If time doesn't heal all wounds, a Senate seat just might. After a dogged campaign, the
First Lady gets a chance to work on a legacy all her own
While some women get a diamond necklace or a trip to Paris from
an errant spouse, Hillary Clinton got herself a U.S. Senate seat.
And unlike Al Gore, she soaked up the President's help. Now with
the Middle East peace in tatters, impeachment in the first
paragraph of his obituary, and Al Gore's status uncertain,
Senator Clinton is a legacy the President can cling to for now.
But not too closely. After keeping quiet at Gore's insistence for
six months, the President may have to zip it for six more years.
Senator-elect Clinton personally choreographed her victory
celebration. She stood between her new colleague, senior New York
Senator Charles Schumer, and Chelsea, with the President banished
to the side. There would be no Tipper-Al embrace for them. He
wiped away a tear. She shed none. His staff explained, "It was
her night." There will be no co-senatorship.
Only in hindsight does Hillary's run look plausible. New York has
a 2 million-voter Democratic advantage; there would be Gore's
coattails and Lieberman to bring out the Jewish vote. At the
beginning there were obvious drawbacks. Surely a sitting First
Lady wouldn't abandon the White House for a place in the suburbs
of Westchester County to run for office in a state she had only
visited. New York is celebrity friendly, but her fame ran more to
Evita than Mother Teresa in a co-presidency of more failures than
triumphs. Before impeachment, Hillary was one of the more
unpopular First Ladies. She bungled the Administration's biggest
domestic project--health care--after wresting it from Gore's
portfolio. Her fingerprints were everywhere, especially on the
scandals (from Whitewater to Travelgate). In every crisis, her
reflexive response was to blame others, rail against enemies and
stonewall, unless called before a grand jury, at which point she
would be overcome by short- and long-term memory loss. It wasn't
until the President found himself under siege that her popularity
took off. By the end of impeachment, she realized that, Sally
Field-like, people really liked her, so she decided to run.
Clinton made mistakes early on as a campaigner, many of which
came from trying to pretend that her birthplace of Chicago was an
outer borough of New York City. It bordered on the sacrilegious
to don a Yankees cap when she had been a well-known Chicago Cubs
fan. It remained such a toxic moment that she couldn't risk
taking the D train to the Subway Series to join in the purest of
Big Apple moments. Rather than the usual grip and grin, she
embarked on a listening tour, looking at times like Margaret Mead
visiting the Samoans. A Big Apple neophyte, she bungled
interest-group politics with a notorious flip-flop on clemency
for unrepentant Puerto Rican terrorists.
Fortunately, while Clinton was making her worst mistakes, she was
running against a distracted Mayor Rudy Giuliani, whose negatives
were as high as hers and who played out his marital crisis on the
6 o'clock news. When Giuliani finally dropped out to fight
prostate cancer, the Rottweiler was replaced by a puppy dog named
Rick Lazio from Long Island, a four-term Congressman with a
picture-perfect family who had nursed his father through a
stroke. He reminded some, physically at least, of a young Dan
Quayle with brains. He was so frisky at a Memorial Day parade,
trying to shake as many hands as possible, that he literally fell
on his face. He had to introduce himself to voters with a fat
Lazio wasn't a bad candidate, but he pitched most of his effort
at emphasizing what he wasn't: a carpetbagger or associated with
that infidel in the White House. While he made those two points,
Hillary was dandling hundreds of babies upstate, where Lazio was
as much of a carpetbagger as she was. Clinton told a friend, as
she was well on her way to racking up visits to all 62 counties,
that upstate New York was a lot like Arkansas. And indeed, she
seemed at home there, mastering the arcana of dairy-price
supports and economic revitalization. While Lazio seemed
reluctant to accept that good times had not suffused the state,
Clinton was commiserating with those left behind by the current
boom. She could still leech the life out of a large audience with
her platitudinous speeches; but at diners, schools and community
centers she was able to connect one on one. Among nurses,
teachers and social workers, she was a goddess who understood
what they were up against. Rather than faulting her for muffing
health-care reform, they rewarded her for trying.
The carpetbagging charge faded because Clinton was there so much.
She even gave up time in the glittery New York outpost of
Martha's Vineyard to vacation amid the blackflies of Skaneateles.
She was the first up and last to bed, handshaking her way through
county fairs and college campuses, just plain outworking her
opponent. And as much as yuppie women may have been skeptical of
Hillary's motives, upstate women of a certain age greeted her
like Oprah, an avatar of spiritual renewal touching down in
Poughkeepsie. They turned out for her, stayed afterward, lined up
for autographs. Her first victory lap began upstate in Albany,
Rochester and Syracuse.
Meanwhile, Lazio slighted upstate, trying instead to exploit
Clinton's weakness in the suburbs and among Jews. He flubbed the
first debate when he invaded her personal space, shouting at her
to sign a paper forswearing soft money. She would eventually
agree, and he was never able to get much juice out of the Lincoln
Bedroom afterward. In the final days of the campaign, Lazio
accused Clinton of supporting terrorism because she had accepted
a donation from an Arab American who had praised Hizballah.
Clinton returned the money, no one believed she was soft on bin
Laden, and the charge backfired.
Clinton's victory depended on some intangibles. Time heals
wounds--perhaps not Hillary's inner ones but those nursed by some
voters against her for the mess she was part of in Washington.
Other voters may have believed she shouldn't be made to suffer--or
that she suffered enough--for her husband's sins. New Yorkers want
someone bigger than life, and Little Ricky was no match for a
vanity candidate like Hillary.
Clinton may finally have what she wished for, however lonely it
may look with a husband building his library in Little Rock, a
daughter in California, a frequently empty house in Chappaqua,
makeshift digs in Washington and Manhattan and a job at the
Capitol. New York has provided the stage for the diva to triumph
over the evil forces arrayed against her. And, instead of
expiring in Act III, she has hit high C. But Washington calls for
deference to one's esteemed colleagues, even from its prima
donnas, if you're to bring home the bacon. When Hillary offered
that she hoped to form "bipartisan coalitions," Republican
majority leader Trent Lott snapped, "I'll tell you one thing:
when this Hillary gets to the Senate--if she does, maybe lightning
will strike and she won't--she will be one of 100, and we won't
let her forget it." Shades of Lazio, Ken Starr, the G.O.P.
She couldn't ask for more. If it weren't for men, including her
husband, making a martyr of her, would we be calling her Senator?