Going Postal

Thank God Hillary Clinton has carried us into Phase II of this Senate campaign with her announcement last Tuesday that she will indeed run. The disgraceful Phase I couldn’t have ended soon enough.

Disgraceful on her part? Not to the degree that’s been portrayed. She’s made two major mistakes – her FALN flip-flop, and putting herself in the same room as an Arafat – that suggest the political brains in her family lie elsewhere. She’ll sharpen up, or she won’t; either way, these missteps don’t equal disgrace.

What’s been ridiculous – both sillier and more shameful than anything I’ve ever seen in reporting on New York politics – is the way this race has been covered. I’ve never witnessed absurd rumor taking flight as it has in this race, or fact expiring for lack of air, or the press corps in New York behaving like such a hyperventilating skulk of foxes. It’s been astounding.

Take, as a recent and high-profile example, the whole “She’s not running” business. Intelligent people with nothing to rely on but the white noise of the media truly came to believe before Thanksgiving that Mrs. Clinton was pulling out. I promise you: No knowledgeable reporter covering this race – that is, making actual phone calls, attending actual events – ever believed for a moment she wasn’t running. Mrs. Clinton may have been saying “if” publicly; her aides said “when” privately and had been saying it since at least September. It was fiction all the way – or, more accurately, an intentional disinformation campaign by the New York Post, where Dick Morris wrote on the subject repeatedly and found abettors in one or two other Post columnists I’ve never seen at a Clinton function (and doubt I ever will, at least until she starts serving an open bar).

The Post. The Post has “covered” this race in much the way that Pravda covered the show trials. Or as Ramparts used to write about Nixon, although since Ramparts was on the left, and genuinely funny, I guess you’d have to say the opposite of Ramparts. Sheepparts.

Of the hundreds that could be cited, two recent examples: A story ran the week before last, hot on the heels of the Suha Arafat fiasco, that Hillary was hosting a gala for a fringe, “pro-Palestinian” group. That group turns out to be Americans for Peace Now. Certainly, Peace Now supports a Palestinian state (demilitarized). So do most Jews. Certainly, Peace Now is on the political left; agree with it, or don’t. But fringe? Its rallies in Israel have drawn hundreds of thousands of supporters. Several of its members are officials in Ehud Barak’s government. It was founded by former officers in the Israeli Defense Force. That’s fringe? It’s an absurd characterization, and the Post knows it.

Besides, Mrs. Clinton, who according to the Post was “hosting” the December 6 gala here in New York, won’t even be there! She and her husband are honorary co-chairs, and the master of ceremonies that night will be well-known fringe journalist Lesley Stahl.

“Mrs. Clinton’s mistakes should certainly be a theme of coverage. But the only theme? Even when the facts say otherwise?”

Second example: The paper’s lead editorial the day Mrs. Clinton announced asked, “Does Hillary Agree With Suha?” What sane person could really believe that the first lady of the United States thinks this? She said that all parties should refrain from “inflammatory rhetoric and baseless accusations.”

That all-parties business wasn’t specific enough for the Post, of course, but Mrs. Clinton’s message, late and tepid though it may have been, was clearly directed at Mrs. Arafat. And baseless is a difficult word to misconstrue. Yet the editorial concluded that Mrs. Clinton’s “silence” (!) should be taken as “a quiet assent” (!!). In other words, Hillary Clinton believes that Israel is gassing Palestinians. Ten years’ hard labor!

Everyone, even people who don’t read the papers closely, knows the Post’s agenda in general terms (there are at least two reporters at the Post to whom none of this applies, but I won’t open them to Murdochian abuse by naming them). But what people don’t know is the extent to which the Post has determined how this race has been covered. We’ve now reached a point in political journalism at which only the most salacious and eye-popping angle to a story is even deemed “news” by TV and radio and all the screaming heads thereon. Consequently, the howlingest banshee, no matter how ridiculous or irresponsible, sets the agenda.

And so the is-she-or-isn’t-she story, which was never real, dominated the race for nearly two weeks. Reporters at the other papers, even at the New York Times, who knew it wasn’t true, had to file stories about it. Those papers need to figure out ways to drive the coverage of this race on their terms. Does the Daily News want to let its arch-rival be in charge of the terms of debate for the next eleven months? Is the newspaper of record, the world’s greatest newspaper, ready to take a back seat to the Post in the most interesting campaign maybe ever in its own backyard? With minor exceptions, so far, that’s how it’s gone.

Mrs. Clinton’s mistakes should certainly be a theme of coverage. But the only theme? Even when facts say otherwise? And so it becomes writ that Mrs. Clinton’s suffered a devastating collapse in the polls! Has she now? There are three main polls to which New York politicos look: Quinnipiac, Marist, and John Zogby’s Post polls. So let’s look. Obviously, since last February, when a Hillary candidacy was just a fanciful notion and when she was in her sympathetic apotheosis (and when Rudy was at his nadir), she’s gone down. But what about since July, when she started coming to the state? Quinnipiac had it 45 apiece in July; now, Rudy by 47 to 42. That’s a change, but it’s within the margin of error, and so it’s really no change at all.

Marist: 47 to 41 Rudy in July, 46 to 42 Rudy in October. Zogby: Rudy was up ten points in July, and he’s up seven now. This is a devastating slide? But a lie can get around the world before the truth puts its pants on, as the saying goes. And so there are massive democratic defections!

Oh, really? At the end of last Tuesday’s press conference, Howard Wolfson said he’d never seen “New York Democrats so united behind a statewide candidate” as they are now. The usual spin bullshit, I thought to myself. But as I walked away, I realized: He’s absolutely right. Take away the re-election campaigns of Mario Cuomo and Pat Moynihan, because obviously the party was united around its incumbents. But think back over the other races. For this very Senate seat, the last open election happened in 1976, when the party was fiercely divided among Moynihan, Bella Abzug, Ramsey Clark, and others. Or take the other Senate seat. Last year’s primary election saw Schumer-Green-Ferraro. In 1992, it was Ferraro-Abrams-Holtzman-Sharpton; in 1986, Green-Dyson; in 1980, Holtzman-Myerson-Lindsay-Santucci. Shall I go back to Dick Ottinger, or is the point agreed upon?

So Mrs. Clinton, who has the support of virtually every Democrat in the state, endures two defections and suddenly it’s a sinking ship! Let’s look at these defections. One was Carl Kruger, state senator from Brooklyn. Carl Kruger made it to the State Senate because of the late Canarsie political leader, State Assemblyman Tony Genovesi. Genovesi was widely admired for many reasons, the most important of which (to liberals, at least), was his staunch opposition to the death penalty. In fact, if one had been asked when he was alive, “With what one issue would you associate Tony Genovesi?” that issue would be the death penalty. And what of Carl Kruger? “Tony got him elected,” says a source who was close to Genovesi. “So what’s the first thing the guy does when he gets to Albany? Votes for the death penalty! Tony says, ‘Carl, how? You never told me.’ He said, ‘Well, how’m I gonna get elected?’ ” Genovesi always managed to.

And of West Side councilwoman Ronnie Eldridge’s recent musings, let’s be kind, since she’s basically a decent sort, and say she’s a victim of too much Breslin exposure. Ronnie loved Bobby Kennedy, as we know; odd that she thought Hillary should have announced sooner rather than later, since Bobby didn’t announce until July 1964. Or maybe she now thinks Bobby should have followed Hillary’s speedy timetable, which would have meant, notes consultant Jerry Skurnik, that “he would have announced on November 23, 1963.”

I have little doubt that Hillary Clinton will offer us many reasons to criticize her over the course of this campaign: She needs to show more of herself to people, and she’ll have to move beyond the largely platitudinous education-health care rhetoric she’s dispensed so far. And there are real stories to be done about the mechanics of her campaign and its shortcomings. But coverage of these issues has to transcend the reflexive non-thought that’s constituted far too much coverage so far. We just watched the press corps in Washington debase itself for a year in the mad scramble for cable-TV face time, book deals, the reputation as the meanest and the sauciest, which is all the reputation that matters these days. If these are our role models, Lord help us.

E-mail: tomasky@aol.com

Going Postal