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Live from New York…it’s Hillary Clinton!


 

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One thing about Hillary Rodham Clinton: everyone has an opinion. Chuck Pinkey, owner of a tractor dealership just outside Oneonta, N.Y., made his view plain last week when the First Lady of the United States passed through town on her so-called listening tour of the state. Pinkey called up the local paper, The Daily Star, and placed this classified ad under “farm equipment”:

Coming soon ...

The Hillary Clinton Manure Spreader Sale 1 medium-size heavy duty manure spreader with a floor so slick—nothing sticks. She spreads manure to the right or left depending how the wind is blowing. And like its namesake it’s not made in New York.

“Nothings too good for my girl Hillary,” Pinkey, a self-described conservative, chuckled the day his ad appeared. “Those Clintons. They’re like a bad Chinese dinner: you wish they’d go away, but they keep on coming back.”

Modern politics, especially as practised in the United States, is mostly a spectator sport. Voters see their candidates not in person but in 30-second TV spots. Hillary Clinton at least has the power to get people involved, as the opening shot in her unlikely campaign for a Senate seat readily showed. Her fans were out in force, chanting “We want Hillary!” at every stop as she wound her way through the rolling farmland and tidy villages that are casually lumped together as “upstate.” But those who cannot abide her were energized as well, plastering her route with hand-lettered signs bearing blunt messages. “Hillary Go Home!” “A New Yorker for New York!” “Hillary—Go Back to Arkansas!” If Clinton was “listening,” as her organizers claimed, she got an earful.

Officially, Clinton isn’t even a candidate yet. She launched an “exploratory committee” last week, allowing her to raise funds and head off mounting criticism that she was using taxpayers’ money to finance a political campaign. But the spectacle of a First Lady openly soliciting support while her husband still occupies the Oval Office was enough of a novelty to bring out the biggest media crush ever seen for a Senate race. More than 200 journalists stood in a hayfield to watch the current senator, the venerable Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who is calling it quits next year after four six-year terms, symbolically turn over the reins to Clinton at his farm near the hamlet of Pindars Corners. Even she acknowledged last week that running for office struck her as “kind of a crazy idea” when it first came up late last year. But people kept urging her to run, she said, the idea grew on her and there she was, finally putting herself forward after 25 years of channelling her ample political energy into the career of her husband, Bill.

Already there is a growing sense that the President is taking a back seat to his understudies—his wife and his vice-president. Both are distancing themselves from him as they strike out on their own. Clinton’s aides say he was upset when Vice-President Al Gore began his presidential bid by condemning the President’s behaviour in the Monica Lewinsky affair as “indefensible.” Now, Hillary Clinton is stepping out on her own—followed by a media contingent twice the size of the one that accompanied her husband last week as he trekked through some of the poorest corners of the United States.

Their duelling tours neatly captured the reality of their parallel lives, separate and increasingly unequal as her star rises and his inevitably wanes. Bill Clinton, ever the hungry centre of attention, now must compete with his onetime helpmates for the oxygen of publicity. Speculation about the President focuses more and more on how he will be judged by history and how he will keep himself busy after he becomes an ex-president at noon on Jan. 20, 2001, aged just 54.

The contrast is not only symbolic. Hillary Clinton began last week to openly differ with her husband on the issues as she courted key New York constituencies. First, she criticized a White House budget proposal that would penalize the state’s teaching hospitals; then she declared that Jerusalem should be the “eternal and indivisible capital of Israel,” contradicting official U.S. policy. It was Hillary—by herself and for herself.

Winning in New York will, however, be no easy task. On the day she kicked off her listening tour, a new poll by the independent Siena Research Institute in Loudonville, N.Y., showed her nine points behind the most likely Republican candidate, New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, 49 to 40 per cent. Another authoritative survey has her trailing by 10 points. She leads in New York City, a traditional Democratic bastion, but lags in the suburbs and upstate. She has always been a lightning rod—a heroine to many; too liberal, too feminist, too brittle for many others. But the biggest rap against her, at least in the early days, is the “carpetbagger issue”: why should New Yorkers vote for someone who was born in Illinois and has spent her adult life in Arkansas and Washington? Wisely, she did not dismiss those concerns. “It’s a very fair question, and I fully understand people raising it,” she said at Moynihan’s farm. “I think I have some real work to do, to demonstrate that what I’m for is as important, if not more important, than where I’m from.”

Her organizers hope the issue will fade as she spends more time in the state. She is shopping for a house near New York City, so she may be a resident before long. (One of the big obstacles is the Clintons’ lack of personal wealth; she reportedly doesn’t want to spend more than $10,000 (U.S.) a month on rent, and that does not buy much in the tony suburbs of Westchester County just north of the city, where she is concentrating her search.) But for now, the carpetbagger question is big. What makes it worse is the widespread assumption, unprovable but impossible to dismiss, that Hillary Clinton has her eye cast even higher—at a possible run for the presidency in 2004 or 2008.

She promised last week to serve a full six-year Senate term if elected, but the doubts persist. In the down-at-the-heels town of Richfield Springs, along her campaign route last week, 31-year-old Tony Guardi had posted an enormous sign on his house reading “Just Say No! to Hillary. Bill Does!” Guardi positively sprinted out of his van as a photographer snapped pictures of the sign, eager to share his view that upstate has been left to stagnate economically while New York City booms. “I got nothing personal against her,” he said, “but I just don’t think she’s got anything to offer us here. We really need someone who’s walked in our shoes. This area should be more than just a launching pad for people going on to bigger and better things.”

When she stopped for lunch in the aptly named town of Clinton (after the first state governor, George Clinton), the passions continued. Norman Rockwell would have appreciated the scene: flags flapping in the breeze, a farmers’ market in the pretty town square, handsome old buildings harking back to a time when the areas factories were booming and the local gentry lived well. Frank Owens, a retired brewing-company executive, came out brandishing a sign reading “Hillary No—Go Back to Arkansas!” It was the first time, he said, he had ever carried a placard, because he was so incensed at the idea that the Clintons refuse to fade away. “I am so sick of the Clintons,” he said. “The thought that she might be in government for six more years makes me ill.”

Hillary Clinton's fans were out, too, with their own signs and convictions. Jane Corrou Fraser, 71, put the vocal opposition down to “people who are threatened by what she stands for. It’s the culture of the ’60s versus now. They don’t want women to take charge; they don’t want minorities coming up.” Fraser, daughter of a former mayor of nearby Utica, remembered meeting Eleanor Roosevelt decades ago and drew a parallel between the two pioneering first ladies: “All the things Eleanor stood for—breaking barriers, opening opportunities for people—are what Hillary stands for. It’s the same fight.” Her friend Kathleen Brown, a teacher from nearby Oneida, hoisted a sign reading “New York Needs Hillary!” and predicted the carpetbagger issue will fade. “We’re all from everywhere now,” she said. “It’s the global economy. It’s not where you’re from. It’s what you know and what you believe.” At least for the summer, though, Clinton is listening and learning about a state that is as complex as any. New York has 18 million people—as many as Ontario and Quebec combined—and as many interest groups and complex local issues as a small country. She will need support in Manhattan to raise the pots of cash—an estimated $20 million (U.S.)— needed for a state-wide race. But she will also have to face questions about farm policy, gun control, sky-high airfares to upstate cities and what to do about the overburdened Peace Bridge between Buffalo and Fort Erie, Ont.

Last week, she began schooling herself in those issues, holding her listening sessions with small groups of voters at a health-care centre, a local college and a senior citizens’ centre. She said little controversial—but she did promise to limit herself to step-by-step measures in reforming health care if she is elected. After her proposal for sweeping change went down to defeat in 1994, she told health professionals in Cooperstown she now belongs to “the school of smaller steps.”

Clinton’s likely opponent, Giuliani, has his own problems. Though a native New Yorker, the acerbic mayor has stumbled over local geography; last week he managed to confuse the town of Monroe, N.Y., just north of New York City, with Monroe County near Rochester. And while his type-A personality may make him a classic New Yorker for some people, it doesn’t necessarily go down well in quieter parts. “They always call him a typical New Yorker—brash, aggressive and so on,” said Jill Accordino, a neighbour of Moynihan who walked over to cheer on Clinton as she faced the media in an idyllic setting of lush fields and deep green hills. “I say—back off. That might be typical of the city, but that’s not what people are like up here. This is New York.”

Clinton’s biggest obstacle, though, may be herself—the complex image of her that Americans have constructed over the past 6 1/2 years. The unspoken factor that propelled her into this campaign was the wave of sympathy that accompanied her husband’s admission that he had indeed indulged in his famously “improper” relationship with Lewinsky. She assumed victim status and became more human to many people—but as the latest polls show, that is already beginning to wear thin. As time goes on, she will become less Hillary the Icon and more Clinton the Candidate. How well she makes the transition will determine whether her campaign ends up as a political footnote—or a step to something even bigger.

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