- Hillary Clinton was late getting to the library in Bath
and reporters stood in the front door looking at signs people were holding
up across the way, in front of a Coastal gas station. "That's harsh,"
a reporter said. I thought she meant the one that said, "I Want to
Be Your Intern." A skinny, hard-looking woman with bare feet was holding
- I went across the street to talk to the locals. It was
starting to rain, finally, and some of the signs were running. A 15-year-old
kid with a pale blond mustache was walking around with a T-shirt that pictured
Bill Clinton and a naked Monica Lewinsky and said, "Head Is Not Sex!
Says Clinton." "Do you believe that?" I said. "I actually
do believe it," he said. Some pro-Hillary women got angry with me
for talking to the kid and pulled me away. "I know why you're interested
in that, but that's all over with," said Sandy Heffron, a housewife.
She and her friends talked about how much they admired Hillary for gutting
it out through the last year.
- "Sometimes love is blind but love is overpowering
also," Mrs. Heffron said.
- An aide called out that it was time to go back into the
library, so I left and stood by a bookshelf, near a bunch of 5-year-old
kids on the floor waiting for Hillary. The Secret Service kept telling
reporters to move out of the aisle between two sets of bookcases. "She's
going to be coming through here," they said.
- A door opened in the back wall and the First Lady came
in. She has a quiet, stately presence. She wore a dark blue pantsuit and
dark blue flats, a quiet string of pearls. She sat down with the kids.
"Hi, everybody, how are you?" Then she read a story, Madeline.
She read well and the kids were captivated. Then Mrs. Clinton went around
asking the kids their names. She was good with them, she touched them on
the heads. The odd thing was that she didn't tell the kids her name. She'd
just started in talking as if they knew who was coming.
- We moved down to the other end of the library for the
"listening event." A hundred or so citizens were seated in rows,
and Mrs. Clinton sat down with a panel of four women. The others all introduced
themselves but the First Lady didn't. She just started in talking as if
we all knew her, and of course we did.
- The panel was superb. It was Mrs. Clinton's subject,
and she moved effortlessly from the importance of reading aloud to children
to teen pregnancy to class size. She was engaged and lively.
- Outside, there were suddenly torrents of rain, sheets
of rain ripping against the windows.
- Then Mrs. Clinton said, "There are a lot of reporters
here," and with that she held her third press conference of the listening
tour. The reporters asked sharp, narrow questions about politics and her
intentions. I leaned against a post and started to dissolve inside. I thought
about a simple question, "Do you believe Juanita Broaddrick?"
She had just spoken about the need to protect young women from predatory
men, and she had lived with and enabled a man whom several women have described
as a sexual predator-Mrs. Broaddrick's allegation of rape going back to
1978. I thought of the famous Watergate question, What did you know and
when did you know it? Still, it seemed terribly rude, and I felt a great
band tightening around my chest as I waited not to ask the question. Then
she said "Thank you" and stood up, and I was relieved.
- Mrs. Clinton went across the street to the Coastal station
to work the rope line. The Secret Service made a tense phalanx around her,
big guys in dark suits, several of them black. As Mrs. Clinton went down
the rope line, a loud black man pushed through the crowd toward her. "Mrs.
Clinton!" he called out. "Mrs. Clinton!" It was an intense
moment that all campaigns are full of, not knowing if the guy was going
to be hostile or supportive. Mrs. Clinton tried to ignore him. He finally
got close and shouted, "Your husband should introduce a bill to build
a statue of Martin Luther King in Washington."
- Right after that Mrs. Clinton broke away and got into
her multicolored Ford van. The uncontrolled moment seemed to throw her.
It is a wonder how someone as controlled as she is would handle a campaign,
having to deal with common people about whom, I don't imagine, she could
care less. There is something tone deaf about her, a lack of awareness
of common concerns. Think of the rain. In upstate New York, they have been
waiting and waiting weeks for rain. When the rain came down against the
library windows it had felt like a great blessing. A good New York politician
would have said something about that. Mrs. Clinton said nothing.
- I got back on the press van, to go to Elmira. Reporters
were on cell phones, hunched over in shows of secrecy, talking with their
editors, about Hillary's latest shift in rhetoric. One reporter was arranging
his dinner reservation back in New York City.
- It was Friday night and I went out to dinner with a bunch
of reporters. We drove in a caravan out College Avenue to Elmira Heights,
passing the Woodlawn Cemetery with Mark Twain's grave, and I thought about
Twain's spirit. He would have made sport of the Listening Tour. He would
have had fun with Hillary in her dark blue flats gliding out to the people
without saying her name to them, with the bullying Secret Service guys,
with the reporters in their black jeans on their cell phones making dinner
reservations. As it was, everyone was being polite.
- We ate at a fancy place called Pierce's 1894 Restaurant.
Most of the men kept going back and forth on what wine to order, and I
talked to The Observer's Tish Durkin. Tish had asked Mrs. Clinton about
her position on requiring parental notification for minors seeking abortions,
and the First Lady dodged the question. "But this is a woman who has
been thinking about these issues for 30 years," Tish said. All the
reporters seemed frustrated by the First Lady's cool opacity, her refusal
to reveal herself. I thought what I always thought about Mrs. Clinton,
she is inauthentic and power-hungry.
- We drank wine and argued about the coverage of John F.
Kennedy Jr. I said it was appalling that reporters had followed Caroline
around. "What were they going to learn?" A serious-looking woman
down the table said, "Why is it appalling-people want to know?"
- "Don't you draw the line anywhere in terms of what
you'll do?" I said.
- "Personally, I might, but not professionally,"
- Next to me, Tish said, "If I said that to my father,
he would say, 'Then don't do it.'"
- I admired Kennedy's authenticity. It seemed to me the
reason his death was not so tragic, why it had not set off the orgy of
grieving that Diana's death did. Six weeks earlier, he'd broken his ankle
paragliding into a tree, now he was flying his airplane into the night.
Most people would have hung it up after the ankle. But John was a lady's
man and a sportsman. He understood the risks of his behavior; and he died
doing what he loved.
- The next morning, "the listening event" was
on agriculture, at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. I drove to the school
through a fancy university neighborhood and saw Hillary's van in the driveway
of a stucco, ivy-covered house. She was probably having breakfast with
professors and they were eating it up. The winding street outside the professorial
house was filled with nervous aides in dark Italian suits, walking around,
looking up and down. As in all her movements upstate, there seemed something
otherworldly about the First Lady's presence, the red-and-gray swirl-painted
van in the driveway, the dark glowering people fanning out as a neighbor
started up his garage sale. It was slightly alien.
- Inside Cornell's Biotechnology Building, about 75 people
were sitting in soft light in an auditorium. "She'll be here in three
or four minutes," a dulcet-voiced administrator said, almost clucking.
Then a Secret Service guy parted a dark curtain on a curved railing in
the corner, and Mrs. Clinton floated in from the building's atrium. She
wore the same pearls as the day before and seemed to have on the same flats
and suit. After a polite spattering of applause, she sat down with a panel
of four people and started in.
- "There are so many issues to cover," she said
with an air of excitement.
- Once again, Mrs. Clinton did not introduce herself, and
it was disconcerting. Yes, we all know who she is, but there is a tradition
in politics of introducing yourself to strangers, of showing respect to
the people. As in, "Good morning. I'm Hillary Clinton and I've come
to Tompkins County to learn about farming issues." There is a kind
of plainness we expect in a democracy, even from the famous. It is a sign
that they do not hold themselves above you. The uniformity of Mrs. Clinton's
appearance, the way she appears quietly, surrounded by the big black men
in their good dark suits, and the silent aides with cell phones and irritated
expressions-it seemed a little like a cult leader. I bet David Koresh did
not introduce himself either, or the Guru Maharaji. They just start in
with their talk. We have so many issues to cover today. It was arrogant,
and the black Secret Service men seemed Mrs. Clinton's version of Louis
Farrakhan's Fruit of Islam. I suppose celebrity-worship has made monsters
of all of us.
- This panel went poorly. Everyone was impatient for it
to be over, the reporters and the aides. Agriculture is not Mrs. Clinton's
area, and toward the end she seemed fretful about cutting it off and getting
to the airport.
- I focused on two farmers on the panel. One was a handsome
dark-haired man in a good suit, David Irish. He said that beans imported
from China were making it so that he was getting offered less for his crop
than production costs. Next to him was a tall, striking blond woman of
about 40, named Mary Beth Holub. She and her husband run a dairy farm that
has been in his family for three generations. "What is going to happen
to profitability in the next 10 to 20 years?" Mrs. Holub said.
- Mrs. Clinton nodded her head respectfully, and said,
"I agree," a lot. She took notes.
- Once again, contempt rose inside me. I wanted to shout,
"You're so concerned about dairy farms, how much did you make in the
cattle futures market?"
- When it was over, Mrs. Clinton glided back through the
curtain with the farmers. A big Secret Service guy stood there forbiddingly.
Photographers got him to pull the curtain back a little so they could shoot
her in the atrium.
- An aide came back waving his hands. "O.K. She's
gone. She's out. You can leave."
- "Good," a reporter said.
- I went up to Mr. Irish. He seemed different from the
slightly bent-over man on the panel, he was satirical and vigorous. "I
came here to convey the concerns of farmers," he said. "She might
take those notes home to her husband-or she might make a paper airplane
out of them."
- I waited as Mrs. Holub talked to some farmers. I felt
she must be supportive of Mrs. Clinton. But when I asked her why she was
there, she distanced herself.
- "I came here because I thought it was an opportunity
to get some agricultural issues spoken about in the press," she said.
"Let's face it, she's got this whole entourage following her."
- We talked for a few minutes and both relaxed. We walked
out of the dimly lit room and it felt like we were shaking off our zombie
skins, exchanging a monstrous media-power-induced reality for a reality
that was more ordinary and meaningful. She described all the camera shutters
going as she spoke, and I told her about wanting to say, "What about
- "You know, they've just started speculating in milk
futures," Mrs. Holub said. "And farmers are worried that the
same companies that are buying our product can use futures to try to control
the market. Someone asked me to say something to Mrs. Clinton about that.
But I thought, how can I do that when she made so much money speculating
in cattle futures?"
- "Why didn't you?"
- "I would have liked to see her reaction, but it
would have been an embarrassment," she said. "I felt obligated
to keep it civil. But the whole thing was so staged, I have no clue what
she really thinks about anything."
- The dean of the agriculture school, Daryl Lund, came
up and thanked Mrs. Holub for doing such a good job on the panel. She smiled
and thanked him, then he went away and I told Mrs. Holub about the press
conference, about wanting to blurt, "Do you believe Juanita Broaddrick?"
- "Look," Mrs. Holub said. "The whole time
I wanted to ask her, How are you going to pay that $90,000 fine?"
- "Why didn't you?"
- Mrs. Holub laughed. "Well, I don't want to end up
like Vince Foster."
- "But what is the right time?" I said. "She's
getting the ball rolling. You had power to say something and you said nothing,
you played into her hands."
- Mrs. Holub nodded thoughtfully. "It's true,"
she said. "They've been very successful at getting people to ignore
stuff. And whose fault is it. The media? Or the public. Does anything matter
at this point? I don't know."
- We shook hands and I drove off down Highway 79. I went
by a church that had a portable sign out front that was aimed at the First
Lady. "Listen-I Love Right and Despise Wrong. -God." I felt trapped
by the sign. Which was worse, dishonesty or righteousness? back to top
- This column ran on page 1 in the 8/9/99 edition of The
New York Observer.
- COPYRIGHT © 1999 THE NEW YORK OBSERVER ALL RIGHTS