BOSTON-It was by the second day of the Democratic National Convention a truism hardly worth noting (as happened too often in the hotel and convention-hall corridors of Boston) that conventions aren’t what they used to be. The platform-any of it that matters-has already been hashed out by party brass behind closed doors. The candidates have long been secure in their nomination.
There is only one thing that matters at a convention: the political ambitions of its most promising stars. And in the New York delegation, nobody doubted who they were: the giant-killing, dashing, blue-eyed Attorney General, Eliot Spitzer; the long-suffering, publicity-loving Senator for the Opposition, Charles Schumer; and the former President’s Senator, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
This is where conventions get good. Mr. Schumer is pressing flesh everywhere in town, with boyish hope in his eyes: Will a Democratic administration finally reward his longstanding, wonky commitment to its most obscure platform positions?
When Hillary Clinton took the stage to introduce her husband on July 26, it certainly seemed so: A final version of her speech (which differed interestingly from the one distributed in the press tents) appeared to hit every one of the issues Mr. Schumer has been pushing, with little success, under the present administration.
But then, it was Hillary on the podium hitting them.
Surely if Mr. Schumer, the senior Senator from New York, benefits from a Kerry win, Ms. Clinton benefits in spades, at least in the short term. Her fame has swept her well past him in the national scene, despite her lack of experience as a legislator.
But does New York’s most famous power couple, Bill and Hillary Clinton, have power where it counts? Gen. Wesley Clark is not the nominee; Ms. Clinton is not the Vice Presidential nominee. And Ms. Clinton’s notoriety is distinctly unwelcome as her party pushes the sober-minded John Kerry into the slugfest with George W. Bush. Is she about to step into the quicksand of four years of the Kerry administration? Sure, she’ll be important if John Kerry is elected President. But not the most important.
Mr. Spitzer has a lot more freedom. A political aspirant in the mold of Rudolph Giuliani-only with even higher ambitions for his first elective bid-Mr. Spitzer has always had the freedom to take down corporate and criminal big shots without fear of being muzzled by the party. He is spared both the minor indignities of party loyalty that are playing out in Mr. Schumer’s career, and the awkward pantomime of self-effacement that is required of Senator Clinton.
But here is where the convention becomes a linchpin: how to persuade party brass he has the political acumen to win and hold office? To move crowds and please the all-important petit bourgeoisie of the party? What lies in store for him while the senior statesman, Mr. Schumer, and the lefty lightning rod, Hillary Clinton, have taken their share of the spotlight?
Conventions aren’t what they used to be, but following these three around Boston can give a pretty good idea of what they are: big parties full of nervous laughter, sour wine and the gestures of great ambition.
“You know, you just do the bestyoucan every day,” said Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, when The Observer asked about how she was coping with her blistering celebritydom, which was on full view during the convention. Taking a breather outside a V.I.P. cocktail reception honoring “Revolutionary Women” on Tuesday afternoon, the day after she had introduced her slimmed-down husband to the primal roar of the delegates and a somewhat less sure TV audience, Ms. Clinton blinked and smiled through shiny raspberry lips. “I’m so honored to be the Senator from New York,” she said, as a group formed nearby and started taking pictures in a flurry of flashbulbs. “Which to me is the greatest privilege that I could have, and in any way that I can help support Democrats, that is actually good for the work that I try to do on behalf of New York. So it all fits together.”
The fact that Ms. Clinton answered with scripted, mind-dulling precision wasn’t a surprise-after all, she was elected to the Senate without uttering a single unexpected phrase. But it did serve to remind one of that fact that her current status as Democratic Party rock star has nothing to do with her policy positions or her oratory, but derives entirely from who she is: She is Hillary, an icon the Republicans love to hate, and thus all the more passionately embraced in this odddly passion-less convention. Indeed, even before John Kerry could get to a microphone to defend his wife’s now-infamous “Shove it!”, Ms. Clinton leapt to Ms. Heinz Kerry’s defense in saucy sisterhood: “You go, girl!”
It was impossible to know, of course, what Ms. Clinton was thinking as she was trotted out like a mascot at every opportunity, with the hope that her aura might spill onto that stiff guy who was about to be anointed the Democratic nominee. Each time she turned up in her raw silk turquoise pant suit and white pearls, she was treading the fine line between drawing attention to people and causes versus crushing them.
The only problem was, no one in Boston was talking about John Kerry or John Edwards-but Ms. Clinton would be the last person to acknowledge such a thing. Rather, she was tireless, firmly on message, delivering what each group wanted to hear with a big smile. She was as elusive, enigmatic and predictable as she was magnetic. The mystery of her marriage kept Americans either enthralled or disgusted for years; she has no intention of trading that mystery for transparency. And so she sucked all the oxygen out of each room she entered-and then, before anyone knew it, she’d be gone, a turquoise blue streak.
But still, she needed an issue, and her gender gave her one. With the proclamation that women were the key undecided voters of 2004, and that 40 million of them did not cast votes in 2000, the convention seemed at times to morph into the week of the woman, which made it very much the week of Hillary.
“The role of the woman voter is critical,” Ms. Clinton said. “It took a long time for us to get it. My mother was born before women were allowed to vote in our country; there are still so many women around the world who are not permitted to vote. I’m disappointed when women, especially young women, see no connection between their votes and the quality of their life and the standard of their living. And, of course, we do know from recent history that when women vote, Democrats do win.”
Earlier at the Sheraton, upward of 1,000 women, and a few bold men, banged plastic red, blue and green tambourines during a D.N.C. Women’s Caucus Rally, which featured, in addition to star speaker Ms. Clinton, Madeleine Albright and Donna Brazile. Standing behind a table, scruffy young men-courtesy of FriendsofHillary.com, Ms. Clinton’s P.A.C.-were peddling $30 Marc Jacobs “Hillary” T-shirts, imprinted with Warhol-like images of the Senator’s face in pop colors.
“She’s a powerful woman, and a lot of people have a lot of respect for her,” said Brian Leitner, one of the volunteers selling shirts. “I don’t know-I have a lot of respect for her. I think she’s awesome! She’s very charismatic. And I think that she’s probably going to be President of the United States. But that’s just my opinion.”
At that moment, a wave of roaring screams, and a rush of people toward the door, indicated that Ms. Clinton had been whisked to the podium in the next room. Silhouetted against a gigantic American flag, Ms. Clinton launched into a speech about women. The women present, some wearing yellow “Democratic Warrior Woman” and “Don’t blame me, I voted Democrat” buttons, swooned.
“She doesn’t even have any notes!” gasped one blond woman in the audience. Near the back, another woman screamed.
“In the heat of a convention, when we’re all having a good time, you can get a little carried away,” said Ms. Clinton from the stage, apparently not referring to her own restrained demeanor. After ordering the audience to get out and vote, and following a short perp walk through the Sheraton lobby, with “Elect LaRouche” fanatics singing ear-splitting choir music in the background, Ms. Clinton was whisked away in a dark S.U.V.
An hour later, Ms. Clinton resurfaced at the swank Boston restaurant Locke Ober for a New York delegation lunch. After lunch, when Senator Charles Schumer and his daughter quietly left the restaurant, the hovering reporters and the crowd that had gathered expectantly in the street didn’t react. But then Ms. Clinton bustled out with her entourage, and the crowd stirred as if Ben Affleck had emerged.
“Hillary! You said you’d come by and see the good people of Mississippi,” one woman called out, a bit dejectedly, but the blue streak had disappeared into her waiting car. As the wheels of the black S.U.V. bit gravel, the woman added, “She knows we love her!”
Chuck’s Just a Lovable Guy!
Foot traffic began to back up inside the Fleet Center after the opening session as Mr. Schumer stopped in the middle of a busy stairway to compare notes with Republican pollster and MSNBC pundit Frank Luntz.
“What did you think?” the Senator yelled up at Mr. Luntz.
Mr. Luntz said that he thought Day 1 of the convention was one of the best he’d seen in a long time.
“And wasn’t Clinton great?” said Mr. Schumer. “Both Clintons!”
Turning to resume his descent, Mr. Schumer explained his relationship with Mr. Luntz. “His mother likes me,” the Senator said. “She’s a Republican, but she says ‘I love that Chuck Schumer’ to him, so he’s intrigued.”
Mr. Schumer is covering all the bases at this event, conspicuously reveling in his team’s optimism about November even as he reasserts his own place in the lineup. This is not always an easy task, given the star power of Mrs. Clinton-parts of her convention address were drowned out by screams coming from the crowd-and the inexorable rise of Mr. Spitzer, who has become the nation’s most famous state attorney general.
But if his share of the spotlight isn’t what it once was, Mr. Schumer still finds himself in a strong position, both in New York and nationally. With a $20 million campaign war chest, Mr. Schumer will probably win an easy re-election this fall against a little-known Republican opponent, Assemblyman Howard Mills. And if the Democrats manage to take over the majority in the U.S. Senate, he’ll instantly become one of the most influential politicians in the country on high-profile issues like the appointment of federal judges and gun control, and would become a giant among the donor classes because of the clout he’d exercise on banking and commercial legislation.
Mr. Schumer may also have ambitions to run for Governor in 2006, which would almost certainly entail running a primary campaign against the popular and well-funded Mr. Spitzer. Much is made of a growing rivalry between them, including a report from Fred Dicker in the New York Post that Mr. Schumer had managed to quash a proposed speaking role for Mr. Spitzer at the convention. For now, regardless of whatever jockeying may be going on, Mr. Schumer’s campaign money and name recognition throughout the state ensure that he’ll remain the 800-pound gorilla in that scenario until he decides, in his own sweet time, to withdraw his name from consideration.
New York’s delegates may have mumbled about the semi-ridiculous pins they’ve been given to wear-featuring the grinning faces of John Kerry and Mr. Schumer-and talked right through parts of his breakfast address to the delegation on Monday morning, but it didn’t seem to matter. Mr. Schumer appears to be outwardly happy in the workmanlike role he has come to occupy in New York politics.
Hence, perhaps, Mr. Schumer’s conspicuously lavish praise of the Clintons on the night of their star turn at the convention. He was among the first of the New York delegates to rise to his feet when Hillary Clinton finished her speech, a detail that his press secretary half-jokingly urged reporters to note. And he could hardly have been more enthusiastic about her husband’s contribution immediately afterward.
“He writes it himself!” Mr. Schumer said to a fellow delegate following the former President’s speech on Monday night. “Had me in tears. I thought it was great.”
Weaving through crowds in the convention hall in a sort of human train consisting of his wife, city Transportation Commissioner Iris Weinshall and daughter Jessica, Mr. Schumer talked about his immediate future.
He was thinking about his re-election campaign, he said, just a little. “The bottom line is, I’ve always found the best way to win re-election is to just do your job,” he said. “And since the campaign hasn’t gotten into its boom-boom-boom stage …. ” His voice trailed off as a Democrat yelled to ask him what he thought about Mr. Clinton’s speech. “Was that speech great?” he said. “It’s heaven!”
He resumed his conversation, talking about his party’s election prospects in the Senate. “We are hoping and praying to take the majority,” he said. “If the election were held today, we’d have a 52-48 majority.”
Of course, this would mean that the power and influence of Democratic legislators like Mr. Schumer would increase exponentially. More important, according to Mr. Schumer, is what such a shift would mean for New York. “You know, especially if we have a Democratic President, New York is always better off if we have Democrats in charge, simply because the Democratic agenda is more pro-city, pro-Northeast, for education and health care-the things that are better for New York, Democrats believe in.”
He made the case, as he saw it, for why the country needs that sort of change. On foreign policy, he said, “You can’t win a war on terror without involving the whole world. This war has to be freedom versus terror, not the U.S. versus Islam.”
Mr. Schumer stopped for a minute to wave to someone.
“In 1980, when [Ronald] Reagan came in, most people thought government was too big, fat, out of control and not in touch with the middle class,” said Mr. Schumer, coming back to the subject. “When I got to the Congress, the crime laws were written with no regard for making the streets safe. So Reagan had a resonance. Those days are over. The idea of shrinking government has no resonance except for ideologues. So the only thing the Republicans have is to resort to the values-type arguments. And they’re going to try. But it’s not going to be enough, even this year, and those demographics are fading.”
But ultimately, for Chuck Schumer, it’s what’s in it for us.
“If the Democrats regain either the Presidency or the Senate, New York will be a lot better off, without a question.”
– Josh Benson
Spitzer Says He Can Bite
“I don’t want to personalize it between me and Chuck,” said Eliot Spitzer, sitting in the Park Plaza Hotel bar Monday afternoon, serene and gangly in a television-ready charcoal suit. “I like to think that I’m decent and nice. But I’ll tell you this: Anybody’s who’s got into a dog fight with me knows that I bite as hard as anybody else.”
It was the first day of the Democratic National Convention in Boston, and Mr. Spitzer had already ended up in a scrap with his most formidable potential rival for the gubernatorial nomination in 2006, Mr. Schumer. New York delegates had been trading rumors that Mr. Spitzer might speak at the convention. But the Post was reporting that Mr. Schumer had managed to block Mr. Spitzer’s 15 minutes (or less) of fame-and while everyone denied it, some of Mr. Spitzer’s supporters were quietly livid.
The Democratic Party identified its nominee months ago, so the main sport at the convention is local politics. It’s a chance to pen New York’s power players into the cage known as Boston and watch them grapple. This is a particular challenge for Mr. Spitzer, who has transformed the sleepy New York State Office of the Attorney General into an ad hoc national financial watchdog. He’s not so much a hometown politician as the head of a small but important agency. Delegates were wondering whether he could come back down from the airy heights of Wall Street to fight it out with Mr. Schumer, a well-financed and legendary campaigner.
And the early signs were that, one way or another, Mr. Spitzer had lost a round. The Attorney General said that the Kerry campaign had, in fact, suggested he might speak. And then it became clear that he wouldn’t.
“I don’t worry about who speaks,” Mr. Spitzer said, and then continued in his surely-not-personal mode: “If you look at what we’ve done in this office substantively, you’ll see where I put the energy, rather than what I view quite frankly as petty machinations.”
The convention offered a particularly clear window into the two worlds of Eliot Spitzer, his dual role as national figure and local pol. Even as he mocks those petty machinations, he’s been minding what he called the “infrastructure” of local politics. He has quietly transferred more than $100,000 from his campaign committee to the bare cupboards of local party organizations, winning him friends among party leaders around the state. The day before the convention began, he circulated through a ballroom at the Park Plaza Hotel, getting the names right.
“Do you remember me?” asked Darrell Aubertine, a quiet man in a red-checked shirt and blue jeans who owns 55 Holstein cows and a seat in the New York State Assembly.
“Do I remember Darrell?” Mr. Spitzer shouted. “My favorite farmer!”
Then he was off to Fenway Park with his wife, Silda Wall, both looking very Westchester: for him, a dark blue blazer; for her, a sky-blue sweater tied across her chest. They stood at the far corner of a Citigroup reception on a patio over the right-field seats. As politicians and operatives schmoozed on the deck, Mr. Spitzer may have been the only one watching the balls and strikes, and ensuring that his staff sent a $100 check to the party’s sponsor. A self-appointed ethics watchdog, he and his staff are obsessively scrupulous about the line between politics and government. He pays for his own coffee, and his press secretary, Juanita Scarlett, insists on using her personal e-mail account to answer any vaguely political inquiries.
“There are people who would like to see me slip,” Mr. Spitzer said of his enemies on Wall Street, who would like nothing better than to see the kind of incriminating e-mails that Mr. Spitzer routinely discovers turn up in his own office.
Both Mr. Spitzer’s enemies and his friends extend well beyond the pack of New Yorkers staying at the Park Plaza Hotel. When the rest of the New York delegation trooped back to their rooms that evening, Mr. Spitzer was off to Wellesley and the home-“an exquisite house”-of his Princeton roommate, William Taylor, who founded Fast Company magazine. The next morning, as Mr. Schumer gave his first address to the New York delegation’s breakfast, Mr. Spitzer was still in Wellesley, talking to a very different group.
Mr. Taylor introduced him to 100 new-economy executives with the joke that they might wonder whether he was “serving coffee, or subpoenas.”
But it was just a joke among friends, as Mr. Spitzer is at some pains to prove he’s no crude populist, despite his crusades against investment banks that fudge the line between sales and research. He was optimistic that the entrepreneurs of the Route 128 corridor, like the trial lawyers and Democratic donors whose names dotted his private schedule, would take his side against the elements of Wall Street that see him as a wrecker.
“These guys understand what I’m doing and why I’m doing it,” he said.
Mr. Spitzer had no public events on that day or the next, but he did finally give that interview to Maria Bartiromo, who is a household name if you’re a small investor and CNBC junkie. He sat patiently in the network’s tiny sixth-floor studio, then talked finance-“Outperformance is something the market will deliver”-with the convention’s 4 o’clock opening as his backdrop.
Ms. Bartiromo spoke into a little microphone in his ear, so Mr. Spitzer was alone in the small room, but for a reporter and two technicians.
“I want to vote for you for President,” said the cameraman, a heavyset guy in a black T-shirt, as Mr. Spitzer made his way out, but the Attorney General had already spotted an acquaintance leaning up against a wall outside another studio. “I have to say hello to Jack,” he said, but the man was already up. “Mr. Attorney General? Jack Welch,” said the former General Electric chief.
“Of course,” said Mr. Spitzer.