“There are two places where we are equal,” Hillary Rodham Clinton told the congregants of African-American churches upstate this past weekend, as she has been telling African-American congregants in churches downstate all along. “In the eyes of God, and in the ballot box.”
Mrs. Clinton is a praying woman, but it is not the eyes of God that her campaign has on its mind right now. It is the ballot box, or more exactly, who turns up at the ballot box-and that is as it should be. For she has gone everywhere. She has said all the right things. All around her feel that she has earned a victory in this election-but all also know that Representative Rick Lazio could still steal it, depending upon who turns out to vote and in what numbers. Almost all African-Americans who vote will vote for Mrs. Clinton. The lion’s share of Latinos who vote will vote for her. A reassuringly improved ratio of liberal Democratic women who vote will vote for her. It’s just a matter of getting them out.
Then there’s everybody else: the undecided, the uninspired, the unconvinced. Believe it or not, in the end, how such New Yorkers ultimately feel about the fitness of Hillary Rodham Clinton to serve them in the United States Senate will pretty much come down to how they feel about her relationship to the ceremonial plaque.
There are not many things that we all can and will absolutely agree upon about Mrs. Clinton, but this much we all most certainly do: The woman has a lot of plaques. She collected many as the First Lady of Arkansas, many more as the First Lady of the United States and perhaps a record number as a Senate candidate (her evolution into that role has done absolutely nothing to dim her status as a glamorous, if now familiar, potentate upon whom every host bestows tribute to a degree and kind utterly unknown to the likes of Senator Charles Schumer.) And this is fitting. For from beginning to end, from top to bottom, for good or ill and frequently both, Mrs. Clinton’s candidacy has been one long, by-turns-delicate-and-daring dance between substance and symbolism; accountability and freedom; the grandeur of maintaining the position she has and the grittiness of securing the position she wants. She is a First Lady and a Senate candidate, one simple fact that has given rise to a thousand complicated questions, great and small-and largely unresolved. Was her infamous kiss of Suha Arafat a peek into a deep, disturbing reality-that Mrs. Clinton lacks morals, courage and judgment-or just a spectacularly unfortunate but ultimately meaningless moment of mortification for which she has surely been punished enough? Do her activities as an indisputably powerful but only intermittently accountable political spouse constitute a public record on which she can and should be favorably judged, or a fickle but perpetual marriage of convenience between her personal ambitions past and present? Does showing up at nearly two years’ worth of picnics and rallies and rope lines and “listening sessions” and forums and women’s breakfasts and Rotary lunches and Democratic county dinners-to say nothing of boning up on a veritably Costco-sized quantity of facts and figures about our fair state-constitute an earnest endeavor to earn a real understanding of, and to express a genuine concern for, all kinds of people all over the state of New York, or just the most exhausting imaginable exercise in public relations?
In short, when is a plaque just a plaque?
Unfortunately, but undeniably, it is as hard to know today as it was a year ago.
“I have literally been handed thousands of plaques,” Mrs. Clinton told a group of reporters at a press conference on the corner of 55th Avenue and Haspel Street in Elmhurst, Queens, on the afternoon of Wednesday, Oct. 25. The Daily News had just given major play to a story about a Boston fund-raiser the First Lady had attended in June with an organization called the American Muslim Alliance, some of whose members have been alleged to have advocated violence against the state of Israel. Although Mrs. Clinton strongly maintained that she had been, and remained, completely unaware that the organization had played any role in hosting the event, and of the offending quotes attributed to some of its membership, she vowed to return “every penny” of the $50,000 that had been raised on the occasion in question. The organization had, however, presented her with a plaque at the event; a fact that was being seized upon, or at least sniffed around, as possible evidence that she was not so ignorant of the group as she was insisting. But, with a force and frankness that she has almost never summoned in response to a specific question posed to her in the course of her campaign, Mrs. Clinton clearly and convincingly spoke out against the power of the plaque.
“You know, there might be some great warehouse in the sky where all the plaques that people in public life are given end up,” she said, perhaps dashing the dreams of those who have held bake sales to pay for such presentations and labored painstakingly over how to inscribe them. “As I was about to leave, I was handed the plaque,” she said. “I posed for the picture. I left. I handed it to an assistant. That is all I knew about it.”
If ever a journalist had occasion to take Mrs. Clinton’s word for it, this was one. Indeed, no reporter who has covered her over these 62 months and 16 counties-or is it 16 months and 62 counties? Who cares?-need imagine the rolling Cuisinart that indisputably is her public life. On the contrary, having spent all that time right there in the sensory blender with her, no one is better placed than her press contingent to attest to just how puréed one’s perceptions do become. As a matter of fact, having witnessed hundreds of the First Lady’s campaign events first hand, this reporter can personally vouch for the total meaninglessness and interchangeability of at least 90 percent of them.
Which brings us right back to square one. It is not only believable, but obvious: To be a First Lady or a Senate candidate, let alone a First Lady and a Senate candidate, is to spend a considerable amount of time not being entirely sure where one is, or with whom. But in this as in so many other episodes of this long-running dramatic series, to accept Mrs. Clinton’s version of a specific matter is to cast a large shadow of doubt onto some larger general principle, and vice versa. This is not just because, given Mrs. Clinton’s position on plaques, one cannot help but wonder where she is on the framed paper snowflake, the miniature glass donkey, the glossy wood-relief sculpture of Chelsea leaping over mountain peaks, the yellow-frosted Hillary-head cookie and all the other oddities that have been presented to her. It is because her whole candidacy has been, if nothing else, a marathon plaque-o-rama, but it has been billed as a very great deal more than that.
The Clinton campaign is wed to the notion that its candidate has not just been gliding in and out of photo opportunities in the perfectly legitimate, but shallow and self-interested way that all politicians always have. No, she has been listening to New Yorkers, shaping her thinking on the issues, becoming one with us. She hasn’t just been making the rounds and politely accepting crapola. She has been seeking the truth-and seeking it, in considerable measure, by attending a huge number of events that do not sound very different from the whatchamacallit with the whosies that she could barely remember in Boston.
It’s true: Time and time again, she arrives at a ballroom in Utica, or a fairground in Albany, or a common room at an apartment complex in Queens. For some period of time from 20 minutes to two hours, she is eagerly awaited by her public and the press, during which the latter group goes mad wondering what on earth she could be doing for all that time while being “held.” (If the White House is the crown jewel of the prison system, traveling as part of the White House sounds like more of a hostage situation.) When she finally appears, she greets and is greeted. She speaks. She is applauded, then presented with a plaque or plaque equivalent. She smiles, she thanks, she leaves. Then she does it again. And again. To be brutally succinct, the general approach could be called the Wella Balsam method of politicking: blather, rinse, repeat … blather, rinse, repeat … blather, rinse…
This, of course, can more flatteringly be called energetic campaigning-and in and of itself, there is nothing that is wrong with it. Ordinary people like to get such attention from extraordinary people, and economically distressed people who feel chronically shafted, as many upstaters do, like it even more. Moreover, given the focus she has placed on the people from whom she needs votes versus the attention she has paid to people from whom she is willing to take money, it is important to note the real differences between her long courtship of plaque-thrusting constituencies all over New York and her brief encounter with the plaque-inflicting American Muslim Alliance. She accepts plaques-and public praise, and a certain measure of credit, and money-from people whom she knows well and for whom she has done a great deal. And she accepts plaques-and public praise, and a certain measure of credit, and money-from people whom she does not know, and for whom she has done absolutely nothing.
From the outside, though, it is hard to tell which is which.
But how about the policy end of things? What, in the way of fresh knowledge or insight, has she actually gotten out of this? On a nuts-and-bolts level, what has she learned in the past two years that any Democratic ally could not have told her on Day 1?
Let’s ask Senator Chuck Schumer.
Her Economic Pamphlet
On the bright and brisk afternoon of Saturday, Oct. 28, Mr. Schumer had come to a pumpkin patch in Elmira to campaign with Mrs. Clinton. But for what may be the last time in his tenure as a Senator, should Mrs. Clinton succeed in becoming his junior (hahahahahaha!) partner, there came a point at which he had several reporters all to himself. As has become the wont of all good Democrats, Mr. Schumer was doing his requisite marveling about her command of the issues, her energy, her winning over of all kinds of people and so on. Then he was asked to name an idea, an initiative, a program, a part of an issue- anything, really- that she had gleaned from her travels far and wide. Alas, apart from some Internet-related aspects that Mr. Schumer said would not have been current during his 1998 campaign, he came up with … well, let’s not be cruel: As the Senator pointed out, a place that needs energy deregulation and access to cheaper airline fares and better highways and job-creation tax incentives is a place that needs energy deregulation and cheaper airline fares and better highways and job-creation tax incentives, no matter who is trying to get elected there. Her campaign, however, has been touting her economic plan as if she has not only reinvented the wheel, but single-handedly perfected it. Given this, it seems only fair to point out: It’s not a plan, it’s a pamphlet . And provided that you have read some good newspaper articles here and there about the upstate economy, it is a pamphlet that does not tell you anything that you do not already know.
“Being handed a plaque, that happens to me so often,” she stated at the Queens press conference, with the air of resilient resignation that America has come to expect from her. “It happens to me on rope lines. It happens to me everywhere.”
Clearly resigned to this fact of public life, she clearly draws the line at mentally processing them in any way, as she emphasized when a reporter asked whether she reads the hunks of junk.
“No!” she said, and then, both underscoring and refining her point, gave it right back. “Have you ever been given a plaque?”
“Sure,” the reporter replied, although he didn’t sound too positive about it.
“Sometimes people read it to you,” said Mrs. Clinton. “What does that plaque say? ‘For your work on behalf of human rights.’ What does that mean to you?”
By then, of course, it was eminently clear what plaques mean to her: nothing.
And that may or may not be something.