February 5, 2000
Mrs. Clinton Steps Out on Her Own
BY BETH J. HARPAZ
NEW YORK -- The bright colors, fussy gowns and ever-changing coiffures are gone. Nowadays her hair is cut in a short and simple helmet, and she sticks to an all-black jacket and trousers -- the ensemble of choice for New York power women.
Hillary Rodham Clinton has traded in the first-lady look for what have become her combat fatigues in her battle to convince New Yorkers that she is one of them.
The battle begins in earnest on Sunday, not far from the house she recently bought in the New York City suburb of Chappaqua, when she officially launches her candidacy for the U.S. Senate. From a hall at a state university campus, with husband Bill, daughter Chelsea and her mother Dorothy by her side, she will formally step out of the shadow life of politician's spouse from Arkansas and into a political spotlight of her own.
The transition has changed more than her appearance. Hillary Clinton has become the epitome of an eager office-seeker, shaking every outstretched hand, traveling the length and breadth of New York to get in touch with a population more than seven times bigger than that of Arkansas.
She has already hit some potholes. She took heat for: sitting silently while Yassir Arafat's wife accused the Israelis of poisoning Palestinians; failing to voice an opinion on the fate of 6-year-old Cuban boy Elian Gonzalez; promising to march in a St. Patrick's Day parade, apparently unaware that most Democratic officials shun the event because it excludes homosexuals.
One of her toughest challenges has been the accusation that she's a ``carpetbagger'' who moved to New York only because it has a vacancy for a Democratic Party candidate.
Her probable Republican opponent, New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, hasn't declared his candidacy -- there's no deadline for entering New York's Nov. 7 election -- but his term expires in two years, and he cannot run again.
Brooklyn-born Giuliani has won high marks from New Yorkers for cleaning up the city and bringing down crime rates. He can seem heavy-handed and vindictive, whether sending out cops to round up the homeless or cutting off funds to a museum because he considers the art offensive. But his bluntness and fierce temper can seem refreshing compared to the first lady's measured style.
As is often the case in politics, Clinton was much more popular with voters as long as she wasn't revealing her ambitions.
When she visited New York during that fall of 1998, to help fellow Democrat Chuck Schumer in his run for U.S. Senate, audiences couldn't get enough of her. The crowd in one packed union hall went wild when she showed up; it felt more like a rock concert than a political rally. As the betrayed wife in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, she clearly had New Yorkers' -- and the nation's -- sympathy, and when rumors of a Senate run surfaced and pollsters started to get interested, some soundings put her 10 points ahead of Giuliani.
But she lost ground as the wounded-wife image faded and the Senate candidate emerged. Polls now have her almost neck-and-neck with Giuliani, and he has stronger support among white women -- women who, in the old days, would greet Clinton with chants of ``Run, Hillary, run.''
So despite having already spent a year on the campaign trail, she still has work to do before Nov. 7 to explain to New Yorkers why she should represent them in Washington.
``There is a question that haunts many people,'' acknowledges her campaign adviser, Harold Ickes. ``Why is she doing this? And who is she?''
The clues to who she is lie deeply rooted in her childhood.
Born in 1947, the eldest of three, she was raised in the Chicago suburb of Park Ridge and has likened her family to that of the 1950s television sitcom ``Father Knows Best.'' Her mother was there every day when she came home for lunch; her father, who owned a drapery business, would kneel by his bed each night in prayer.
Her mother instilled in her the steely poise Americans so admired during the impeachment struggle. If young Bill Clinton's defining moment was standing up to his violent stepfather, little Hillary's was running home in tears to escape a neighborhood bully. Her mother sent her back out the door, saying: ``There's no room for cowards in this house.''
Later, a Methodist church youth group introduced her ``to the world beyond our all-white middle-class suburb.'' A teen-age Hillary baby-sat for migrant farm workers' families and even shook hands with Martin Luther King Jr. -- not long after her future husband's fabled meeting, as a young man, with President Kennedy.
This early faith-based activism had a lifelong impact. ``Be ye doers and not just hearers of the word,'' she intoned at several recent appearances, prompting one of her hosts to respond: ``Thank you, Rev. Clinton!''
At Wellesley College, she was a campus leader who made front-page news in the Boston Globe with her commencement speech -- a strident rebuttal to another speaker who derided '60s activism. At Yale Law School, she added a year to her studies to learn about child development, then worked as a staff attorney for the Children's Defense Fund. Children's issues, education and health remain her priorities and are themes of her Senate campaign.
She spent 1974 working for the House Judiciary Committee researching the constitutional grounds for impeaching President Nixon. She then rejected a promising legal career in the Capitol and moved to Arkansas to marry Bill Clinton, whom she had met at Yale. She worked for a prominent Little Rock law firm, and kept her maiden name after he was elected governor.
But when he lost his first re-election bid, her career-woman image was deemed part of the problem. From then on, she used her married name.
Yet she remained committed to her own career. She kept her job at a law firm while serving as Arkansas' first lady, and took just four months off from work when Chelsea, now 19, was born.
Her biggest achievement in Arkansas public life was reforming the state's schools, including raising salaries and per-pupil spending, and instituting competency tests for teachers and students. As chairwoman of the Arkansas Education Standards Committee, she went to each of the state's 75 counties, held hearings, shepherded debates, and came away with new standards that, accompanied by a tax hike, led to the changes.
In contrast, her effort in Washington to overhaul the country's health care -- a job entrusted to her by her husband -- was a dismal failure. ``I come from the school of smaller steps now,'' she said humbly at a New York event last fall.
There were other humiliations in Washington too. After records from the Whitewater scandal mysteriously appeared in the White House, Hillary Clinton became the first president's wife to testify before a grand jury. But her popularity soared during the impeachment drama, with two-thirds of Americans saying they approved of her brave smile and the way she soldiered on.
Now, as she reinvents herself for the next phase in her political life -- declaring herself a Yankees fan, strolling the beach on Long Island, quoting the Bible in a Harlem church and chatting about dairy farms and droughts upstate -- she is discovering the huge difference between life inside the Beltway and the rambunctious world of New York politics.
Already, the Republican knives are out for this ``ultra-liberal, carpet-bagging opportunist,'' as one conservative mailing puts it, and the question of the first lady's Noo Yawk credentials is bound to resurface throughout the campaign.
But there are compensations, as the writer Nora Ephron noted at a Manhattan luncheon honoring ``Today'' host Katie Couric.
``You can run,'' Ephron told the first lady. ``You can live here. And you will never have to wear a turquoise jacket again.''
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