In the Beginning, Gillibrand Looks Like a Beginner

The stagecraft left something to be desired. No one bothered to adjust the microphones at the podium before Kirsten Gillibrand stepped forward to introduce herself to the millions of New Yorkers who’d never heard of her, blotting out much of the lower part of her face as she spoke. Viewers at home actually got a better look at Al D’Amato, oddly hovering to Gillibrand’s right, than they did their new senator.

The words she spoke would also have benefited from some editing. Gillibrand committed the familiar politician’s sin of thinking more about the audience of insiders gathered on the stage around her than the voters, who roll their eyes at the spectacle of politicians thanking and praising each other and who, after all, will decide Gillibrand’s fate 22 months from now.

And when she did talk about issues, Gillibrand’s remarks were erratic and unfocused. She jumped from one topic to another – clean water here, gun violence there – as if she were working off a checklist. There was no overarching theme to her speech, which lasted for a good half-hour (and which even the local network affiliates ultimately cut away from), and she made no effort to vary her tone or pace. She also spent too much time reading directly from her script, failing to make eye contact with the cameras in front of her.

Twenty or so minutes after Gillibrand started, Governor Paterson, sensing that she’d said more than enough, delicately tried to give her the hook. She resisted, smiling and announcing to the crowd that “I think I’m going to finish.” They were supposed to chuckle along with her – like, can you believe someone would try to cut this off? Instead, they groaned. It was an uninspired performance, to say the least.

And yet, it really doesn’t matter.

Given the noon time slot, most New Yorkers weren’t watching. For them, Gillibrand’s filibuster will be reduced to 15 seconds of snappy audio on the way home from work, or a quick clip on television if they happen to catch a newscast tonight.  The money bite will probably be: “I realize that for many New Yorkers this is the first time you’ve heard my name and you don’t know much about me. Over these next two years, you will get to know me, but much more importantly, I will get to know you.”

From Gillibrand’s standpoint, this is good enough. It helps that she’s young (for a politician) and that the camera likes her. Her moderate profile, which is getting plenty of attention, will also make a good first impression on the voters she most needs to worry about. Gillibrand could and should have shown more verve today (and those damnable microphones could and should have been lowered before she spoke), but to most voters, she’ll still make a decent first impression.

And her fixation on the politicians who stood with her serves a purpose, too. Some on the left are agitated over her selection, because of her opposition to gun control and support of the Bush tax cuts. Carolyn McCarthy, the Long Island congresswoman and widow of a shooting rampage victim, has threatened to oppose her in next year’s Democratic primary.

But that stage full of Democratic dignitaries (and Al D’Amato), all properly thanked and massaged by Gillibrand, should dissuade McCarthy and any other Democrats with mischievous ideas in their heads. To challenge Gillibrand is one thing; to challenge the Democratic establishment, quite another.

Relatedly, Gillibrand made sure to include McCarthy in her praise-fest, acknowledging her colleague’s work on gun issues and saying she looked forward to a cooperative relationship as a senator.

Gillibrand needs to improve her public performance skills. Luckily for her, though, she’s got time. In the Beginning, Gillibrand Looks Like a Beginner