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Jewish World Review July 16, 1999 /3 Av 5759

Christopher Caldwell

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The Empress of
the Empire State --
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. ---- She is–as John Denver used to sing–coming home to a place she's never been before. Hillary Rodham Clinton kicked off her "listening tour" of upstate New York on the 900-acre farm of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whose Senate seat she hopes to fill when he retires next year. Most of the 250-odd journalists came from Albany or Oneonta on one of the five buses ordered up by Hillary's exploratory committee. But if you happened to have your own car and arrived a couple hours early, you would have seen two of Hillary's campaign volunteers, in white polo shirts and white caps, turning a picturesque old red barn into a cold-drinks stand. They were mixing lemonade in pitchers on a rickety table, and posting clumsily lettered signs that read, "Iced T–Lemonade. . . 25˘." When Hillary's ad guru Mandy Grunwald pulled up in her car, they shared a joke with her.

Nice of them to have drinks for us, you'd've thought. But nope–they wouldn't serve any lemonade for another hour. Not until a handful of 8-to-10-year-old children–cute as buttons and as ethnically diverse as the upstate population would permit–had been rustled up to ladle the stuff out to credulous (or cynical) network cameramen. You could see the way the campaign was thinking: Write "T" instead of "Tea"-that'll make it look like the kids did it.

The local color–about two dozen rustics–had been similarly pre-screened and choreographed. Some were outright politicos, like the portly and witty James Wood, who wore a tidy Clark Gable mustache and a blazer jingling with Gore 2000 buttons. Wood is the Democratic chairman of Delaware County, a used car dealer, and chairman of the county council's ethics committee–an irony of which he was charmingly cognizant. But most of the "neighbors" were like Joan Ball. Joan tried to fob herself off as having just blown in on a whimsy, but she let slip that her late husband had been James Wood's political mentor in nearby Delhi (pronounced Del-High). Her son Jim was more forthright–when asked what he thought about the district's liberal Republican congressman Sherwood Boehlert, he admitted having been Boehlert's Democratic opponent for Congress in 1984. ("I got slaughtered," he added.) There were also a number of protesters carrying "Hillary Go Home" placards. They were blocked by police a mile down the road at Highway 23. Which may have explained, more than any political symbolism, the ultimate rationale for having the kickoff at the Moynihan farm: It's private property.

Hillary was actually running her campaign on three tracks upstate: one for the press, one to rally party activists, and one to build mystique among the public. The press part–Hillary's speech at the Moynihan farm–looked like a flop. Her rhetoric veered between embarrassing boilerplate you're supposed to get other people to say ("I have been a tireless advocate all my life on behalf of causes I believe in") and giddy, girlish smiley-talk ("I'm excited about it, and I'm really looking forward to it").

But the performance was more disciplined than it looked. Hillary was setting ground rules, and there were three notions she wanted to knock into the press's collective head. First, this whole concept of running for the Senate was to be understood as someone else's idea, and she'd been dragged into it kicking and screaming ("The more people talked to me, and the more I listened, the more comfortable I got . . ."). Second, the press was welcome to ask the "carpetbagger" question–Where do you get off running for office in a state where you're not even a registered voter?–until the public ceased to hear it and begged them to drop the issue. Finally, and for exactly the same reason, the press could ask scandal questions, but should never expect to get an answer–ever, ever, ever. (When asked whether she was a political beneficiary of the Lewinsky scandal, she replied, "I'm looking forward to meeting with New Yorkers.") One German television correspondent described her opening speech rather brilliantly as "an appeal for more attention and less scrutiny."

Hence the "listening" tour, the second track of the campaign. If you're listening, you don't have to talk. You don't have to answer hard questions. And the "listening" was all done at tightly controlled discussions (no press questions) with diligently vetted liberal panelists. When a dairy farmer at the Bassett Healthcare Center in Cooperstown described herself as a member of the "agricultural community," you guessed that she was also a member of the Democratic activist community. When she added, "Thank you for bringing a lot of new and fresh ideas into the mix," she removed all doubt.

This atmosphere left the candidate really comfortable, really poised, throughout the trip. At the Baseball Hall of Fame, some goateed lout kept leaping up and down behind a police line shouting, "Yo! Yo, Hillary! Gimme a hug!" When the hollering grew unignorable, Hillary looked up, smiled, clasped her hands to her own shoulders and said, "Here! How about a virtual hug?" And with the "listening" activists, she showed a sense of humor that her friends have always attested to but that the public has never even seen a glimmer of. When, seconds into an education panel at the SUNY College of Oneonta, cameramen shouted that her microphone was off, she smiled and said purringly, "Well, maybe someone can come turn me on."

But even before such sympathetic audiences, it was a strange sort of listening Hillary was doing. Her "listening" works like satellite transmission. She beams an ideologically loaded suggestion out to a citizen, and when it pings back to earth in identical form, she takes it as an urgent plea for reform. At the Cooperstown health-care panel, Hillary mentioned to a nurse that "when I see the amount of time nurses are spending on paperwork, arguing and fighting the bureaucracy, it's an enormous waste." The nurse replied that the most important task of any nurse was to be by a patient's bedside. Hillary then drew the conclusion that when you see the amount of time nurses are spending on paperwork arguing and fighting the bureaucracy, it's an enormous waste. Listen and learn!

Hillary knows what she wants–and what she wants is the most socially interventionist, antilibertarian politics to have been enunciated by any politician in recent decades. Her America is a world of vicious circles. "All these things are related," she says. "It's my hope we can start thinking about these things in a broader way." For instance, if people have no medical insurance, their emergency costs get covered in higher fees for the insured. "The result," Hillary says, "is we all pay more and more for less and less." Health, in turn, implicates education, because "if you're going to get children off to school, you need healthy parents." And since education is a "bedrock of our democracy," our very survival as a nation is imperiled when people engage in the wrong kind of "parenting."

The politics that results is an unapologetic articulation of the principles in her book It Takes a Village. "If the family is not there for kids," Hillary says, "it's really hard to feel comfortable belonging to a larger group." And since "there are a lot of jobs parents can't do by themselves," there is a vital national interest in intensive government intervention at every point of this education-health-parenting loop. To "jump-start" things, you understand, and transform vicious circles into virtuous ones. Hillary's good-government ideal is a particular "early-intervention" program that was launched, conveniently enough, in nearby Elmira. It involves sending social workers on regularly scheduled preemptive visits into the homes of children whose parents are deemed to put them "at risk" of wrong parenting. You can imagine the reports: Father smokes. Mother drank two beers. Father called son a moron.

Where the trip was a triumph was in Hillary's interaction with the public, track three of the visit. Hillary's handlers know something others don't, and it ought to be a source of alarm to Rudy Giuliani, Rick Lazio, or whoever runs against her. It's that she drives crowds absolutely berserk. At Brook's House of Bar-B-Q-s–a local diner that boasts of the "largest indoor barbecue charcoal pit in the east," where a sign urging guests to "Eat It With Your Fingers" hangs between various moose and deer trophies–the crowd experienced something like Beatlemania. It's true that upstaters see celebrities so seldom that they give warm welcomes–whether to Geraldine Ferraro or Reggie Jackson. But this was different, especially for the women. And it was for real. Certainly there were activists among the crowds lined up way into the parking lot. But the waitresses and the housewives who were squealing, muttering Ohmygod, quivering, and clapping their hands to their heads were not among them. These were the Marys and Carols and Susans of the world, not the Ariadnes and Alexandras and Zoes. "She's the closest thing we have to Princess Di," one older woman at the counter said earnestly. That was minutes before Hillary blew in. At the next seat over, a tiny 75-year-old woman who'd driven an hour to come to Brook's said with a smile, "She's probably out having a cocktail!" When someone mentioned that Hillary wasn't a big one for cocktails, the old woman said, without irony, "That's right. She's too busy thinking about the children."

Hillary's advisers minimized the press at these "impromptu" events–by canny misdirection if possible, by locking them out if necessary. The pre-trip itinerary the exploratory committee sent to reporters had listed only two events a day; most of the press probably arrived upstate having packed their bathing suits, their tennis racquets, and A Bar-Hopper's Guide to the Adirondacks. In the event, Hillary's schedule was as grueling as any day in the last week of a campaign, with tardily scheduled stops at Brook's (no cameras), a storefront Internet employment center (announced in local papers but not to the journos trapped on the press bus), and the Baseball Hall of Fame (camera pool only). But at each of these, Hillary had a cameraman along, doubtless gathering the raw material of ads that months from now will air across the Empire State to leave the impression that Hillary has been mingling with New Yorkers since the days of the Knickerbockers.

Hillary's reckoning seems to be that the state will break down into three parts: First, New York City, where the traditional Democratic base will give her a solid victory–and black outrage over the Amadou Diallo slaying will produce an electoral shellacking if Mayor Giuliani gets the nomination. Second, the suburbs, which will resemble recent national elections in that the two parties will split the moderates and whoever gets his base more riled up against the other guy's party wins. Third is upstate. If Hillary is starting her campaign here, it's because this is where she thinks the race will be decided. She probably can't win outright in these heavily Republican areas, but if she can keep the race close at all she will be a senator.

How will she do it? At her Oneonta listening session, one of the panelists brought up the problems of rural welfare delivery. "I'm glad you raised that," she said. "I have a lot of firsthand experience with rural poverty." A statistic that Hillary liked to cite was that if upstate New York were a state, it would rank 49th in job creation. As her policy recommendations grew more concrete and detailed, it became clear that Hillary was trying out a daring campaign strategy. To those who had warned her that a Senate run would be tricky because New York ain't Arkansas, she was replying: Oh, but it is.

Of course, deindustrialization of the sort upstate New York has gone through in the last four decades is not really the same thing as the time-out-of-mind boondock primitivism of the Ozarks. Economically, at least, New York's problems are more like a milder version of East Germany's. If Hillary presses the Arkansas parallel too insistently, she will alienate voters. Nonetheless, if she's talking about poverty, she has a point. "Basket case" is not an exaggeration of upstate's predicament. In downtown Syracuse, which before the rise of San Diego was the most lopsidedly Republican metropolis in the country, you can drive through block after block of old business district without seeing anybody. In smaller industrial towns like Canajoharie–with its boarded up hairdressers and bowling alleys and restaurants–it looks like it's four o'clock in the morning all day long.

The day Hillary arrived upstate, interim census figures brought more ghastly news. New York has 83 cities with more than 10,000 people. Outside of the New York City metropolis, all but two of them (Oneida and Saratoga Springs) have lost population in the 1990s. Buffalo, which decades ago was the country's eighth-largest city, is now fifty-sixth–and it is still the second-largest city in the state. New York, with the fourth-largest rural population in the country, has quietly reached the point where it is, like Illinois, a one-metropolis polity.

No one is clearing out faster than working-age white males. That makes voting patterns hard for any political consultant to game. You're left with a disgruntled proletariat that forty years ago would be earning enough at General Electric or Studebaker to have a paid-off house and a boat in the yard, and an information-age upper-middle class consisting largely of publicly funded social-service workers. On Wednesday afternoon in Oneonta, outside an office Hillary was visiting, there was a friendly streetcorner argument between Cathryn James and Ed Palumbo. Cathryn is a politically active caseworker at the Department of Social Services who was bellowing for Hillary. Ed is a 44-year-old who works two jobs, cooking at Wendy's and delivering the local paper door to door by bike (he can't afford a car), who estimates the local unemployment rate at "95 percent" and refers to the candidate as Hillary Rotten Clinton.

The classic way to clobber a liberal upstate is to associate this economic decline with high-tax, business-repelling liberal economic policies pursued from Nelson Rockefeller to Mario Cuomo–and to mobilize the many Eds against the lucky Cathryns. That was the cornerstone of George Pataki's upset win over Cuomo in the 1994 governor's race. The essence of Cuomoism has been to trust the federal government with ever more tax revenue in hopes of getting ever more money for development. The essence of anti-Cuomoism is to show that New York always gets played for a patsy at that game.

One mystery to the whole campaign is therefore that Daniel Patrick Moynihan would be endorsing Hillary in the first place. For the centerpiece of Moynihan's Senate career, particularly since he became ranking Democrat on the Finance Committee, has been to show through rigorous accounting that New York suffers the highest gap of any state between what it sends to Washington and what it gets back. Granted, Moynihan's endorsement was tepid. ("My God, I almost forgot," he said. "I'm here to say that I hope she will go all the way. I mean to go all the way with her. I think she's going to win.") Still, endorsing her at all is evidence that the pitched battle between partisan loyalty and intellectual dispassion that has raged for decades in Moynihan's head has now come to an end–and intellectual dispassion is dragging its dead and wounded from the field.

And yet, Hillary's reference to Moynihan as "the wisest New Yorker" could signal an attempt to break with the legacy of Cuomo, who seems to think he has a political copyright on the adjective "wise." At Moynihan's farm she claimed (dubiously) to have backed her husband's final welfare-reform bill. Breaking with redistributionism would involve neutralizing New York City's blacks with sweet talk–a much harder task than her husband's similar neutralization of the national black leadership. If she can pull it off, though, she'll be free to pursue a more nineties-style politics that is concerned less with redistributing money than with regulating lifestyle.

Giuliani's endorsement of Mario Cuomo in the 1994 governor's race would then come back to haunt him. Conservative Republicans long warned that the big cost of Giuliani's act of treachery was that it sowed skepticism in his own party. But no–the worst of it is that it might be Giuliani, not Hillary, who winds up lashed to Cuomo's government-handout model, leaving the New York mayor with little in Hillary's program to criticize as "too liberal." And Giuliani ought to start losing some sleep over the fact that most of the voters who were sufficiently anti-Hillary to take the day off and march around with signs are not particularly pro-Giuliani. Maureen Somerville, for instance, a pro-life mother of eight who was protesting with friends outside Brook's, has written him off. "He doesn't have my vote," she says. Margaret Hart, a retired senior citizen standing alongside, said, "Mine neither."

Ultimately, though, Hillary's fate may have less to do with the nature of her politics than with the nature of her fame. All last week, journalists noted that massive crowds turned out wherever she went, even to watch her walk from a limo into an office building–and that the crowds dispersed just as quickly. What does this mean? It is too soon to tell for certain, but there are two possibilities. One is that Hillary has won a kind of cheap celebrity that draws curiosity seekers, that she's a George Murphy or Fred Grandy of our times, and will soon fade from view–whether she can make a credible run for Senate or not.

But it's also quite possible that people are giving vent to a hem-of-her-garment idolatry; that Hillary's Monica-earned martyrdom has cast her in a mythical narrative for the tabloid-reading, soap-opera-watching public that doesn't usually care about politics at all; that her appeal is Kennedy-like, unshakable even in shifting political winds; that she will transform Middle American women into the aggrieved vengeance-seekers that feminists always said they ought to be; that she will reverse the old dynamic of married voting by shaming men into backing her out of fear of what their wives will think. If so, this Senate campaign may be just the beginning of Hillary's transformation into a colossus of American politics.

Christopher Caldwell is a senior writer with the Weekly Standard. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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