On `listening' tour, voters want to hear Mrs. Clinton's views

July 12, 1999|By Ellen Goodman

NEW YORK -- Maybe it was all those signs along the campaign trail last year: "You Go, Girl!" Maybe it's politics as therapy or the simple desire for a second act. Maybe it's sheer chutzpah, as they say in Manhattan. Or maybe it's just nuts.

But Wednesday morning, Hillary Rodham Clinton was on a patch of farmland in Pindars Corners, N.Y. Standing beside Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and in front of a bumper crop of cameras that had bloomed overnight, she let it be known: This girl is going.

For the first time in history, a first lady will be running for office.

First lady and Senate candidate? Her chief of staff calls it "The ultimate balancing act," though it's nothing compared with the role-juggling she's done so far: independent woman and political wife, lawyer and cookie-maker, feminist and Tammy Wynette, uppity and wronged.

"What's new for me is being on this side of the microphone," she told the crowd, "and talking for myself and talking on behalf of what I believe." This time she gets to be -- she has to be -- on her own.

Forget the carpetbag claim check. The race for the New York Senate seat won't hang on geography. The question is whether Hillary Rodham Clinton can change profiles and pronouns from the "we" to the "I."

Blanche Wiesen Cook, the biographer of Mrs. Clinton's historic mentor Eleanor Roosevelt, has a way to describe those papers that the first lady filed to form a political committee. She called the documents "her separation agreement."

This move doesn't herald the breakup of a marriage but of a lifetime political partnership. For 25 years, they've shared one political career -- his -- for better or worse, in sickness and health. Can the White House celebrity now shed the White House taint?

Recently, at a lunch in New York with ladies who launch -- careers, politics, fund-raisers -- the talk turned and stuck on the race for the Senate.

Sixteen months before the election, her supporters seem already tired. They aren't suffering from compassion fatigue. Just Clinton fatigue.

The Year of the Other Woman took its toll, especially on other women, especially those who saw Mrs. Clinton as one of their own. Many were stuck defending a man in the White House whom they would have banished from their own house.

They opposed impeachment on the grounds that the punishment didn't fit the crime, the invasion of privacy was worse than the private misbehavior. But in the long Monica Lewinsky hangover, President Clinton has worn out the country, and his welcome.

How much will Mrs. Clinton suffer from the side-effects of this exhaustion? How many want the soap opera to end, not move to a New York soap box?

The real balancing act is not whether she can perform the duties of both first lady and candidate. It's whether she can maintain the separation agreement in the minds of the voters.

Ms. Cook remembers the time Mrs. Clinton was crossing 72nd Street in Manhattan. A huge banner protesting welfare reform read: "Eleanor Would Have Saved the Safety Net." After all these years, all these fantasies, all these assumptions about the most polarizing first lady in the history of polls, do we really know what Mrs. Clinton alone, thinks? What she, alone, stands for?

On her much touted "listening" tour, voters will be listening for Mrs. Clinton.

Mrs. Clinton is 51 years old. Her daughter's grown. Her husband, as Mario Cuomo quipped, is nearly grown. In the race for the Senate she's now on her own. This time it has to be "Buy One, Get One."

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 7/12/99

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