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The remaking of Hillary -- again

Can a woman who never quite seems to come into focus succeed in New York where politicians have strong identities?


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 26, 2000

NEW YORK -- Mildred Peters wore a green "Irish for Hillary" sticker and described her age as "senior citizen." Her head wrapped in a scarf, the Queens resident stood behind a barricade on Fifth Avenue, craning for a glimpse of the first lady as she prepared to march in the annual St. Patrick's Day parade.

Hillary Rodham Clinton makes her first appearance in New York City's St. Patrick's Day parade.
Others booed. This predominantly blue-collar, white-ethnic crowd was firmly behind New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Hillary Rodham Clinton's Republican rival for the U.S. Senate. But Peters dared to clap -- not, however, for Clinton the Senate candidate, but for Clinton the celebrity and wife of the president.

"Oh, no. I don't think she should be senator," said Peters, explaining that Clinton's campaign aides had slapped the sticker on her coat.

"She's not a born-and-bred New Yorker who knows our issues. Hillary Clinton should do one thing at a time, and do it well. You can't be a wife, a mother, a candidate for Senate and the first lady all at the same time."

As she mounts a historic campaign for a New York Senate seat, the woman who has called herself Hillary Rodham, Hillary Clinton, Hillary Rodham Clinton and now just "Hillary" cannot escape the fundamental questions that have always dogged her public life.

Who is she? What is she really about?

Is Clinton a true feminist or a sellout who hitched her star to a man? Does she really love Bill or is it all about power? How can someone who has spent most of her life in Illinois, Arkansas and Washington, D.C., transform herself into an instant New Yorker?

In New York, where polls show her running neck and neck with Giuliani, the mayor is trying to tar her as an outsider.

Yet it is unclear how effective the charge will be in the Democratic stronghold of New York City, which draws population from throughout the United States and world. As for Giuliani, he has his own problems: Some rural upstaters tend to view anyone associated with the city as having the taint of Gomorrah.

Indeed, the carpetbagging issue seems to be waning since Clinton moved into her $1.7-million home in suburban Westchester County in January. A New York Times/CBS survey conducted last month found that 38 percent of voters statewide considered Clinton to be a New York resident, up from 26 percent last fall.

Clinton knows a thing or two about transforming herself. In Arkansas, where she followed Bill Clinton after graduating from Yale Law School, she abandoned her maiden name after voters objected, and she developed a Southern accent. In Washington, pundits made her ever-changing hairstyles a metaphor for her kaleidoscopic public persona.

The name Bill Clinton rarely makes it into Hillary's campaign speeches, although she sometimes refers to the policies of "the president."

As she attempts to remake herself once more, identity remains an unresolved issue for Clinton, although it is more subtle than whether she is an outsider or a real New Yorker.

Can a woman who never quite seems to come into focus -- and who, until recently, has stuck mostly to bland pronouncements about reducing poverty and improving education and the like -- triumph politically in a place where successful politicians traditionally have had strong personalities and belong to one or another of various ethnic tribes?

Clinton is a carefully scripted Methodist from a predominantly white suburb of Chicago going up against a Brooklyn-born, Italian-American mayor who makes Mafia jokes and revels in being blunt.

Giuliani, a former federal prosecutor, made his reputation restoring law and order in a city that had seemed to some to become a jungle. He is the type of guy who will order the homeless into shelters because "sidewalks are not for sleeping" and then watch gleefully as police arrest them on outstanding warrants for public urination and other minor charges after they have checked in for the night.

Clinton is never flamboyant. At a recent speech to the Coalition for the Homeless, an advocacy group that is Giuliani's bitter enemy, she could have socked it to the mayor. Instead, she took him mildly and indirectly to task, clucking about people "who believe in criminalizing homelessness."

Although she is used to dealing with blacks, whites and Hispanics, ethnicity in New York is more complicated. It is about Dominicans. Haitians. Russians. Italians. Africans. African-Americans. Puerto Ricans. Polish. Albanians. . . .

And, of course, the Irish.

Treading lightly

The sound of bagpipes filled the air as the Irish bands warmed up on side streets March 17 for New York's famous St. Patrick's Day parade. The men wore green or red kilts and tall black feather bonnets known as busbies; many were Irish-American police and firefighters.

The smile on Clinton's face never dimmed, not even in the face of the occasional vulgarity shouted from the crowd and the freezing rain that was turning to snow.

There was no political upside for Clinton in marching, but being new to New York, she apparently had not known that when a reporter asked in December if she intended to participate.

"I would hope so," she said brightly.

Later among themselves, reporters had played back their tape recordings of her chirpy remarks and laughed. The New York scribes knew what newcomer Clinton did not: She was not simply showing enthusiasm for a harmless display of ethnic pride but stirring up a political hornet's nest.

The parade bans homosexuals from marching, which results in most Democratic politicians boycotting the event. Clinton did not realize that joining the march would infuriate an otherwise loyal constituency, gays and lesbians. However, backing out would have meant admitting she was clueless about this nuance of New York politics.

She tried to quell the furor by marching in an earlier, smaller St. Patrick's Day parade in Queens that included gays and lesbians. The gesture did little to put the controversy to rest.

And that is how she came to be on the corner of 43rd Street and Fifth Avenue in the black suit she wears everywhere now that she is a New Yorker and a green silk scarf, answering reporters' questions before marching off to jeers from friend and foe alike.

The topic du jour was the fatal police shooting of an unarmed black man the day before, the third such incident in 13 months. Despite her own woes, it seemed a natural moment for Clinton to punch the mayor in his weak spot: the perception among many New Yorkers, especially minorities, that police are running roughshod over civil rights.

Instead, the Democratic candidate punted.

"All of us are concerned about another police shooting," she said, calling on New Yorkers to "wait and see the results of the investigation."

Perhaps the parade debacle had shaken her confidence. More likely, the limp response was a result of her misstep in another high-profile police shooting. In the heat of protests over the police shooting last year of Amadou Diallo, an African immigrant who died in a hail of 41 bullets after four white officers mistook his wallet for a gun, Clinton had called the incident a "murder."

She later apologized, and the officers were cleared of any criminal wrongdoing at a trial last month.

For his own part, Giuliani left no doubt where he stood at his own pre-parade press conference a block away.

"You really have to give the police a break, don't you?" he said, referring to conflicting versions of events in the most recent shooting, of Patrick Dorismond, a Haitian-American security guard who died after declining to sell drugs to an undercover narcotics officer.

"Give them at least the benefit that most of you usually give common criminals," the mayor lectured. Then Giuliani marched off in his traditional spot, at the head of the parade. When he finished the 40-block route, he started over, marching with city firefighters and sanitation workers.

Clinton made the trek only once. And when she was finished, she flew to Washington to host a reception for Irish leaders in town for settlement talks in the Northern Ireland conflict.

It is rare that she dons her first lady hat these days, but she does not hesitate to do so when it complements her Senate campaign.

What's it all about?

The Democratic candidate for Senate is definitely not running as first lady. She cannot help others introducing her as such, but she downplays talk of her White House life when she is on the campaign trial, talking instead of "we New Yorkers."

And in a further distancing from her complicated past, she has dropped the Clinton in favor of just plain Hillary. Her campaign signs say Hillary. Her campaign buttons say Hillary. Her Web site advertises Hillary for U.S. Senate.

On the hustings, the words "Bill Clinton" rarely pass her lips. Occasionally, she vows if elected to push for many of the same policies as "the president." But when she refers to the world's most powerful elected official, he often comes across as a background figure, a domestic help-mate.

"My husband and I talk all about how we're opening up boxes of wedding presents we haven't seen in 17 years," she told a packed auditorium at Long Island's Central Islip High School after someone asked how she was settling into Chappaqua, her new hometown. Clinton has not lived in her own home since moving into the Arkansas governor's mansion in 1983 and then the White House in 1993.

Another question, again about her residency.

What is she doing in New York?

"I chose New York because I love New York and I've always wanted to live in New York," Clinton said, in an answer that answered nothing.

She tried to stay "on message," as political consultants say, about education, one of the themes of her campaign. But her talk, while substantive, was not particularly inspiring. "If I am elected to the Senate I would fight for school construction bonds," went a typical remark.

And so the questions kept returing to those about identity.

Will you stay in New York if you lose the Senate race?

"Absolutely," she said.

But not a word about the whispers swirling around her candidacy.

Does she intend to use New York as a springboard to the presidency? If not, why even bother running for office? For someone who has already been through so much -- from Whitewater and Kenneth Starr to Monica Lewinsky and impeachment -- why not get President Al Gore to appoint her to the Supreme Court? What about something at the United Nations?

Or, is this New York venture really about separating herself from her husband? Is she trying to silence critics who say she has never done anything on her own by winning this important elective office?

The likelihood that the scripted and controlled Clinton will speak candidly about these issues is about nil.

Clues like the "Hillary" slogan seem to suggest she is looking for independence. Then something comes along to cloud the picture, like her promotional campaign video, entitled "Hillary," of course. But instead of the black-suited Hillary who is finally free to admit she does not like staying home and baking cookies, it features a pink-sweatered Hillary testifying to her credentials in the kitchen.

"I make a mean tossed salad and a great omelet," she says with a smile.

Gloves come off?

But there are signs she is coming into her own, not just as a candidate but as a New York candidate.

Slow off the block on the Patrick Dorismond shooting, she began last week to hit Giuliani hard on the issue of police brutality after the mayor provoked an uproar by releasing the dead man's criminal records, including a sealed juvenile record.

The victim was not an "altar boy," Giuliani said, suggesting Dorismond may have started the altercation. The mayor remained silent about the disciplinary record of the Hispanic officer implicated in the shooting.

In an unusually direct speech at Harlem's Bethel A.M.E. Church last Monday, Clinton accused Giuliani of having "hunkered down, taken sides and further divided this city."

"New York has a real problem, and we all know it. All of us it seems except for the mayor," she said. "I reject with all my heart the notion that falling crime rates demand the rising mistrust between communities and the police."

Giuliani responded by accusing Clinton of taking her cues from the Rev. Al Sharpton, the black activist who organized the protests over the Diallo shooting.

Once again, Clinton took on the mayor by name.

"When Rudy Giuliani ran for office he promised "one city, one standard.' It is clear that he has broken this promise," she said.

And so it appears Clinton may be finally taking some real steps toward becoming a bona fide New Yorker.

But the question remains: Can she take off her gloves and leave them off?

-- Information from Times wire services was used in this report.

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