A campaign as long as this one turns on many pivotal moments. But if you’re in search of one defining episode that helps explain why Hillary Clinton won this race so convincingly, I’d recommend you examine the 24-hour period from Thursday evening, November 2, to Friday evening, November 3.
It was around 7:30 p.m. on Thursday when Governor Pataki, talking to New York 1’s Andrew Kirtzman, said that the phone calls the state Republican Party had been making to voters linking Hillary Clinton to acts of terrorism such as the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole were wrong. Rick Lazio, the governor added, had said they were wrong.
A regular citizen watching the program might have let those dozen or so breezily uttered words pass, but every insider watching knew instantly what they meant: Lazio had not denounced the calls, and now, because Pataki had forced his hand, he was going to have to. A Clinton aide later told me of the reaction among staffers who were watching the interview together in the Clinton war room. “Let’s just say,” this aide says, “we all had really big smiles.”
The next morning, in Syracuse, Lazio caved. “I didn’t agree with the calls as they were made and communicated that privately,” he told reporters. By the time those of us following Hillary around that day learned of Lazio’s remarks, she had already held her daily press briefing, so we couldn’t ask her about it. But there was no need. When the other side is talking itself into oblivion, you keep quiet.
A few hours later, though, Hillary had to do some fast talking. It was a little after 5 p.m., and we were in a ballroom at the Plaza, where Hillary was speaking to the Anti-Defamation League. She lit into Lazio, calling such tactics “beneath anyone who wants to go to the United States Senate to replace Daniel Patrick Moynihan.” The speech, or that part of it, was dramatic enough; but at that same moment, a more riveting – and, to the Clinton campaign, potentially crippling – story was developing out of public view. Communications director Howard Wolfson began receiving calls late that afternoon about a letter, on White House stationery and bearing Hillary’s signature, thanking the American Muslim Alliance for the plaque it had presented her the previous June. A week before, Hillary had denied knowing that the AMA had hosted the infamous fund-raiser. The letter seemed to suggest otherwise.
Hillary finished her speech, and aides told us there would be a rare, second press availability in a few moments. They didn’t say what it would be about. A half-hour or so later, Wolfson emerged handing out still-warm copies of the White House letter. Hillary had been made aware of the letter right after her speech. It was decision time: Deal with the letter, or go into hiding. The Hillary Clinton we got to know in the White House, who instructed her lawyers to stonewall Whitewater probers, would clearly have opted to ignore the story. But the Hillary Clinton who’d learned how to douse flames rather than fan them told her campaign team: Let’s get this out now.
No more black pantsuits? Senator-elect Hillary Clinton and supporters on Election Night.
The decision averted a potentially disastrous news cycle. If she’d waited until the next day, when the letter was already in the papers, the press would have been howling at her for a response. She would have been forced to endure one of those sweaty press conferences, and she would have looked like she was lying even if she wasn’t. The letter was obviously a form letter that she didn’t sign or write herself. Whether she had subsequently come to know of its existence is another question, but it’s one that her preemptive strike helped bat away. The letter was a big story in the next day’s papers, but it wasn’t anything like it might have been had the old, stonewalling Hillary been in charge.
“It’s something she never could have done a few months ago,” said one aide. One had only to watch the two campaigns react under pressure to see that only one candidate had learned how to handle it. The moment crystallized Hillary Clinton’s progress, and it was clear by that Friday night that Rick Lazio’s already slim chances had vaporized.
Twenty-two long months ago, we ran our first “Hillary’s running” story. Then, it was little more than something to ruminate over. But there was always a certain only-in-New York logic to it, which even her first opponent, Mayor Giuliani, seemed to accept in his gracious remarks about her last week. And so, here we are.
What happens now? The tabloids and the cable shows will see to it that the Bill-and-Hill soap opera will continue, especially once Bill hits town and gets photographed chatting up his first supermodel. The conservative press will keep the she’s-secretly-running-for-president story bouncing. Many of her Republican colleagues will spend the first year trying to humiliate her. Trent Lott wasted no time in making the utterly vile pronouncement that he hoped “maybe lightning will strike” and Hillary wouldn’t show up.
The glamorous new Senate office building is the Hart; the GOP will assign Hillary a top-floor office – the better to make her wait, and wait, for the inefficient elevators – in Russell or Dirksen. She will be operating once again under the scrutiny of the Washington media, and so old catchphrases like billing records and travel office, which the New York press never cared much about, will reappear from time to time. And the Capitol Hill press corps will have to experience for itself the vertiginous sight of, say, Hillary riding that little subway from the Senate office buildings to the floor with Secret Servicemen at her side. It will be strange, for a while, for everybody.
Stranger than she deserves for it to be, actually, because she has achieved, since those distant, Listening Tour days, a kind of normalcy. She ran exactly the sort of campaign she told New Yorkers she would run. Hillary often danced away from reporters’ questions. But with voters, she was pretty straight. Upstate economy. Education. Health care. Now she has to do the work, of course, but no one can accuse her of not laying out, in a consistent and specific way, the initiatives she hoped to undertake as senator. That’s an accusation before which her opponent, like many other candidates I’ve covered, would crumble.
More than that, she was not, for both good and ill, what most people thought she’d be. Both those who hate Hillary and those who love her long ago formed strong ideas about who she is. But what she demonstrated as a candidate in her own right is that neither of those images of her, of the radical she-devil or the feminist lioness, is correct. What she ran on (a politically lukewarm moderate-to-liberal program) and the way she ran (methodically, earnestly) showed someone who just maybe isn’t as fascinating or exotic as all the overheated press about her would have us believe.
She remains difficult to read, so one still can’t say with confidence what her real goals are. And even many people who aren’t Hillary haters still have reason to harbor a few lingering suspicions about her motives, which she will dislodge only with time. But it would count as one of history’s little ironic jokes if what she wants out of life is exactly what she’s been saying for the past year and a half: to be in the Senate, and to become a New Yorker.
She’s taken care of the first one. As for the second, Ed Koch used to say that becoming a New Yorker takes seven years. She’ll be kosher, in other words, just in time for re-election.