New York Times
November 6, 2000

First Lady Re-Emerges in Campaign


Hillary Rodham Clinton, some in the audience suspected, had shed a tear or two on Friday night when she delivered a speech to the Anti-Defamation League about her experiences as first lady with victims of terrorism.

Was it the cold Mrs. Clinton had been battling? Or fatigue? Or had the first lady been moved to tears? A request for clarification came during a news conference the next day.

"I don't know," Mrs. Clinton said. "I wasn't watching myself."

The speech, the did-she or didn't- she about her moist eyes, and Mrs. Clinton's detached response to the query, would likely not have happened just a few weeks ago.

But coming in the closing days of the New York Senate race, they fit a recurring pattern that her campaign had spent most of the past nine months striving to avoid: Mrs. Clinton the Senate candidate acting the part of proud first lady rather than the scrappy, overeager New Yorker who spends every spare moment slapping backs and jawing about the Buffalo Byte Belt or Loon Hollow Pond or the Long Island High Technology Incubator.

In recent speeches on terrorism, on abortion rights, even in her appeals for voters to go to the polls, Mrs. Clinton has been invoking her eight years as first lady to demonstrate her broad experience and knowledge about things far greater than New York.

Unlike earlier in the campaign, she is not so much making the case that she has influenced policy during her tenure in the White House in an effort to build a legislative record. Rather she is letting it be known that she has occupied a front seat to history, even in her traditional meet-and-greet duties as wife of the president. Mrs. Clinton never says so directly, but the implication of her first lady reminiscences is obvious: Representative Rick A. Lazio, her Republican opponent, could never match her in stature or celebrity. Vote for me, the subtitles to her speeches say, and New York will get the national and international respect it deserves.

"It is important for New Yorkers to send a leader, someone who will stand up and fight," Representative Nita Lowey said when asked about Mrs. Clinton's newfound emphasis on her tenure as first lady.

Mrs. Clinton has always found it difficult balancing her two lives on the campaign trail. She is dogged in places like Buffalo and Rochester and Utica by foreign journalists who want to know nothing about New York but everything about things like her views on the French social security system and whether she thinks Turkey is a nice country. An Asian journalist presented her with the sheet music to a song, which he proceeded to croon, on her birthday last month.

The mere presence of her Secret Service contingent at every twist on the road and bend in the hallway, a requirement of the White House, has made her candidacy unlike any other in New York. Mrs. Clinton cannot even use the restroom at a campaign stop without a disruption: the rest room is closed to every other woman there, Secret Service agents are posted at the door and anyone who comes within 10 yards is instructed to hold it.

Throughout the Senate race, Mrs. Clinton has worked hard to get around the confinement of her Washington job and to present herself as a woman in her own right. She said in an interview in February that she was most surprised how little people knew about "the work that I did before Bill was elected president." The election strategy that ensued was to concentrate, in large part, on life before the White House.

But the newly resuscitated first lady offers no apologies for her Washington years and has stopped fighting her rap as an outsider to New York. Instead, she has been presenting her otherness as an advantage, telling Joe Collins, a customer at the Barnes & Noble bookstore in Forest Hills, Queens, that he should vote for her because she knows "how to get things done" inside the Beltway.

The strategy has elicited more than a few approving nods from voters upstate, where many people are disenchanted with politicians from New York City and its suburbs and who are inclined to believe they have more in common with a heavy hitter from a Rust Belt state like Illinois with experience in a poor state like Arkansas and a snake pit like Washington.

"I want to bring the attention I can command to the problems of upstate," Mrs. Clinton said to a business group in suburban Buffalo.

The strategy has come in handy for the cover it provides as well.

When Mrs. Clinton the candidate got caught in a delicate moment last week about a thank-you letter she had written in August to a Muslim American group she has since denounced as too friendly toward terrorism, it was Mrs. Clinton the first lady who came to the rescue.

The correspondence, the first lady said, was a form letter written by the White House staff and had nothing to do with the Senate race. "This is one of those instances when I do have two roles," she said. "I am still the first lady."

Yet a month ago in Rochester, she had insisted that everyone knew her first lady's cloak had been left hanging in Washington long ago as she campaigned for the Senate. She said there should have been no confusion about who she was when she delivered a hard-hitting stump speech at a luncheon on breast cancer awareness sponsored by Highland Hospital. The speech was criticized by some Republicans in attendance, and a hospital spokesman said Mrs. Clinton had been invited to speak as first lady, not as a Senate candidate.

The first lady role has been popping up in other contexts as well.

At the Riverdale Senior Center last Wednesday, Mrs. Clinton complained about how women who leave the work force to raise children, care for elderly parents or perform other traditionally female roles end up with smaller Social Security benefits than most men when they retire.

"I've taken eight years out of the paid work force," Mrs. Clinton said. "The last eight years I have taken out to be part of this administration and to work for my country and for my family."

To black audiences, she tells of having met Nelson Mandela, and she frequently reminds them of the image of black South Africans lining up for hours to vote for Mr. Mandela in their first election in 1994. At a rally in Brooklyn last night, Mrs. Clinton drew wild applause from 1,500 Haitian-Americans when she spoke about her trip as first lady to Haiti in 1998.

In a speech on abortion rights in Purchase, N.Y., on Saturday, Mrs. Clinton told an audience of mostly women about her travels as first lady to Romania, where women were prevented from having abortions, and to Brazil, where poor women often received botched abortions, and to China, where she had spoken out against the government's policy of forced abortions.

With her daughter, Chelsea, at her side, she also told the group at Manhattanville College about her biggest personal regret of the Senate campaign. Lost evenings in front of the fireplace on Old House Lane in Chappaqua? Too little time around the dinner table with the family? Missed getaway weekends to the Catskills or to shows in the city?

No. It was having to pass up a state visit to India.

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