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Don't Cry for Me, Oneonta

Can it be that Bill Clinton is merely a prequel, the horse she rode in on?

By Lance Morrow

July 5, 1999
Web posted at: 11:15 a.m. EDT (1515 GMT)

TIME magazine

The election results come to me in dreams. My kitchen table hops and thumps like a flamenco dancer. I ask it, "How do you think Hillary Clinton will do against Giuliani? What about the presidency in 2004?" The table tells me Hillary is a great American story forming. I seem to hear the distant voice of Madonna singing the lead.

Perhaps the table is talking me into something. I am a sucker for the opinions of agitated furniture. Sometimes I believe my television set when the Sunday-morning fortune-tellers are on. But it comes to me that with the Clintons, like it or not--and I do not, much--we are in the middle of a primal American saga and the important part is yet to come. Bill Clinton may be merely the prequel, the President of lesser moment--except, so to speak, as the horse she rode in on.

Do not underestimate Hillary Clinton's ambition, or her destiny. It is no small thing. At the moment, condescension droppeth as the gentle rain upon Hillary. Last week Jack Newfield, in the New York Post, wrote an "imaginary secret diary entry" in which poor Hillary wonders, "Am I running to solve a mid-life crisis? To get even with Bill? ... I'm not sure who I am anymore ... Where did I get so lost?" When the idea of a New York Senate race first surfaced in February, George Stephanopoulos gave Hillary a pat on the head and advised her not to run: "You don't need to prove anything."

Such smugness lacks imagination. The polls have Mrs. Clinton (not yet formally announced but house hunting in Westchester County and running hard) just about even with New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. She heads into upstate New York this week on a five-city swing (Oneonta, Utica, Syracuse, Albany, Cooperstown). But forget early polls. Over time, all great stories are subject to transformation, surprise, sudden unexpected bloom.

Hillary Clinton has good instincts and is, I suspect, a lightning-fast learner. My seance informs me:

--The carpetbagger issue hurts Hillary now but will matter less and less as her media presence saturates the state in the months to come--Hillary everywhere on local news, wearing that Yankees cap, kissing babies, talking to mothers, posing with pigs at the state fair in September.

"We New Yorkers," she'll say. The very acerbity of the fight will neutralize the carpetbagger issue--you're not a foreigner if you're in there getting beaten up. If it were a race for Governor, Giuliani would win. New Yorkers would not elect an out-of-stater to run the executive branch in Albany. But Senator is a Washington job, in the oratorical branch of government.

--Rudy Giuliani will play disastrously as a candidate. He has performed well, if autocratically, as mayor of New York City, but rarely has a mayor of New York ever amounted to anything outside the five boroughs. Giuliani has alienated approximately 99.9% of the black vote (and the old pols' sneer "blacks don't vote" may not apply anymore). People upstate may admire the man who cleaned up Sodom and Gomorrah, but he will not wear well, I'd guess. With his combed-over death's-head countenance, his bullying instincts and his bizarre lack of self-awareness (he seems to entertain an idea he might be President), Giuliani makes a perfect heavy. If he gets rough with Hillary, it will backfire so violently that she will pick up 10% of the vote on sympathy.

--The nasty New York press is said to be ready to eat Hillary alive. Nonsense. The New York press is a scarecrow. Its famous brutality is mostly saloon bragging by tabloid drunks on their 10th beer. Whitewater, Filegate, the commodity trades--old business, forget it. After all, Ted Kennedy ran off a bridge a long time ago, and a woman drowned, and he's had 30 happy years in the Senate since then.

--Gender will play heavily in Hillary's favor. A lot of upstate Republican women are confessing to friends that while they would not normally think of voting for the Democrat, the feministic appeal overrides their traditional loyalty. Hillary Clinton recapitulates, in her life, the origin myth of liberated white American woman--the journey from the Friedanish frustrations of domesticity, from the shadow of the husband to the promised land of independence, power, autonomy as a woman.

Yet Hillary's victory will result mainly from this: she has Celebrity. In the politics of turn-of-the-millennium America, Celebrity trumps all else, even when it may be disreputable. In this case most voters judge it is the lady's husband who is disreputable; she gains shine from the contrast and, at deeper levels of our psychology, accrues a fascinating power (the power of hardened martyrdom) from her stolid--not to say classy and somewhat mysterious--endurance of the lout's squalors.

Admittedly, a certain Clinton-in-Kosovo logic is at work. Outsider Hillary, like NATO, violates state borders (New York's) in the interests of morally imperative do-gooding--a form of moral colonization, what the French used to call une mission civilisatrice. The transgression will offend some. But, as in Kosovo, it will succeed.

I think I see a sort of Celtic mist forming around Hillary as a new archetype (somewhere between Eleanor and Evita, transcending both) at a moment when the civilization pivots, at last, decisively--perhaps for the first time since the advent of Christian patriarchy two millenniums ago--toward Woman.

It may all be hallucination, of course (in which case I will bolt my kitchen table to the floor). But Hillary Clinton amounts to something more than herself, and anyone who underestimates that something is a fool.


MORE TIME STORIES:

Cover Date: July 12, 1999

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