Hill Country

The truth is that it was exactly what it wasn’t supposed to be. Yes, there were 200 reporters, 250 even, and occasional hints of the bedlam that everyone’s hankering for. But this was no circus, no hothouse of buzz and spin and intrigue. If the way Hillary Clinton launched her campaign to become the next senator from New York gives us any indication of how it will proceed, then we may be in for something altogether different from the nuclear war we’ve been told this race will be.

You’ll read otherwise, and probably already have, because the press needs conflict and tension and those missteps that can be conflated into allegedly campaign-crippling “gaffes” like Rudy Giuliani’s shocking confusion last week of upstate Monroe County with little old downstate Monroe town, but – trust me on this – the remarkable thing about the way this started was its leisurely pace and the utter absence of anything close to tension. Consider its unveiling: 250 people stand in a gently rolling field surrounded by lush mountain ranges. About 300 feet up the road is a one-room building, white; an old schoolhouse, no adornments (no plumbing, even), where Senator Pat Moynihan, after traipsing the quarter-mile from his farmhouse down the hill, sits and writes his books. The morning, breezy and not humid and washed by sunshine, is unspeakably gorgeous. At precisely 11 a.m., Moynihan and Clinton open the door and begin walking toward the microphone.

You think, given the serious nature of the business at hand, what you know about her, and the fact that we’ve all been waiting nearly two hours in an open field with absolutely nothing to do, that the walk will be brisk and purposeful and we’ll get right down to business. But they stroll! Moynihan, light-blue shirt and white pants, to Clinton’s right, just the two of them; he points off into the woods, telling her who-knows-what about farm life or Delaware County or some Seven Years’ War battle that happened on the next hill in 1762. Far from suggesting the supposed rough-and-tumble of New York politicking, they look like figures out of an Andrew Wyeth painting. Whoever planned this entrance needs a raise, yesterday. It’s the most disarming stroll in recent American politics, 60 lingering seconds or more, and, more important than its obvious passing-the-torch symbolism, its sedative effect on the press mob was thoroughgoing.

When they finally hit the microphone, Moynihan, as is his way, delivered a brief history of the school (opened 1854, functioning until 1946, library of Plutarch and Bunyan and 73 other volumes he was happy to inherit when he took the deed in 1963). It threw everyone off a step, established a pace for the day that wasn’t at all what the assembled press, network superstars and local wretches alike, wanted.

About the worst that could be said of her is that she was short of flawless. David Lewis of New York 1 asked her a question about whether, post-Lewinsky, she considered herself a victim and was on the prowl for the sympathy vote; a fair question, and one she should have seen coming. But she clearly hadn’t, and it threw her, and she just collapsed into the “I’m here to listen” routine. Other than that, her answers ranged from adequate to surprisingly effective: She was “very humbled”; she was “going to be listening very hard and learning a lot”; she “has some real work to do” in relation to the carpetbagger factor; “New Yorkers will make their own judgments” about her character and her past and her fitness for office; and, by golly, she was just thrilled and “more than a little surprised to be standing here.”

She didn’t say anything of substance, of course, but with nine satellite trucks and four buses and an eight-car motorcade parked across a hayfield in a town that has one peripatetic intellectual and a volunteer fire department and not much else, it’s not substance you’re likely to get. A session like last Wednesday morning’s is entirely about the candidate’s poise, élan, what the sportscasters call the intangibles. And she had them working.

Two events a day. There were more for the pool reporters, who on the first day especially were kept jumping, but no one was run too ragged here. In fact, most of the hours and the days were boredom-inducing: riding on a bus, standing around, no place to go because you didn’t have wheels, nothing to do where you were. Reporters prefer to convey that the boys and girls on the bus are in a constant state of stimulation, tossing out bons mots and gossip with Front Page-style fury. But it really isn’t so. This is true of all campaigns, but this is the first campaign I’ve ever seen in which the boredom of the press corps brings with it an immense strategic upside for the candidate: That is, the less that happens, at least in these early days, the better it is for her; and once the motions and habits of following Hillary come to feel to reporters like just another campaign trail, she can settle into being just another candidate, or as close as she can get to that. Whoever figured that out deserves a raise, too.

E-mail: tomasky@aol.com

Take Wednesday afternoon’s forum on education at suny-Oneonta. To the press, this session was completely without merit. It was too long, it was drowsy, it had absolutely no news value. But the 50 or so guests (invited by the university president, not by the campaign) seemed to like it well enough, and, two or three times, Clinton actually perked up and said something real, as when a woman who teaches first-graders having trouble with reading won the First Lady’s commiseration on the need for more federal funds for such remedial programs, which she happened to know had originated some years ago in New Zealand. This exchange didn’t make the papers the next day, but it really struck me. It suggested that maybe this dazzling celebrity who can’t even – do pardon me – go to the john without reporters asking the lady in the next stall a few questions (this actually happened Wednesday morning, as she traveled to Moynihan’s farm) is, underneath it all, just a policy wonk who really does want to get to the Senate so she can write legislation on universal pre-K and home-visitation programs, whatever they are.

But she’s not just a wonk, of course. She’s an ambitious proto-politician. Otherwise, she wouldn’t even be here. And anyway, this campaign won’t always be about wonkery. These events, while somewhat staged, are limited to serious human beings with serious questions. One of these days, Hillary’s going to have to mix it up with those other-than-serious human beings for which our beautiful state is justly renowned and open her speaking engagements to people without invitations.

After the day’s events were done, i watched some cable and network news shows to see how everyone had decided to convey it. Four talking heads caterwauling at one another on MSNBC! Andrea Mitchell on regular old NBC decrying the lack of substance and issues! Aside from the fact that Mitchell must have missed that reading-programs business, it’s worth noting that Clinton had campaigned for all of one day, and 485 or so days remained during which she could be substantive. Everybody used, and reused, the shots of people holding hillary go home! placards, which was predictable enough, even though everyone knows that placard bearers, both pro and con, are probably not regular citizens marching in democracy’s great parade but people who’ve been sent out to strategic locations by the local Democratic and Republican organizations, respectively, and should on that basis be ignored. And Thursday’s Post was just bonkers, with no fewer than seven (if you count the “Page Six” item about a Republican in North Salem who doesn’t want Hillary moving there) stories and columns slagging her in one way or another.

It served to remind that these days, campaigns happen in several different universes, the one inhabited by the candidate herself being perhaps the least important. They happen in the papers. They happen on the evening news programs. They happen on the morning news programs. They happen on the cable blabfests. They happen on the Internet. And even when you’re here, in the bubble, they happen elsewhere. Thursday afternoon, for example, we learned that her husband’s administration was separating itself from her statement on an undivided Jerusalem, which we learned about not on the stump but via a fax machine.

Anyway. A candidate can control only her immediate circumstances, and what was most surprising about America’s most controversial woman was just how thoroughly uncontroversial she was. It could be that Hillary, too, has Clinton fatigue.

Hill Country