woman still is, and how fantastical her current effort remains. For she has spent all this time trying, with some success, to blend into the political landscape of New York. Yet she remains part of a Presidential entourage that fits no more naturally into the suburbs of central New York-or, for that matter, into any corner of normality-than the dress whites worn by the military aide, guardian of the “football” of defense technology with which the President travels at all times, fit into the shorts-and-sundress attire in the Kinneys’ backyard.
That said, this much should come as good news to Team Hillary: For a New Yorker who has grown used to seeing the First Lady on the campaign trail, it was a little jarring, after awaiting the Clintons’ Friday-afternoon arrival at Syracuse Hancock International Airport, to see her alighting from Air Force One and getting the royalty-on-tarmac treatment. A small crowd, kept at bay behind barricades, waited to cheer the Clintons while a smaller, more select one lined up to greet the Clintons personally. Children offered bouquets and a navy-blue-blazered collegiate a cappella group sang the national anthem. (Perfectly postured, chins thrust forward, hands on hearts throughout the performance, both Clintons looked reverently scoutish.)
It’s not that such elements of obeisance are absent from the life of Hillary the candidate; it is, for instance, hard to imagine anyone waiting for hours in the pouring rain for Chuck Schumer or Mark Green, as dozens recently waited for Mrs. Clinton at the Concourse Village Living Community in the Bronx. It’s just that they are mixed in with many more fragments of reality, some of them very sharp. And then, of course, there’s “him” and his shadow, which still falls on every corner of this campaign.
As one looked down upon the President working the crowds at the New York State Fair from the elevated vantage point of a trolley-car where the reporters were placed, the phrase that came to mind was “mosh pit.” Mr. Clinton was not exactly wading in and letting the crowd flotate his body, but it looked as if he would have loved to do just that. He was reaching out, not so much shaking hands as letting people touch his arms. The whole spectacle had a look of mutual desperation, as if he needed to gather up every last tap of adulation and bank it before he left public life, and they needed to touch him before he was gone.
Meanwhile, the First Lady certainly got a good reception, and gave a good impression. At no time, however, did she betray the slightest urge to flotate. Of course, to criticize her for not being the retail politician her husband is would be akin to chiding Ernie Els for not being Tiger Woods. Nonetheless, if a Martian had landed at the New York State Fairgrounds and been asked who, between the woman in the peach pantsuit and the man in the U.S.S. John F. Kennedy golf shirt, was running in a white-hot race for these folks’ votes, the Martian would definitely have said, “Him.”
But when, at last, the First Couple reached the Dinosaur-Gianelli meat stand and hauled themselves up on the counter so as to face the throngs, she did eat the sausage sandwich, a hot, messy one. And she did not eat it daintily.
“Don’t talk with your mouth full!” one could imagine her mother, Dorothy Rodham, saying if she had accompanied Mrs. Clinton on this stop, as she had accompanied her on quite a few others.
One could not, however, imagine her husband saying any such thing. He would know that, in terms of the work she has cut out for her, such a mistake is not a mistake. It’s progress.