Wonder Senator Laughs It Off

Hillary Clinton’s public life is being dominated by what, for now, remains a fantasy: that she will turn the 2004 Presidential race on its head by becoming a candidate. She has denied it repeatedly, and in varying language, most definitively in late August when she told reporters, “I am absolutely ruling it out.” This is not a statement that reflects indecision.

But speculation in the media and elsewhere has been rekindled after each denial, mostly because of such clues as the now-famous e-mails posted by Mrs. Clinton’s staff on her re-election Web site which urged her to run for President, or Bill Clinton’s ostensibly off-the-cuff remarks about how his wife would make a great candidate, or more recently, his “private” discussions – reported recently in Time magazine – about how he really wanted her to run. In the context of polls showing her as the most popular theoretical Democratic candidate, these seemingly small things have suddenly been imbued with great meaning.

In an interview with The Observer about the ongoing speculation, Mrs. Clinton said she just considered it to be a part of the job. “That’s just the nature of how things work,” she said. “I don’t think I have a choice. I think that I do my job to the best of my ability, and try to get things done and I feel very good about the coverage and the attention that’s been given.”

Mrs. Clinton insisted that she was remaining focused on her legislative priorities, which she classified broadly as “homeland security and economic security,” and that the somewhat livelier interest being taken in her designs on the White House were irrelevant. “I just haven’t really had any reason to think it’s had an impact in terms of the work that I do, going to committee meetings, going to vote, going to speak to the press about these issues. Obviously someone will ask me and I’ll say the same thing I’ve always said, and then we’ll talk about Bertie Ahern’s visit to Albany, or what I’m going to do in Rochester on Friday, so it really doesn’t have that much of an impact at all.”

Mrs. Clinton was referring to her appearance with Bertie Ahern, the Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) at the College of St. Rose in Albany on Sept. 22, where they discussed business and cultural ties between Ireland and America. As the Irish and American press waited, a Clinton press officer wandered out to inform the reporters that Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Ahern would take four questions each. One Irish reporter joked to a colleague, “I’m going to ask Hillary eight times if she’s going to run for President.”

It turned out to be not so far off the mark. After meeting privately for about 30 minutes, Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Ahern wandered outside to meet the reporters. The first six queries were, with slight variations, versions of the Big Question. With Mr. Ahern looking on somewhat bemusedly, Mrs. Clinton went into auto-pilot.

Question: “Irish television here-can we get this one out of the way first…. Do you think that perhaps you’ll do what people in the party would like you to do and [run]?”

Answer: “My position is at it has been and that is I have made my decision and I see no reason to change it. I’m going to support whoever emerges from this process…”

Question: “Senator, along those same lines, while you have worked hard to dampen that sort of speculation that you might get in, it is your husband who has been stoking up the interest, saying it’s up to you. Is he on the same page as you are on these questions?”

Answer: “Well, I think he has stated the reality – it is up to me, and I have made a decision.”

Question: “Is it absolute? You would refuse a draft?”

Answer: “Well, I have, as many of you know, answered this question over and over again, and I think I’ll leave it at that. It’s the same answer that I’ve given over many months. We’re fortunate to have a world leader here today, and I have nothing to add to that question, so I hope we have some other.”

Question: “[Time magazine] reported that the President is pushing for you to run…”

And so on.

The resulting coverage was somewhat mixed, ranging from pretty literal evaluations of what she said about her intentions about the race – the New York Post and the Daily News wrote about her continuing to deny her intention to run, while The New York Sun , ran a piece under the headline “Hillary Turning Evasive On Her Election Plans.” Albany’s Times Union and the Associated Press led with Mr. Ahern’s visit.

But the Hillary ’04 speculation clearly isn’t finished.

Some of the most recent theories about a Clinton candidacy are based on speculation about the “real” reason behind the campaign of General Wesley Clark, who jumped into the race on Sept. 17. Mr. Clark is presumed to have strong support from the Clintons, based upon the fact that many of his big donors, supporters and advisors are associated with Clinton allies. This has led to scenarios being espoused, mostly by notable Clinton-loathers like William Safire, Pat Buchanan and Dick Morris, that position Mr. Clark as an instrument of the Clintons, designed somehow to facilitate a way for Mrs. Clinton to escape her commitments to serve a full six-year Senate term and jump into the race.

It is hard to read exactly how Mrs. Clinton herself feels about all this. On one hand, there are far worse things than being talked about as presidential material, as Mrs. Clinton is surely aware. On the other, it can be a distraction, and Mrs. Clinton has appeared to show increasing signs of impatience with the line of inquiry: on a recent conference call with reporters about her opposition to President Bush’s nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency, for example, she talked at length about air quality in lower Manhattan and the nomination process, but she brought the call to a close soon after a reporter tried to ask a political question.

In her interview with the Observer , she said, “I really try to stay focused on what I can do. I really have no control over what anyone else does or says or asks, and therefore I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it.”

Some of her colleagues don’t believe that. Despite her many denials, they say, there is an element of calculation at work, too. “She thrives on this,” said Republican Congressman Peter King of Long Island, who considers himself a friend of the Clintons from their work together on Irish issues. “I’m not saying that critically, but it’s politics at the highest level – a win-win for her. The fact that people are asking her to run for president is certainly seen as a good thing for her, and it can only increase her clout and influence on the national level.”

Brooklyn Congressman Anthony Weiner, a Democrat who says he believes Mrs. Clinton will not run in 2004, even sees a deliberate strategy at work in Mr. Clinton’s comments. “Recently it’s been coming from [Bill Clinton], and I think he recognizes that there’s something to the old Oscar Wilde expression that it’s better being talked about than not being talked about.”

But Mr. Weiner also sees a downside for Mrs. Clinton in the Presidential chatter. “I think it’s not good at the end of the day,” he said. “She’s worked so hard over the last few years to make herself the average hard-working senator for her state. And to whatever extent it might make some New Yorkers proud that their senator is being considered that way, I’m sure there are others, swing voters, who are sensitive to the charge that she’s just ambitious and she’s using New York as a stepping stone. It’s probably best not to give those people fodder.”

To judge by appearances, Mrs. Clinton is happy, for now, to be Senator Clinton. During a ceremony inside the main lecture hall at the college, Mr. Ahern spent most of his time praising Mrs. Clinton’s work on behalf of the Irish peace process and to Irish-American cooperation – even though he was the guest of honor and the recipient of an award for his own peace efforts. He even quoted a passage from her book Living History .

It was an impressive demonstration of Mrs. Clinton’s standing, illustrating her unique position among members of Congress as having been a key player for eight years in the White House. The testimonial from Mr. Ahern, as well as the college administrators and several local officials, seemed as good an advertisement for Mrs. Clinton as any political pro could ever dream up.

But it was at the press conference outside that Mr. Ahern was best able to demonstrate the true value of his friendship for Mrs. Clinton.

Asked if he would like to see her run for president, Mr. Ahern leaned into the microphone and said, “I think what the Senator said about running is right.”

Mrs. Clinton threw her head back and laughed. “See why he’s so good?” Wonder Senator Laughs It Off