Both N.Y. sides playing aimless `gotcha' politics

September 13, 2000|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- There is a discouraging message in the smug self-satisfaction the White House and Hillary Rodham Clinton have been displaying after producing that picture of Rep. Rick Lazio shaking hands with Yasser Arafat in 1998.

And that message is that American politics seems to be seeking an ever-lower level, thanks to both the politicians and their stooges in the press.

Mr. Lazio's crime ostensibly is behaving with some civility toward the Palestinian leader two years ago and now acting, in his role as Republican candidate for the Senate, as a dedicated supporter of Israel. The idea is that Jewish voters in New York, an important bloc capable of casting 12 or 13 percent of the total vote there, will decide Mr. Lazio is a hypocrite.

The picture, Hillary Clinton quickly assured the New York press, showed that her Republican opponent has been "saying one thing and doing another." Imagine that, a politician saying one thing and doing another. What a story, stop the presses! In fact, the New York Post put the whole thing on the front page with end-of-the-millennium size headlines.

The glee among the Democrats has been heightened, of course, by the fact that earlier in the campaign, Ms. Clinton was nailed by the press and the Republicans for her own embrace of an Arafat, in this case the wife of the Palestinian Authority chairman. The first lady was caught by the cameras rather perfunctorily hugging Suha Arafat after a speech on the West Bank in which she had attacked Israel in harsh language. Ms. Clinton's sin was compounded, moreover, by her earlier suggestion of support for a Palestinian state.

All of this is nonsense, of course. The picture of the Republican congressman was made when he was part of an official delegation led by President Clinton and including Hillary Clinton that had gone to the Middle East to encourage steps toward peace in the negotiations. It was one of those standard receiving line pictures, and it would be no surprise if the White House photographer also took one of Hillary Clinton shaking hands with Mr. Arafat. That one, however, will never see the light of day.

So what was Mr. Lazio supposed to do? Turn his back, spurn the handshake, leave the room?

Hillary Clinton's willingness to trade air kisses with Suha Arafat was also more benign than the extremists have chosen to make it. It happened at an occasion in which she was performing as first lady rather than Senate candidate in New York. So was she supposed to create a diplomatic incident?

The operative question here is whether Jewish voters in New York are as mindless as many in the press. Probably not. On the contrary, it is a good bet that most of them are sophisticated enough to understand the situations in which both Ms. Clinton and Mr. Lazio found themselves.

And some of these Jewish voters are politically street-wise enough to understand that neither Rick Lazio or Hillary Clinton is going to be anti-Israel or pro-Palestinian in the Senate. On the contrary, in the 52 years since Israel was created, New York politicians in both parties have competed with one another to demonstrate their support.

But the political hacks, including those in the White House, enjoy playing their little games of "gotcha." And there is always some element of the press that will go along with the gag.

This devotion to the lowest common denominator is nothing new in New York.

When Geraldine Ferraro became the first Italian-American named to a national ticket as the Democratic candidate for vice president in 1984, the press went wild pursuing tips, many from Republicans, aimed at connecting her to the Mafia and organized crime. Although some of her husband's business practices were subject to criticism, Ms. Ferraro was never tied to anything unsavory.

The high point in investigative journalism this year, however, involves Dick Cheney, the Republican nominee for vice president. It turns out that a subsidiary of Halliburton, the company Mr. Cheney headed, provided separate portable toilets for Americans and the local people -- known as "host country nationals" -- in places like Kosovo. How could a man who would allow that serve as vice president?

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau.

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