Mrs. Clinton Responds to Middle East Crisis With Tightrope Dance

It isn’t every candidate who could work Tammy Wynette and Harriet Tubman into the same rhetorical theme, but Sunday after Sunday, in black church after black church, Hillary Rodham Clinton does just that with gusto.

Speaking for herself, Mrs. Clinton keeps Tammy Wynette strictly in the realm of the strongly implied. “And I hope you know one thing about me,” she builds toward her crescendo, after a riff about how it takes a village and her not giving up on the big issues. “And that is, when I tell you I will stick with you, I will stick with you !” Nobody thinks she is talking about health care.

Speaking for her, some prefer to hit the nail on the head. “She’s a stand-by-her-man woman, and we appreciate that!” co-pastor Darlene Thomas McGuire whooped, by way of introducing Mrs. Clinton to the congregation of the Emmanuel Baptist Church in the Bronx, and the congregation cheered.

Harriet Tubman, on the other hand, requires neither a wink nor a nod. Conjuring the escaped slave who repeatedly stole back to the South to spirit others northward via the Underground Railroad, Mrs. Clinton–who is, it turns out, no slouch in the preaching-from-the-pulpit department–starts out with the hush of a bedtime storyteller, evoking the swamp or the willow grave where the slaves clandestinely met their Moses. “But then when they gathered, she would say this to them: ‘No matter what you hear behind you, keep going!'” the First Lady low-balls it. “If you hear gunshots, keep going!” she repeats, revving her engine. “If you hear dogs, keep go-ing! ” she revs some more and then puts her pedal to the metal: “Don’t turn back, keep go-ing until you make it to safety and freedom !”

Keep going. In many ways, those three syllables tell the whole story of her candidacy–and not in the sense, as she means to stress in the Tubman context, of her hope to help America keep going down the road of prosperity on which her husband set the nation in 1992. If her candidacy succeeds, “keep going” may turn out to be its none-too-subtle secret. For, more than any other positive quality, her campaign has been about dogged, dog-with-a-bone persistence. Stingy with insights, thoughts, evolutions, her campaign has been extravagant with elbow grease. Not all that big on honesty, it has been huge on energy. Her political fans may cite her brilliance, but what they really praise is her diligence, stressing how she has been to 62 counties. ( Keep going! ) How she shakes every hand; kisses every baby; signs every T-shirt, every napkin, every used-up Popsicle stick that is thrust at her on the campaign trail. ( Keep going! ) She even dodges questions in the spirit of forging ahead: “I’m just going to keep doing what I’ve been doing,” she will often respond when asked to address something she does not wish to address. ( Keep going! )

And if the Middle East threatens your candidacy, keep going.

When, for instance, a comparatively minor but potentially pesky elected official makes rumblings of discontent about anything close to Mrs. Clinton, her campaign keeps going–to the point of drafting the President of the United States for fence-mending chores. Alerted by the campaign that Brooklyn Councilman Noach Dear was miffed at Mrs. Clinton’s attendance of a fund-raiser for freshman Brooklyn Representative Anthony Weiner, Bill Clinton picked up the phone days before the Congressional primary in September and thus gave Mr. Dear–who is now running against Mr. Weiner in the general election as a Republican–a reason not to call the local news media and blast the wife as, say, an unreconstituted Arabist.

Indeed, when it comes to the loose cannons of New York politics, the general approach, advocated by campaign manager Bill de Blasio and supported by a campaign that lives in constant dread of media mayhem, seems to be to flatter them away from lighting the powder. This seems to be the key to the mystery massaging of Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind, the silencing of whom is discussed by insiders the way a woman would discuss her high-risk pregnancy. No one trusts that Mr. Hikind won’t publicly whack the First Lady before Election Day, as he has done at least three times before in the course of this campaign (dissing her for kissing Suha Arafat; demonstrating outside campaign headquarters on behalf of convicted spy-for-Israel Jonathan Pollard; and fueling, rather than dousing, the fire started by the accusation that, some decades ago, Mrs. Clinton had used the phrase “fucking Jew bastard”). But every day that goes by without such a specter is viewed as a victory well worth the effort. Then again, if Mr. Hikind turns around and endorses Mr. Lazio, the campaign may have a tricky time dismissing him as irrelevant, duplicitous and wacky.

Whenever Mrs. Clinton’s dual roles as First Lady and Senate candidate have theoretically called for her to walk a tightrope, her solution has been to keep going as if the tightrope is not a tightrope at all, but a nice big trampoline with lots of room for her to spring from one end of the spectrum to the other (and back again) without the slightest fear of falling. For instance, the First Lady who stood before the churches on Sunday, Oct. 15, had an entirely different demeanor from the First Lady who had stood before cameras at the WCBS debate one week earlier, or who had addressed the Oct. 12 pro-Israel rally in midtown Manhattan–at which she had, yes, kept going through a series of boos and shouts of “Tell your husband!” No sign in the church of the hard-line defender of Israel, the sworn foe of Yasir Arafat, the scold of the United Nations. Brandished with Errol Flynn-like aplomb all week, her Zionist sword seemed to have turned right back into a ploughshare.

“We need to do all that we can in our prayerful support of the leaders, and particularly our President,” she told the worshipers, “that they can … choose the good path, the safe path, the peaceful path, the path that ends the violence and holds out hope for the children of that region …”

Asked, after the second of her four church visits of that morning, whether she personally considered Mr. Arafat to be a legitimate world leader and partner in the peace process, Mrs. Clinton kept going through the thorny thicket of ambiguity, like Harriet Tubman through a thicket of thorn.

“He was a party to that agreement; three successive Israeli Prime Ministers have negotiated with him, have dealt with him, have recognized the need to do so,” she said, as if she had not just spent several days pounding home the position that Mr. Arafat, and Mr. Arafat alone, was culpable for causing the violence. “I think that speaks for itself.”

Well, not exactly, but … keep going .

What’s shocking is how well this strategy seems to be working. Even if she ends up losing, it will be amazing how many questions she has laid to rest just by beating press and public alike into familiarity with the idea of Senator Hillary. “Blah, blah, blah, ” yawned a senior campaign aide when asked by The Observer about such points as her status in the administration. The aide was clearly (and with good reason) convinced that Mrs. Clinton has made the perceptual transition from First Lady to Senate candidate, and the fact that she has not made the actual transition–or handed in any of her privileges–could not matter less.

But Where’s Lazio?

Conversely, Mr. Lazio does not seem to be going enough. This is true of his campaign in general and of its behavior with regard to the Jewish community. Indeed, just as the Middle East highlights what is logically wrong with Mrs. Clinton’s campaign, it also highlights what is logistically wrong with Mr. Lazio’s. And it is the logistical stuff that seems to be poisonous.

Intellectually, there is no question that the current situation in the Middle East hurts Mrs. Clinton; the only question is to what degree. “Broadly speaking, the perception is that she’s wrapped this thing up, so it doesn’t hurt her as much,” said Democratic political consultant Lincoln Mitchell. True–and should the cease-fire reached at the recent summit hold, and the story thus recede from page one, it may hurt her only microscopically. But anyone who knows the political volatilities of New York, and the physical volatilities of the Middle East, knows better than to leave it too firmly at that.

“People who weren’t happy with Clinton’s initiatives [on the peace process] are livid about what’s happened and much more determined to react in a way that probably hurts her,” said a prominent Jewish leader, summing up a sentiment The Observer frequently came across in the last week. “And many of those who are ambivalent feel, fairly or unfairly, that the process was short-circuited by the President’s timetable.”

Put that together with the First Lady’s history, and that should spell serious trouble.

Consider this, though. To have spent the past year and a half sounding out the Jewish electorate is to come to the following set of general conclusions: No one believes that Mrs. Clinton is not, in her heart of hearts, sympathetic with the Palestinians. No one believes the excuse, which the First Lady produced after her 1999 kiss of Suha Arafat and has repeated frequently since, that she would not have taken more than 24 hours to upbraid Mrs. Arafat if only she had had an adequate translation of Mrs. Arafat’s anti-Israel remarks from the Arabic (or, apparently, a phone line in her vehicle as the Israeli government immediately rebuked Mrs. Arafat’s remarks … or access to the outside world overnight, while the news wires were going crazy …). So they don’t believe her. But, because Mrs. Clinton has kept going –has shown up at every possible Jewish setting and used every possible Jewish expression to take every possible Jewish position–many say they do feel better about her. They know full well that she is saying many things to get elected–but they take her doing so as a sign that she realizes she will be beholden to them to stay elected.

Then there’s Mr. Lazio. Even the people who are positively apoplectic at the Clintons seem to be mystified by Mr. Lazio.

“Last Thursday, at the rally, I passed him a note,” Mandell Ganchrow, M.D., president of the Orthodox Union, said of Mr. Lazio. Unlike the First Lady, the Congressman was not booed at the rally–but also unlike her, he has not been getting kudos for his effort to court the Jewish community. “Up to this point, he has not reached out to what should be a natural constituency,” continued Mr. Ganchrow. “Not a single person has picked up the phone to say, ‘We’d like to pick your brain… ‘” Then he made the really salient point: “Mrs. Clinton was here,” said Mr. Ganchrow. “Mrs. Clinton called me personally at home about two months ago.”

(See? She has already visited the Orthodox Union and has written Mr. Ganchrow a big, splashily leaked letter about the status of Jerusalem, but she keeps going .)

“People know that Rick’s a strong supporter of Israel,” said Lazio campaign manager Bill Dal Col, who feels “very comfortable” with where he places Mr. Lazio’s numbers among Jewish voters (in the mid- to high 30’s). Moreover, “people who normally get their asses kissed this election … are not getting their asses kissed,” said a Lazio campaign aide, who attributed the lack of posterior-puckering, at least somewhat understandably, to the lateness of Mr. Lazio’s entry into the race. On the other hand, “There are a lot of people in the Jewish community who are absolutely perplexed that he has not run a more vigorous effort,” said Ken Bialkin, an attorney with Skadden Arps. This is not so easy to dismiss, seeing that it was Mr. Bialkin who, right after Mr. Lazio entered the race in June, hosted a meeting at his offices with several dozen Jewish leaders, movers and shakers–several of whom did not, shall we say, sing the Lazio campaign’s praises.

There are three neon points worth making here. Point 1: Upon exiting the race, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani left, in his Jewish supporters, a wealth of swing voters ripe for the picking. Insofar as they were Democrats who had not only crossed the psychological barrier of voting for a Republican, but who had totally independent reasons to think twice about voting for the Democratic candidate in this race, “Giuliani Jews” (to classify them crudely) represented the most obvious of starting points for Team Lazio. Point 2: The visions now dancing in Hillaryite heads, that their candidate will surpass expectations for a Democrat and achieve both a percentage of upstate Republicans and a historically huge number of African-Americans and Latinos downstate, may very well turn into dust. Then again, they might not–and if they do not, Team Lazio’s contentment with getting more than 35 percent of the Jewish vote may be a little low to aim. And point 3: Mr. Lazio’s own campaign can sound as if it needs to be talked into his vote-getting potential in this area. Sure, one accepts the idea that a Republican who garners nearly 40 percent of the Jewish vote statewide is a Republican who does very well indeed. But, given the special circumstances at play, it seems fair to ask why Mr. Lazio should not go for broke and head north of Governor George Pataki’s very good numbers among Jews, straight toward Mr. Giuliani’s spectacular numbers, if only in the spirit of shooting for the moon by way of hitting the stars. A Lazio–not Giuliani, Lazio –aide replied: “There’s Rudy, and there’s everybody else. Lazio can’t kick Arafat out of Lincoln Center … Lazio does not really have a proven record.” Well, he does have a 100 percent pro-Israel voting record. Granted, it is not exactly rocket science for a New York Congressman to garner such a record. But if you’ve got it, flaunt it.

Lord knows, she would. Hell, she has flaunted her record on Israel. She has flaunted it even as she has reinvented it in plain sight. It’s brazen. It’s illogical. It’s amazing. But it is also working. If Mr. Lazio does not get his act together, Mrs. Clinton will keep going–contradictions and all–right into the U.S. Senate.