N.Y. seat wrong job for Clinton

June 15, 1999|By Froma Harrop

IT APPEARS that first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton will be running for the Senate from the state of New York.

An excited press bursts with questions. After a thrilling eight years in the White House, would Mrs. Clinton find the Senate boring? Will Mrs. Clinton want to spend her weekends in small places like Herkimer, discussing unglamorous things like federal waste-treatment regulations? Suppose she loses the race to her likely Republican opponent, New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. What would she do then?

If elected, would she run for president in 2008? In sum, is a run for a New York Senate seat what Mrs. Clinton needs?

Noticeably, predictably and sadly, few in the media show even a passing interest in another question: Is Mrs. Clinton what New York state needs? It's kind of embarrassing to watch colleagues gushing over the implications of Mrs. Clinton's candidacy from only her point of view. Let it be said: This writer is not, she repeats, is not a Clinton hater. Mrs. Clinton's cool poise during the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal was the stuff of greatness. When the crazy details of the president's sexcapades first became known, one significant furling of the wifely brow -- one little "I'm-outta-here" from the Mrs. -- and the Clinton presidency would have caved. Mrs. Clinton is a warrior.

Unfortunately, her battle experience has done nothing to prepare her to fight for the people of Buffalo, Binghamton or Babylon. For selfish reasons, media types are hesitant to delve too deeply into this reality. Whereas the farmers in Chenango County might find the subject of dairy price supports the source of endless fascination, most journalists would rather talk to Broadway stars at a fund-raising event. Mrs. Clinton will not lack for good parties. One can hardly blame journalists for wanting to be around good-looking stars and artfully mixed drinks. But let's face it, Manhattanites identify more with their friends in Rome, Italy, than the folks in Rome, N.Y. Besides, it takes less time to get to Rome, Italy.

That said, there has been much talk about whether New York voters might nevertheless punish a Clinton candidacy as an outrageous case of carpetbagging. Mrs. Clinton is not from New York, nor has she ever lived there. Congress is the place where local concerns are addressed on a national basis. Thus, to be an effective senator, a politician must understand the lives of his or her constituents.

Mrs. Clinton is nothing if not bright. But one cannot master the complications of New York State through a crash course. You have different issues facing Asian immigrants in New York City, manufacturers in Corning, grape growers in Canandaigua. Mrs. Clinton has little idea of how things work in the state capital, Albany. The utter lack of local experience makes her a far less qualified candidate than Mr. Giuliani, not to mention six-term Congresswoman Nita Lowey. Ms. Lowey, who represents parts of Westchester County, the Bronx and Queens, suppressed her own interest in trying for the Democratic nomination when Mrs. Clinton stepped forward to claim the crown.

Actually, the more troubling carpetbaggers in New York are the journalists. They come from all over in search of glamour. They're not paying Manhattan rents to hear Long Island Railroad commuters complain about service. Media workers often treat their local communities as a foreign post. Like Foreign Service officers, they remain emotionally detached from the populations they serve. Their bags are perpetually packed, ready for a bigger job elsewhere. Thus, their loyalties are not to ordinary people in the sticks, the 'burbs, or the city neighborhoods. Their goal is to rub shoulders with the movers and shakers whom they want to join in the worst way.

What's really sad is the possibility that the plain folk in Hormel, Hempstead or Howard Beach might also think that they do not matter. Their media go on and on about the thrill of having a Vogue magazine cover subject and America's most famous suffering wife as their senator. It's a hateful idea that the people in Medina, Massena and Moravia might sacrifice their right to competent representation in Washington because Mrs. Clinton wants something to do after her husband leaves office. Perhaps the media's most important question ought to be: Do New Yorkers have any self-respect?

Froma Harrop is a Providence Journal editorial writer and columnist.

Pub Date: 6/15/99

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