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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

Buy one, get one free?

They have not elected her, but already New Yorkers want to know: Can Hillary Clinton deliver?

By Karen Tumulty/TIME

September 6, 1999
Web posted at: 10:17 a.m. EDT (1417 GMT)

TIME magazine

WASHINGTON -- Usually voters wait for a candidate to get elected before they start demanding favors. Then again, most would-be officeholders don't share a home with the President of the U.S. And with this President a lame duck, interest groups and activists have lately decided that Hillary, the aspiring Senator from New York, is the Clinton to go to in the White House.

But it barely matters whether she can actually persuade her husband to satisfy these groups. In politics, where perceptions can mean more than facts, people have come to believe in the two-for-the-price-of-one slogan the Clintons once advertised.

That's why one Clinton's budding Senate candidacy has already created some awkward moments for the other. Take the furor over his clemency offer to 16 members of the Puerto Rican group known as the faln. Hillary has insisted that she had "no involvement in or prior knowledge of" her husband's decision. And on Saturday she even appeared to rebuke the President with a terse written statement urging him to withdraw the offer because the terrorists had not met Clinton's condition of renouncing violence. "It's been three weeks and their silence speaks volumes. I believe the offer of clemency should be withdrawn," she said. But before she could get any political mileage from this rebuke, the White House made clear that Clinton himself had sent the same message in a letter to their lawyers the day before, saying they had until this Friday to meet his terms. Even by the Clintons' marital standards, this was a strange one: two formidable politicians trying to prove their toughness and leaving people to wonder who outmaneuvered whom. "I don't know if she knew about the letter," said White House counsel office spokesman Jim Kennedy. "I know we didn't know about her statement."

It is possible that the sidelined President, in an effort to make his political talents useful, thought he was actually helping his wife by offering the clemency deal in the first place; the White House never really produced a convincing explanation why Clinton acted now on such a long-standing question, particularly over the unanimous objection of federal law-enforcement agencies.

What is clear, and what her would-be constituents certainly understand, is that Hillary's value to them will never be greater than it is now. For even if she wins, it is hard to imagine a junior Senator having nearly the clout of an ambitious candidate who happens to have the President's ear.

That is why the first signs that Hillary was being pressed into constituent service before Election Day surfaced as early as July. She showed up at a White House meeting on federal aid to New York's teaching hospitals called by one of the state's sitting Senators, Chuck Schumer. There, as Schumer put it, she "chimed in." Then last week, some pro-Israeli activists publicly urged her to seek the freedom of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard. And G.O.P. Congressman Thomas Reynolds wants her to take on the Justice Department over Cayuga Indian claims in the Finger Lakes area. Meanwhile, she has not heard the last from Puerto Rico: its New York allies are asking the First Lady to weigh in on a half-century-long dispute over Navy bombardment of a tiny island off the commonwealth's east coast.

Critics will be looking for signs of her influence as the Commander in Chief considers the plight of Puerto Rico's Vieques Island. Navy Secretary Richard Danzig says the live-ammo range there is "an important and irreplaceable site," vital to assuring Navy and Marine combat effectiveness. But after two stray 500-lb. bombs killed a security guard and injured four other civilians last April, the island's 9,300 residents declared that they had had enough. Nowhere have they found more sympathy than in New York, a city that has one-quarter the number of Puerto Ricans that Puerto Rico has.

Those pressing the First Lady insist it is perfectly appropriate. "If she is going to be the next U.S. Senator from New York, people are going to be looking to her for leadership on a whole array of issues," says Dennis Rivera, head of the hospital-workers union and one of her most influential backers. And where she leads, should they expect her husband to follow? Why not? It was the Clintons themselves who once boasted, "Buy one, get one free." --With reporting by Jay Branegan/Washington


MORE TIME STORIES:

Cover Date: September 13, 1999

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