Who’s Our Senator? An Enigma Inside a First Lady

Hillary, we hardly know ye.

“I think people know everything there is to know about me,” the confidence-flushed First Lady laughed on the afternoon of Sunday, Nov. 5. Mrs. Clinton was meeting reporters on the sidewalk outside the Love Fellowship Tabernacle in East New York, the fifth of seven African-American churches where she was slated to worship that day. Mrs. Clinton was responding to the kind of wrap-up question that was becoming necessary as the campaign finally, mercifully, drew to a close and victory looked more and more apparent: What, if anything, did she feel New Yorkers knew about her now that they did not know about her the day she first presented herself to them as a possible Senate candidate? (One immediate answer might involve the degree to which she would be willing to melt down and fire up in church: “So the next time any of us hear somebody sayin’ that they’re unhappy with so-and-so doin’ this or they wouldn’t have done that,” the First Lady said, strutting her stuff to one congregation, “I want you to say: ‘Wait a minute, before Ah listen, Ah got a question for you: Did you vote?’”) But she went with her standard answer, to the effect that, given the amount of newsprint she has spent eight years swimming in and the horde of press that has tracked her for 16 months, she is an open book.

In a campaign replete with brilliant feints, this was perhaps the most brilliant of all. Mrs. Clinton has come to seem as familiar to New Yorkers as corn flakes on the kitchen table, all the while remaining, in every compelling sense, as obscure as the sun at night.

It doesn’t matter now, though. Hillary Rodham Clinton will be the next United States Senator from New York.

Like it or loathe it, the sentence itself does soar with significance. Historically, of course, this marks a great American milestone. Narratively, it marks the symmetrical payoff, if not quite the happy ending. (“At last,” the cosmos itself rejoices, ” she gets something out of this deal.”) In other senses, though, the ramifications are not so readily clear. For all these years, Mrs. Clinton has served as a human prism, her every component–-her cookie-baking quotient, her coiffure, her pantsuit, her power-wielding–refracted to reveal some deeper insight into the meaning of American womanhood. Now, perhaps, it is worth probing her candidacy for some deeper insight into the mode of American politicking.

When, in the 1970′s, white-suited comedian Steve Martin told the world “Let’s get small,” he probably did not intend it as a suggestion for the future of political discourse in America. But small it is. Safety has been Mrs. Clinton’s strategy, and very purposely so: From the beginning, what voices there were urging Mrs. Clinton to step out on any limb were drowned out by the voices of caution (actually, the voices of pollster and message-meister Mark Penn and media consultant Mandy Grunwald). A stranger in a strange land, nervous and mistrustful of her own instincts, she started out on the path of least resistance. She has stayed on it.

And it has led her to victory. Hillary Rodham Clinton is the next United States Senator from New York.

Her campaign has been the vindication of caution. It is the glorification of confusion. (“Words mean something,” Mrs. Clinton told reporters at a press conference. This actually struck the Hillary-trained ear as startling.)

She was asked, as her campaign bus rolled upstate, to cite a political risk that she had taken in the course of her campaign–one instance when she went against her advisers, or spoke out in an impolitic way, or ignored the polls. “There’ll be time for retrospection after it’s over,” she said.

But you can’t argue with success: Hillary Rodham Clinton is the next United States Senator from New York.

In the beginning, it seemed that, as a candidate, she would have to overcome the dread of disclosure that she had been able to nurse as First Lady, and find a tolerable way to bypass personal questions while engaging questions that ought to be the concern of everyone.

In the end, she didn’t. On that same bus ride, Mrs. Clinton finally addressed her history on the issue of welfare reform. For two minutes. What she said was intelligent, as far as it went–but that was 120 seconds out of 16 months on an issue that she placed at the center of her candidacy.

In the beginning, it seemed that she would have to draw some boundaries between her role as a resident power in the White House and her role as the aspiring gentlewoman from Chappaqua.

In the end, she didn’t. “It doesn’t matter where you are, in what capacity–all gifts go back to the White House gift unit,” Mrs. Clinton told reporters at the proverbial hastily called press conference. It was Friday, Nov. 3, and she had just addressed a gathering of the Anti-Defamation League at the Waldorf-Astoria. But a nasty little development had necessitated a second encounter with the press in one day: After denying any knowledge that the American Muslim Alliance had hosted a June event that netted $50,000 for her campaign, White House storage served up an August letter signed by Mrs. Clinton, thanking them for having her to their event. Mrs. Clinton described the anonymous unit that had auto-penned her signature as “a permanent civil-service entity within the White House.” That is completely unremarkable–except as one of the only times that the campaign has chosen to elucidate anything about the nuts and bolts of who does what when her dual positions rub against one another.(By the way, would it interest you to know how much money all that official White House acknowledging and thanking saved Mrs. Clinton’s campaign? Hopefully not, because you never will.)

In the end, she never did any of it, for the excellent reason that she never had to. The fact that she never had to could be put down to the fact that she, being a Clinton, was extremely fortunate in her adversary; or, to borrow from the oft-cited language of that adversary’s fundraising letter, the reason that Mrs. Clinton never had to sharpen her own attacks could be stated in six words: She was running against Rick Lazio.

Mayor Rudolph Giuliani would never have let her get away with this.

If that sounds like the bitter bile of a reporter still angry to have been deprived of the clash of the titans, it is. To be sure, Mr. Giuliani might have self-destructed; might have scared upstaters to death; might have delayed campaigning until the conclusion of the World Series. It is, however, hard to believe that he would not at least have given Mrs. Clinton an argument. For her arguments against him, which she later levied against Mr. Lazio, made no sense. And it is in the lack of argument–real, solid, vigorous, worthy argument–that, regardless of how one feels about either candidate, this supposedly great race has failed those who truly care about politics.

So, to consider what could have been is not just to lament the lost theatrics, but to bemoan the unrealized conversation.

Against Rudy, the conversation might have gone like this:

Hillary: “He may seem like a moderate, but he’s really just a lackey to the Republican leadership.”

Rudy: “Oh really? Would that be when I was going to bat for the Brady Bill, signing the domestic-partnership law, or suing your administration over its anti-New York use of the line-item veto?”

Hillary: “He’s not spending enough time upstate.”

Rudy: “Sorry I haven’t been able to get in a van and visit Erie County 900,000 times, but I have a job .”

And a job, like it or not, that most swing voters thought he did exceedingly well: On the Mayor’s worst day, with cancer, with the separation from the missus, with the very close female friend, with an apparent aversion to campaigning while Mrs. Clinton was doing nothing but–he was routing her in the suburbs.

In Mr. Giuliani, she would have faced an opponent whose record on choice–once he made the leap from way over on the pro-life side of the fence in the late 1980′s–was both more liberal and more substantial than her own; and his penchant for ethnic pandering made hers look like needlepoint (“My only regret is that I had but one Lincoln Center out of which to throw Yasir Arafat!”).

Alas, that race was not to be. Instead, in Mr. Lazio, Mrs. Clinton ended up running against a figure of whom no one had heard, and about whose campaign none seemed eager to speak. Infamously aggressive on the stage of their first debate, Mr. Lazio seemed terrified of the First Lady everywhere else. Before the average New Yorker was convinced of anything about Mr. Lazio, his own campaign made clear that it was convinced he was no match for her on the merits. For reasons that will always baffle anyone who paid attention to the content of the First Lady’s message, Team Lazio bought the Clinton spin that she was the smart, strong, scary one, and he was the dim, weak, nice one; and that, to whatever degree that contrast left him lacking, it would have to suffice to eviscerate her character and origin.

In the end, of course, it didn’t suffice.

Apart from his more-than-respectable performance in the three debates, Mr. Lazio’s engagement of Mrs. Clinton “on the issues” was the political equivalent of taking the argument, wrapping it in tissue, putting it in a light blue box with a fat white ribbon, handing it to her and saying, “This is from Tiffany.”

Therefore, it was not really the Clinton campaign’s fault that–to paraphrase the fellow she is replacing–her campaign has represented the defining of discourse down.

But let’s blame them anyway–at least a little, at least for a moment. Let’s just entertain the thought that one reason New Yorkers feel so sick and tired of this race is not only because it has been so long and so loud, but because it has been so lame and so ludicrous. Politics is not physics; a criticism of Mrs. Clinton emphatically does not imply an equal and opposite compliment to Mr. Lazio. On the contrary. That said, to contemplate a partial, random list of the tactics employed by this most erudite of candidates, in this most historic of elections, is to force oneself to think about how we punish politicians for exhibiting any sort of depth, honesty or clarity, and reward them for resorting to shallowness, disingenuousness and dullness.

Here is that partial, random list: Mrs. Clinton was able to pound Mr. Lazio for votes to abolish the Department of Education without ever having to articulate what, precisely, it is that the nation would lose with the abolition of a bureaucracy that does not exactly date back to the Founding Fathers, and many of whose functions were previously performed elsewhere.

She repeatedly bemoaned the apocalyptically dire consequences for reproductive rights of electing Mr. Lazio, who was on record as an admirer of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia –not even stubbing her toe on the fact that the Senate confirmed Mr. Scalia 98-0; that one of those 98 was none other than Vice President Al Gore, and that Sandra Day O’Connor, frequently touted as a bulwark against a pro-life court, was appointed by President Ronald Reagan.

She rammed him for a low recent-Congressional-attendance record, thus doing her part to render it a political necessity for even the most conscientious lawmakers to neglect their constituencies, real legislative priorities and personal lives in order to show up for every last ceremonial, procedural and overwhelmingly lopsided vote.

She ran a commercial in which Mr. Lazio got the grainy-accusatory-graphics treatment for stating, on Meet the Press , that he considered former House Speaker Newt Gingrich to be “an important historical figure.” Now, does anybody think that Mr. Gingrich was not an important historical figure? And on and on.

Again, Mrs. Clinton did not initiate the dumbing-down, gumming-up, glossing-over style of American politicking, but throughout her campaign she absolutely, positively epitomized it. Likewise, Mrs. Clinton did not invent the evil-schoolboy ventriloquism by which politicians, when pelted with an attack by the opponent, peel it off, wad it up with spit, chewing gum, lighter fluid and razor blades and throw it back on their opponent, all the while blasting their opponent for attacking them. But in the matter of “Who’s exploiting the U.S.S. Cole ?”, she may very well have perfected it. As the reading public now knows, the State Republican Committee made calls to voters that accused Mrs. Clinton of associating with terrorists such as those who had attacked the U.S.S. Cole. (“Cavorting” was Mr. Lazio’s own term of choice.) Very fairly and forcefully, Mrs. Clinton responded to that accusation, demanding that the calls cease and that Mr. Lazio apologize to the families involved. (She was, by the way, positively glowing. It’s true: Mrs. Clinton never looks happier than when she is shocked, outraged, appalled and disappointed.) So far: Hillary 1, Rick less than 0. But she kept responding, even after the calls ceased. At a press availability that she held during an upstate campaign swing with Senator Charles Schumer, Mrs. Clinton echoed the sentiment expressed by Mr. Schumer, that the Republicans, despite their claim to owe no one an apology, were “embarrassed” by the calls. (By the way, the whole matter brought up two points of dubious probability: that Mrs. Clinton is capable of “cavorting” with anyone, and that the State Republican Committee is capable of embarrassment.) She invoked the Cole as a reason for students at the Rochester Institute of Technology to vote, and she described her attendance at the funeral for the Anti-Defamation League. When her campaign ultimately issued three advertisements on the subject (including a television commercial featuring the vessel in mid-explosion), there were even those who questioned her hesitation to exploit the tragedy. (On Saturday, Nov. 4, at Manhattanville, Mrs. Clinton bemoaned the fact that this was overshadowing the important issues. At the same time, her campaign was releasing an ad featuring former Mayor Ed Koch displaying a photograph of Mr. Lazio shaking hands with Mr. Arafat. When a reporter at the Manhattanville event asked why she would issue such a commercial if she was trying to focus on issues such as choice, Mrs. Clinton pointed out, accurately, that the ad did mention choice–albeit as an afterthought. When pressed as to what else was in the commercial, she refused to say.)

It doesn’t matter now, though. Hillary Rodham Clinton is the next United States Senator from New York.

Or maybe it does matter. After all, as the saying goes, how they govern is how they run.

Based on how she ran, this is what we know of Senator Clinton: She is ambitious, energetic, persistent, articulate and smart, albeit selectively so. She can speak without cards, shake a thousand hands without stopping and lie without blinking.

She has made history. She remains a mystery. It is up to New York to solve her now.