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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

Uh-oh, the real first lady shows up

On the stump, Hillary comes down in size and sounds more like Al than Bill

By Margaret Carlson

May 31, 1999
Web posted at: 11:13 a.m. EDT (1513 GMT)

TIME magazine

So what do I do now? Hordes of mid-life baby boomers ask themselves that very question, often upon waking at 3 in the morning. But only one has the standing to answer, "Oh, I think it would be nice to move to New York and run for the Senate" and not be laughed at. As I trail around behind Hillary Clinton on her ninth visit to New York since January, her running has gone from unlikely to assumed. The buzz is now all about how best to obscure that she's a carpetbagger, and an especially giant one since she lives famously in a famous house in another city. If she heeds her friend Senator Chuck Schumer's warning not to try to live two lives at once, she will be the first First Lady to abdicate. That certainly turns two for the price of one on its ear.

But she has an even bigger problem: the initial glow of her candidacy has already worn off, and not just because New Yorkers are so easily bored. Those pushing her to run lost sight of the transient reason she had become the most admired woman in the country. It's not the wonders of makeup or the right hairdo or giving up the institutional power of being health-care czar and posing for the cover of Vogue. The reason she finally got to that 60% in the polls--to that Sally Field "you like me, you really like me" moment--was that she had become what she swore she wasn't in the 60 Minutes interview: a long-suffering wife standing by her man.

Now, as she morphs from St. Hillary to Senate candidate, she risks losing the support of the wishy-washy who ardently did not want her husband run out of town by Ken Starr but are perfectly happy to have Clinton go quietly when his term ends. If people think Clinton fatigue is going to hurt Al Gore, imagine how much it could hurt an actual Clinton.

Then there's the fact that she's not a very good candidate. As much as voters want to know what a candidate will do, they also want to know who a person is, what gets them up in the morning, whom they love and why. And on these matters, Hillary is not going to give an inch, proudly. In an interview broadcast last Wednesday, Clinton nods her head patiently throughout, as if to humor Dan Rather, and laughs loudly and mirthlessly when he asks about her mysterious marriage. Despite the false bonhomie, she emits disdain for the idea that matters other than policy are anyone's business.

New York, where folks expect you to be happy when they stuff a blintz in your mouth, is no place for someone like this. Last week she started out at a party for Matilda Cuomo's new book, The Person Who Changed My Life: Prominent Americans Recall Their Mentors, at Le Cirque 2000, where she posed for pictures in a small room with Tony Bennett, shoe mogul Kenneth Cole and arts maven Kitty Carlisle Hart, among other luminaries. She then emerged to make a few standard-issue remarks and then--poof!--disappeared, even though she had a crowd of People Who Need No Introduction hoping for some quality time with her. Hey, there's Stanley Tucci, there's Doris Kearns Goodwin, Harry Belafonte, Bob Morgenthau. Warm and funny with her inner circle, she is as eager to flee a room as her husband is to win over every one in it. She doesn't welcome a rope line or shake a hand she doesn't have to. She should have followed former Governor Mario Cuomo around for a few minutes as he pressed every bit of flesh there. ("Scotch-Irish?" he says to an attractive woman. "Your parents lied to you, you're Italian.")

Hillary's next stop was the Grand Hyatt ballroom, where she was the star attraction at a fund raiser for Congresswoman Nita Lowey, who patiently waits in the wings to run if the queen doesn't. Leaving aside the awkward body language (there was a lot of back patting as if each was trying to calm a colicky baby), here was Hillary in the red- hot center of Democrat Love, getting a warm but not ecstatic reception. The room was respectful of her recital of Democratic programs in a sing-song voice, not unlike Gore's, but not enthralled. One of the top party operatives, having shown her face, sneaked out before the speech. In the back, the deeply devoted had to shush those who had drifted off into their own conversations. The topics included how good Hillary looked considering all she had been through (as if she were a widow at a funeral) and whether the Clintons, who vacationed on a ranch in Wyoming because a pollster told them to, would be happy forgoing the Hamptons in favor of the politically correct Adirondacks, a place so sleepy there's a lawn chair named after it.

Two weeks ago, in Littleton, Colo., Hillary gave a touching, eloquent speech to Columbine students. It was the First Lady at her best. There are more of those to give, more causes to pursue, more crises to smooth over and more sunsets to watch from the Truman Balcony. It is generous of her to give up the wealth that awaits her after the White House for the chance to answer Trent Lott's quorum calls. But there are other ways to serve. If nothing else, before making up her mind, she should try out the middle seat on the Delta Shuttle in place of the soft cocoon of Air Force One. Now that's a reality check.


MORE TIME STORIES:

Cover Date: June 7, 1999

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