Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Walk or Run?

Mrs. Clinton takes Manhattan

By Christopher Hitchens

JUNE 21, 1999:  A permanent political class exists in this country, and it's made up of people from law firms small and large. The squawk surrounding Hillary Clinton's potential candidacy for the New York Senate vacancy highlights some of the drawbacks of this set-up. Every four years or so, we must have yet another argument about which of these people has earned the right to a turn at bat. (How, otherwise, would Bill Bradley have come under consideration for the presidency of anything?) There are lots of potential players to choose from, because too many of these folks just don't have enough to do. This is illustrated clearly by the prospect of a soon-to-be-ex-president who is barely out of his 40s: what hole can possibly be worthy of such a peg? That question is too daunting to think about at the moment; liberals and members of the press have decided, instead, to focus their attention on finding something for his wife to do.

Personally, I am more interested in whether Mrs. Clinton walks than in whether she runs. Her emphasis on the first person in her recent interview with Dan Rather, coupled with the announcement that she is moving to New York -- by which she means the Upper West Side of Manhattan -- is, in any case, intriguing. What if she wants to be Senator Rodham? If she decides to exercise that option (as, after using her daughter as a stage prop, she ought), she will have earned the right to duck questions about her marriage. But if not, then she will no longer have the first lady's privilege of claiming the protection of gallantry, while using that protection as a shield for the launching of diatribes. The least impressive of these diatribes -- less convincing even than the one about the "vast right-wing conspiracy" -- was the allegation that criticism of the Clintons was motivated by a snobbish dislike of people from Arkansas. Since Mrs. Clinton -- I don't call her Hillary because I don't know the woman -- is actually from a tony suburb of Illinois, this raises questions about her true identity, her geographic loyalties, and her destiny (in which we all, of course, owe her our attention because of everything she has been through on our behalf).

If she runs as Rodham, I won't go to her press conferences and ask if she watched the Juanita Broaddrick interview. I won't ask why she insisted on the secret re-hiring of Dick Morris as Grand Vizier. I won't ask her: "Health care, Ms. Rodham -- what were you thinking?" I won't even spoil her day by bringing up her courageous advocacy of a Palestinian state. (That theme seems to have been de-emphasized of late, in any case.) I will still find it necessary, however, to inquire as to why she relies so much on Harold Ickes, whose lack of scruples on campaign finance makes him noteworthy even in Washington -- but then Ickes is another member of that permanent class of professional and partly hereditary pols to whom we owe so much.

It may also be necessary to ask her about her business relationship with Webster Hubbell, because -- though you would hardly know it -- that case is still pending before the courts, and has recently been reinstated. It is a case that raises an intriguing question of timing. The first lady is taking a risk in keeping those impatient New Yorkers waiting, and by discarding her diaphanous veils one by one. Why is she running out the clock in this irritating manner? Is it because, like Hubbell, she may one day need a presidential pardon? If so, she can't very well walk before she runs. And thus one of her greatest potential advantages -- the chance to assume the role of the proud, independent woman who went solo and thereby avoided having to answer for two -- is dissipated.

I do not now and have never cared whether Hillary Clinton lives or dies. But I do think of New York City as a spiritual home. Lately, with its prissy new laws on street-vending and smoking and jaywalking, and with the Disneyfication of Times Square and 42nd Street, it seems to be trading in character for respectability, safety, and correctness. An adulation nomination for a woman who has never made a self-critical remark and has always succeeded in placing blame on others would be almost as much of a victory for the Giuliani ethos as a vote for Rudy himself.


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