HILLARY CLINTON BATTLES TO SAVE HER HUSBAND'S FOUNDERING CAMPAIGN FOR THE WHITE HOUSE
HIS BEST DEFENCE
HILLARY CLINTON BATTLES TO SAVE HER HUSBAND'S FOUNDERING CAMPAIGN FOR THE WHITE HOUSE
He calls her his best friend and shrewdest political adviser. But now he had summoned her to play another pivotal role. Standing at the podium last week in the main lecture hall of the Franklin Pierce Law Center in Concord, New Hampshire’s capital, Hillary Rodham Clinton, former criminal-law professor and crack Arkansas litigator, marshalled her considerable courtroom skills for what may rank as her most daunting challenge: the defence of her husband’s foundering presidential dreams. Twenty minutes away by car, in Manchester, Arkansas Gov. William Clinton, the man she met and fell in love with when they were both Yale Law School students 23 years ago, stood in a ring of television lights and microphones under siege—fighting for his political life against new allegations that he may have stretched the truth in trying to avoid being
drafted to fight in Vietnam. Already, Democratic kingmakers who had once lavished praise and money on his electability were discreetly abandoning his tarnished cause. And with his lifelong White House hopes hanging in
the balance, Clinton had turned to his most powerful weapon, calling her back to New Hampshire as his ultimate defender and character witness.
For an hour, speaking without notes, Hillary Clinton held the crowd of 200 rapt with her talk of passion—the public, patriotic variety, not the kind that may have ambushed her husband’s career. Her posture charm-school straight in a chic black-checked jacket, her blond hair falling onto her shoulders from the trademark black velvet headband that, at 44, still gives her a co-ed’s air, she prefaced many of her answers with “Bill says.” But no one would have mistaken her for a long-suffering political spouse or the wronged wife depicted by Clinton’s self-proclaimed mistress, sometime Arkansas singer Gennifer Flowers.
With a politician’s practised grasp of policy, she deftly fielded queries on everything from
Clinton’s spotty environmental record to the banking crisis. Then, a student posed the inevitable question about why, despite her disclaimers of country singer Tammy Wynette’s song of the same title, she was standing by her man. “If anything,” she said, “it’s his abiding belief in the goodness of people—for which there’s a lot of evidence to the contrary sometimes.” A skeptic who mistook her answer for a brave front had only to see her moments later when an aide informed her that the Concord Monitor had just endorsed Clinton for the Feb. 18 primary. “Oh,” she squealed, with almost girlish joy, “I can’t wait to see Bill’s face.” Watching her, James McConaha, a Concord contractor, confessed that he was “enthralled.” Said McConaha: “When she talks about passion, she really has it.”
As Hillary Clinton worked New Hampshire’s halls and shopping malls last week, sometimes alone, sometimes gazing up at her husband with what one observer called “that Nancy Reagan adoring gaze,” there was no doubt that she had emerged as the primary’s most charismatic campaigner. But would that translate into votes for the man who only two weeks ago was the Democratic front-runner?
For Allison Nussbaum, a 29year-old law student, it already had. “I was undecided, but I’m probably not after today,” she said. “The media has focused so heavily on his indiscretions that until she came here I had a tough time sorting out what he really stands for.” But the night before, after a women’s forum in the southern city of Nashua, YWCA chairman Patricia Tures, enthusing over Hillary Clinton’s speech as “outstanding,” demurred when asked if she would cast her ballot for the Arkansas governor. “Oh, she won't be the person in office,” said Tures.
“But I heard many people in the audience say they wished she was running.”
That wistful tribute seems to percolate through almost every crowd that Hillary Clinton addresses—just as it has in Arkansas ever since she charmed a committee of state legislators in 1983 with a spirited defence of her husband’s educational reforms.
At the end of that presentation, state Representative Lloyd George planted his cowboy boots squarely on the floor and declared: “I think we elected the wrong Clinton.” After the couple appeared on a post-Super Bowl edition of CBS’s 60 Minutes last month to deal with Flowers’s allegations of a 12-year affair with the governor, most analysts complained that he had sidestepped some questions. But they believed his
forthright wife with her unflinching argument that their marriage was essentially nobody’s business but their own. A week later, when she was asked during a solo appearance on ABC’s PrimeTime Live program if she had forgiven him, she bristled: “If you’re married for more than 10 minutes, you’re going to have to forgive somebody for something.”
But her very drawing power has underlined the dearth of women in contemporary American politics. Some commentators have also noted that both the other married Democratic candidates also have wives who are lawyers with dazzling qualifications for public office— former Massachusetts senator Paul Tsongas’ wife, Nikki, and Iowa Sen. Thomas Harkin’s wife, Ruth. As Boston-based political consultant Ann Lewis noted: “This is when we become painfully conscious of how small the overall number of women elected is.”
Still, despite her ardent feminism, Hillary Clinton brushes off suggestions that she would make the better candidate with a self-effacing “I’m on the team.” Last week, as she shook every hand proffered to her with an easy grace that many lifelong politicians might envy, she acknowledged to Maclean ’s that she loves campaigning. “There are so many good people out there who care about the issues that I get so much energy back,” she said. But she insisted that she has “never thought about” public office for herself. “No,” she said, “what I like is bringing people together around issues and talking through how we’re going to solve problems.” But, she points out, were it not for her choice of university, she might have had a different political fate. Brought up in the comfortable Chicago suburb of Park Ridge as the only daughter of a conservative fabric-store owner, she left for Wellesley College in Massachusetts in 1965 as a Republican. By the time she graduated, she found herself caught up in the 1960s struggles for social justice that gave her an instant empathy with the tall, energetic young ~ Democrat she first noticed in £ the student lounge at Yale, boasting about the size of the i watermelons in his home I state of Arkansas.
“ William Clinton, who had grown up poor and fatherless in a country hamlet called Hope, arranged an introduction to her through fellow classmate Robert Reich, now a world-renowned Harvard economist. But he admits that when he first began courting her, she scared him. And her father was clearly unimpressed when she brought him home. Their partnership was partly forged in politics,
working in Texas on the bruising 1972 antiwar campaign of presidential hopeful George McGovern, the quintessential liberal Democrat who lost to Richard Nixon. And the man who had appointed young William Clinton as the campaign’s Texas co-ordinator was a politician whose own career was derailed four years ago by a sex scandal: 1988 Democratic front-runner Gary Hart.
After graduation, Clinton soon returned to Arkansas to nurse his political ambitions, while Rodham served a stint as a staff lawyer at the Children’s Defense Fund, then based in Cambridge, Mass. She later moved to Washington to work for the House judiciary committee that recommended Nixon’s impeachment. That post may explain why the former president felt moved to observe two weeks ago that her brilliance could prove a liability. Said Nixon: “If the wife comes through as too strong and too intelligent, it makes the husband look like a wimp.” Last week, equating Nixon with the same campaign of Republican “dirty tricks” that she says is being waged against her husband, Hillary Clinton responded with an exasperated, “I thought we got rid of Richard Nixon.”
She has often recounted how, as a reluctant big-city girl, she finally “followed my heart” to Arkansas, the impoverished backwater where she and Clinton married in October, 1975. But she says that there, for the first time, she understood real poverty, and it galvanized her into action on education and children’s issues. Recounting Clinton’s meteoric rise in state politics—he was elected the nation’s youngest governor in 1978, at 32—critics may have exaggerated her role in his stunning defeat two years later. A bookish brunette then, who wore glasses and spurned makeup, she had ruffled
local feathers by refusing to take her husband’s name. Said Arkansas Times editor John Brummett: “A lot of Bible Belters felt it was a sign of wimpishness on his part, that he couldn’t persuade her. There was also a feeling she was a little bit uppity and alien.”
But in the wake of their stunning 1980 defeat, she showed that she had learned her lesson. Although both Clintons underwent make-overs, his was political. She acquired contact lenses, streaked her hair blond and “added” Clinton to her name, as she likes to put it, before their daughter, Chelsea Victoria, now 11, was bom later that year. So successful was her transformation that, in Clinton’s 12th year back in the state-house, the main gripe against her is her perfection.
Rising daily at dawn to juggle doting motherhood and a partnership in Little Rock’s prestigious Rose Law Firm, she runs a home that welcomes 20,000 visitors a year, she serves on 17 corporate and civic boards, including that of the Arkansas-based discount giant Wal-Mart Stores Inc., and earns an estimated three times her husband’s $40,000 governor’s salary. Even some of Clinton’s most vocal critics express admiration for her. Said Brummett: “I think he just pales in comparison to her. She’s as direct as he is wishy-washy. She points up his weaknesses.”
Now, Hillary Clinton is struggling to point up the weaknesses of a political process where she fears her own pet causes will be swamped by what she calls “tabloid terrorism.” And as usual, she is not mincing any words. Invited to stand in for her husband at a Washington roast two weeks ago, she joked that Clinton was with “the other woman in his life”—escorting Chelsea to a father-daughter dance in Little Rock. But her voice betrayed the toll of their public ordeal, and many in the room blanched at her sly dig, buried in another jest. “I’ve heard so many rumors this week, I can’t keep track of them,” she said. “I know you’ve heard them too. You may have even started some of them.”
Still, she tries to keep the sense of humor that prompted her to give her husband a ceramic frog for Christmas “because there’s an old saying in his family that you can’t tell how far a frog will jump till you punch him.” This week, as a battered Clinton returns to his home turf for the March Southern primaries, he may keep in mind that challenge from his chief defence counsel and champion.
'HAUNTING THE LANDSCAPE’
Only days before the Feb. 18 New Hampshire presidential primary, Dan Schlieben, a humanities professor from the upstate town of Hanover, emerged from yet another political rally still perplexed about which Democrat would get his vote. Said Schlieben: “There’s this ghost candidate that keeps haunting the landscape.” Last week, that ghost unnerved the entire Democratic field when he materialized at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., with all the rites and rhetoric of a White House contender—and coy protests that he had no plans to run. Two months ago, New York Gov. Mario Cuomo reluctantly bowed out of the race, pleading the need to attend to his state's deadlocked budget. But last week, he said that he was "not big enough” to stop a snowballing campaign to write in his name at the bottom of official ballots. Said Cuomo: “I’m not encouraging them, I'm not discouraging them. Who am I to tell the
good people of New Hampshire what to do?” Launched in January by two Chicago publicrelations consultants, the Cuomo draft movement surged on the eve of the New Hampshire vote. It profited from the plunging fortunes of onetime Democratic front-runner, Arkansas Gov. William Clinton, who was damaged by allegations of marital infidelity and questions about his efforts to evade another kind of draft—military service in Vietnam. Last week, Cuomo made no effort to hide his glee at Clinton’s waning electability. The New York governor is still furious about the publication last month in a national weekly tabloid, the Star, of a taped phone conversation in which Clinton said that Cuomo “acts like” a man with Mafia connections. The same week that Clinton apologized, a group called People for the
Preferred Candidate opened headquarters in Concord, N.H. The office now has 20 volunteers manning phones and selling “Write In Cuomo” buttons for $1 apiece.
From an estimated $105,000 in donations, organizers launched a $29,000 media blitz for Cuomo. In a campaign where none of the five major Democratic candidates has sparked much excitement, Concord truck driver Thomas Duval exulted over the momentum of the so-called Mario scenario. Said Duval: “He’s the only one who can defeat George Bush hands down.”
But as Cuomo raised the teasing spectre of an eleventh-hour draft in April, when his budget troubles are expected to be resolved, some Democrats complained that the confusion had only further darkened their party's White House dreams. Still, another omen of Cuomo’s likely candidacy came from his Republican foes in New York. They announced a pre-emptive advertising campaign of their own, fully two years before the next governor’s race, called, “Cuomo’s Gotta Go.”
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