Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Run, Hillary, Run

New Yorkers and the First Lady have clearly formed a mutual admiration society. But how -- and why -- did it happen?

By Joe Conason

JUNE 21, 1999:  "If I decide to do this crazy thing . . . " is how Hillary Rodham Clinton now prefaces remarks about her entry into the race for the United States Senate seat from New York that will be vacated next year by Daniel Patrick Moynihan. But when she says it, she smiles broadly. Sometimes she even winks. The most controversial first lady since Eleanor Roosevelt is preparing to make history, and the questions that are driving pundits crazy begin with "Why?" Why is Hillary Clinton running for the Senate? Why did she choose New York? Why does New York -- or at least the state's Democratic majority -- seem ready to embrace her?

The first question is the most easily answered. Hillary Clinton will run for the Senate, almost certainly from New York but, if not, from her birthplace in Illinois, because she is and always has been a political person. Which is to say that despite the intense attacks she has endured for most of her husband's career, she enjoys and believes in the work they do. Public life engages her both intellectually and emotionally, even in an era when the public sphere has narrowed and declined. Had she wanted a quiet sinecure, as some well-meaning people have suggested she should, she probably wouldn't have married Bill Clinton in the first place.

For Hillary, her husband's impending retirement is not the end of an era but the beginning of one. She represents a center-left perspective -- known variously as New Democrat, New Labor, or Third Way -- now being hotly debated among liberals and progressives. Yet because of her popular persona and her ties to traditional constituencies, she can serve as a unifying force among Democrats. Indeed, she is in certain respects the real, if not the titular, leader of the Democratic Party.

The explanation for Hillary's attraction to New York is simple, apart from the undeniable charms of the place. There is no open seat in Illinois or Arkansas next year. She was invited -- make that implored -- to run by Democratic members of Congress, most notably Harlem's Charlie Rangel; by the newly elected junior senator, Chuck Schumer; and by the state party leadership. Even during the depths of Whitewater, New York has always provided a hospitable climate for the Clintons, whose approval ratings there have consistently remained at levels 10 to 20 points above the national average. No doubt she still remembers the tumultuous welcome she received in Madison Square Garden, from a floor swarming with New Yorkers, when she stepped to the podium at the 1996 Democratic convention. They loved her when the rest of America didn't.

Now those New York Democrats have another reason to love Hillary Clinton. Facing the possible loss of a Senate seat they have held since 1976, they've had to ask themselves: what's the alternative? The Democratic Party in New York is not exactly teeming with bold political talent. It could barely mount a credible campaign for governor last year. There were a few attractive prospects to succeed Moynihan, including Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Andrew Cuomo. But, discouraged by fear of the supposedly invincible Republican, Rudolph Giuliani, and the need to raise about $20 million to mount a viable candidacy, they -- and others -- bowed out. Until Hillary Clinton makes up her mind, the field is left to a lone, uninspiring suburban congresswoman with a wealthy husband.

Finally, if there's any state where a carpetbagger might be welcomed rather than shunned, it's the Empire State. The most revered example is Robert Kennedy, of course, who didn't show up here until a few months before Election Day 1964. But as one of Kennedy's most ardent supporters pointed out back then, New Yorkers showed a proclivity to elect out-of-state leaders as early as 1798.

"Rufus King, the first United States senator from New York, was a Massachusetts native who moved into New York immediately before his election to the Senate," recalled a precocious student politico, arguing in a column for the Manhattan College newspaper that the carpetbagger charge against Kennedy was merely a diversion from real campaign issues. "Rufus King had, only shortly before his election, served as a delegate from Massachusetts to the Constitutional Convention."

The author of that intense essay, incidentally, was a well-informed, rather intense young man named Rudolph Giuliani.

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