What Does She Know? Cool Mrs. Clinton Skates to a Finish

Hillary Rodham Clinton is a brilliant candidate.

It took this reporter one year, three months and two weeks from that first sun-splashed day on the upstate farm of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, where Mrs. Clinton launched her legendary “Listening Tour,” to come to that conclusion, but it crystallized on Saturday, Oct. 21, during her unremarkable press availability after her unremarkable speech at the Metropolitan After Nine Club in Glen Cove, L.I.

Her essential brilliance was not in the message of the day, in which she used a fabulously topical baseball metaphor to call “strike two” on Representative Rick Lazio for violating their campaigns’ agreement to ban soft money, which he had not done. (Governor George Pataki has been appearing in a series of radio ads that tout the upstate economy but do not tout Mr. Lazio or trash Mrs. Clinton—which latter detail makes it hard to see how the commercials constitute a violation of anything other than the sensibilities of those disturbed by the sound of taxpayer dollars being flushed down the drain in an effort to convince economically distressed people that they are not economically distressed.)

Her essential brilliance was not in how she attacked Mr. Lazio, which she often does while attacking him for attacking her.

“I think that the voters have a right to know that he has essentially stopped fulfilling his responsibilities as a member of Congress,” said the issues-not-insults candidate, who has revived the practice (used in 1998 by then-Senator Alfonse D’Amato against then-Representative Charles Schumer) of whacking one’s opponent for not showing up to cast Congressional votes in the last two months; an attack clearly meant to complement, not cancel out, her attacks on Mr. Lazio for not showing up upstate.

“Do you think that they have a right to know that his overall attendance record is above 95 percent?” asked Bob Hardt of the New York Post.

“They can certainly weigh that however they choose,” said Mrs. Clinton, without the blink of a wide blue eye.

Her essential brilliance was not in her indisputably favorite moment of the press conference, which came in the sort of awestruck question that is often handed to her like the huge bouquets she still receives at the lion’s share of her appearances (in this case, a man from Japanese television asked the First Lady to say a few words of encouragement to the politically marginalized women of his homeland).

No, as befits a woman who has a reputation as the most wizardly of policy wonks, her essential brilliance was in her response to a question about a specific point of the debate about Social Security. But, as befits a candidate who should have a reputation as the most artful of dodgers, the brilliance sprang not from anything she actually said about the actual issue. Indeed, except for one or two specific word choices, she could have been fielding a question about health care, welfare reform, child poverty or the Middle East.

Actually, as in all such cases, the response originated long before it was made, way back on May 19, coincidentally the day that Mayor Rudolph Giuliani exited the Senate race. It was minutes before that news broke that Mrs. Clinton was first asked whether she agreed with Vice President Al Gore, a central theme of whose own campaign had become attacking the very notion—then on offer from the campaign of Governor George W. Bush—of allowing younger workers to invest a portion of their payroll tax in the stock market. Or did she side more with Senator Moynihan, a central theme of whose tenure had become supporting such a proposal, and in fact fairly ridiculing the notion that such a measure would, in and of itself, send the nation to hell in a hand basket? (To be clear, the Senator had also taken the Republicans to task for their failure to spell out how they would fund the investment provision. But the fact remained that Mr. Moynihan’s approach differed from that of Mr. Gore at least as significantly as from that of Mr. Bush.)

At that time, and on many occasions since, Mrs. Clinton had referred reporters to a speech she would soon be making based on numbers she would soon be studying. Just as time heals all wounds, it neutralizes almost all questions, particularly those having to do with substance. For months the speech did not materialize, much in the same way that the anti-poverty program announced in December failed to materialize; but such facts have been easy to miss in the Cuisinart of the campaign. Then, beginning before (but certainly escalating after) the point when Al tapped Joe and tongue-kissed Tipper and thus left George W. Bush eating dust in New York, Mrs. Clinton had sounded the standard Gore theme and then really revved on it. By the time of her recent visit to a group of elderly voters in upper Manhattan, she was pretty much doing William Jennings Bryan, substituting “seniors” for “mankind” and “privatization” for “cross of gold!”

It is, of course, crazy to think that such a question on Social Security would make or break—or even affect—a Senate race. But just for old times’ sake, it seemed worth asking her in Glen Cove: Did she consider Mr. Moynihan’s support of some private investment to be materially different from the Republicans’, or was he, too, being reckless on this issue?

Here comes the brilliance:

“Oh, I think he has a very different position that he is certainly the most eloquent advocate of,” said Mrs. Clinton. “He really wants people to be able to save and have retirement security, and that’s why I support the kind of retirement accounts that the President and the Vice President have proposed in slightly different forms, because I think that we should create means for people to be able to save and add to their Social Security benefits, and I support that.”

No, no, no, the question was sharpened: the Senator is in favor of allowing two points of the payroll tax to be invested; the Vice President—and, lately, you—have been giving out the idea that this is, in and of itself, an evil; what gives?

“Well, I think if you look at some of his more recent statements, he has been very careful to say that he doesn’t want to do anything that would undo the good work that he did when he was the chair of the finance committee,” Mrs. Clinton said. “So I think that some of his concerns are ones that I share.”

Needless to say, it’s not the content here that’s brilliant. Indeed, the content here is sufficiently bland, muddled and altogether “lite” to be spooned into plastic snack containers as found in the grocer’s freezer, labeled “George W. Bush’s Own Pudding” and sold at a premium to the undecided voters who seem to crave such stuff. The brilliance lies in the diamond-quality facets of the deflection; in the full sound of its emptiness, the diplomacy of its duplicity. Think of what that answer achieves. It publicly kisses the derrière of the potentially disgruntled dignitary. (Which, by the way, is quite a contrast from what has been going on in private. Though Mr. Moynihan has reportedly cut one commercial for the First Lady and will be doing some campaigning for her, the Senator and his staff have been virtually absent from the Clinton effort pretty much from the moment the cameras left the farm. As a matter of fact, word has it that Moynihan chief of staff Tony Bullock has just taken a leave of absence, as government staffers frequently do before an election, to go work on a campaign: the Vice President’s. In Pennsylvania.) The answer states support for a value that no one opposes (old people having savings, hey!). It conjures a nonexistent harmony between two diametrically opposed ideas (the Vice President’s concept of Social Security and Mr. Moynihan’s). It sidesteps even the faintest breath of controversy (the sentence “I love Pat Moynihan, but I disagree with him on this one point” might not seem to be a statement of excessive boldness or candor, but Mrs. Clinton would never go there). It implies that Mr. Moynihan has, in recent comments, somehow changed his position on this issue when in fact he has not. And, most importantly, it does all of the above in such cool, complete, un-Lazio-like English that it sounds like a real answer.

Last week, this reporter attributed Mrs. Clinton’s success to the act of simply showing up everywhere, all the time. But really her success is more of a two-parter. It’s showing up and saying nothing—while seeming to say a ton. If this is an art, then the First Lady is Picasso, Rembrandt and Monet rolled into one. It is true, what Mrs. Clinton claims: From Brooklyn to Buffalo, in porches and backyards and at dinner tables all over the state, she has addressed major public issue after major public issue. But with the exception of those issues (or aspects of issues) that come safely packed in Styrofoam peanuts of polling and shipped, as if by U.P.S., from the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee in huge, damage-proof boxes marked “100 Percent Political No-Brainer,” she has given one contorted yet content-free answer after another. Far more remarkably, she has done it without touching a hair on the head of her image as the ultimate woman of substance.

Yet, to a truly dumbfounding degree, none of this has mattered one whit—even in the quarters where it usually matters the most.

“Hey,” you can practically hear them saying in her war room on Seventh Avenue, “she got the Times endorsement.”

So she did, on Sunday, Oct. 22. Granted, given that Mr. Lazio seems to be running on a platform of radiant mediocrity, it is hard to fault the paper of record on its choice. Moreover, the tenor of the endorsement seemed to be one of hope rather than experience: The Times called Mrs. Clinton “an unusually promising talent” and said that she is “capable of”—not in the process of, or already meriting praise for—“following the pattern, established by the likes of [Robert F.] Kennedy, Mr. Moynihan and Jacob Javits, that finds New York senators playing a role on the national and world stages even as they defend local interests.”

So that’s fair enough. If and when she makes it to the Senate, Mrs. Clinton may very well prove to be a Kennedy, a Javits, a Moynihan. But at the same time, it must be said: On her way to the Senate, she has definitely been much more of a Lipinski.

For those of you who did not see her spinning, leaping and preening her way to Olympic gold in Nagano, Tara Lipinski is a skater. But for those of you who have not seen the First Lady spinning, leaping and preening her way to a very possible victory in New York, no one is a better skater than Mrs. Clinton.

Brilliant. What Does She Know? Cool Mrs. Clinton Skates to a Finish