Into the Ring

Memo to: Hillary Clinton, Rick Lazio
From: Lee Atwater
Re: Tonight’s debate

OK, listen up. Where I am you don’t root for Reps or Dems, you root for the truth and hope for a show. With you two I’m still waiting on both. This whole campaign you’ve been waging has been kind of . . . demure! Kind of “Who’s the nicest girl at Wellesley?”

Now you got to mix it up. The contest you’re in is so close, such a tossup, that it could actually be settled by what happens tonight in the ring.

That’s how I see you, as fighters. That’s what all good pols are, ultimately. Right now, Hillary, you’re on your stool in your corner and Harold’s whispering in your ear and Mandy’s adjusting your mouthpiece. Rick, you’re over there nodding to Murphy and moving your head left and right to unkink your neck, as fighters do.

OK. Here’s my last-minute advice before the bell.

You walk out there and you’re both so pumped with adrenaline, excitement and fear that your hands are shaking. Hillary, you walk over to Rick as soon as you get on the stage. Laughingly, real friendly, put out your hand and maybe try to kiss him, to show you’re warm and he’s a wuss.

Rick, don’t let her walk to you. You walk over to her instead, like a man. Don’t give her the big-tan smile, give her a small smile and a nod. Then pivot to the audience and wave to them with the big smile.

Go back to your podiums. Rick, if you wear reading glasses put ‘em on now, and look at your notes. Hillary, if you wear reading glasses, don’t.

*   *   *

It begins: “Ladies and gentlemen . . .”

All right, psychology. Rick, in your head she’s a tank. Fine. But her steering’s busted and she’s running out of gas, so don’t worry about her. Hillary, you’re not exactly nervous when you think of him. One of the great things about the Clintons is they never run against anyone they respect, because the minute someone becomes an opponent of the Clintons the Clintons understand he’s a bad person, an idiot. When it comes to Lazio—let’s face it—you think you’ve scraped more interesting things off your shoe. Fine.

Strategy. Rick, pols do what they know how to do. Hillary will fight and aggress. You’re still one of those white guys tying himself in knots on how tough to be when you’re debating a woman. Forget that, it’s not a question. No one thinks Hillary Clinton’s a woman, they think she’s a phenomenon, like the weather. Treat her like you’d treat a guy.

She’s smart. She’s going to take the issues on which she is most vulnerable—trustworthiness, etc.—and flip ‘em, pretend that they are the areas in which you are most vulnerable. She always does this, because it clouds things up and makes them confusing.

She’s going to accuse you of having a weak record, of being untrustworthy, of being a hypocrite. She’ll start out strong and say that in comparison with you she has a 30-year record of achievement in education and in other things.

Fine. Let her come out and land a few. That will establish that she is the aggressor. Then you get on the balls of your feet and unleash a serious critique of all that she is and represents. She says she has a record in health care, you say she tried to take away the right of patients to choose their own doctor and to decide their own treatment. She says she can work with the big boys in Washington, you say: “Your own party wouldn’t work with you in the House and the Senate.”

This is important, Rick: Look at her, and engage. Normally I tell debaters not to talk to the opponent but to talk to the camera, to the viewers. But in your case, look at her. Put out your arm and point sometimes. Don’t forget the camera, turn to it and play to it occasionally, but engage her. It’ll unnerve her a little.

And don’t always be smiling. Look serious, because this is serious business—you’re gonna save the people of New York from more high tax, high spend, high promise, high disappointment.

Lately, Hillary’s taken to talking about “what we do with our surplus.” But it isn’t her surplus, and it isn’t a surplus. It’s billions in overpaid taxes yanked out of the pockets of the people of Buffalo and Amityville. Challenge her: Why can’t the people have their money back? Why should they believe she and her friends will spend it better than they will?

Another thing. Hillary is completely used to talking in one-minute and two-minute speeches. She does this because she has spent the past eight years being the First Lady and not being interrupted. And before that it was 12 years as the governor’s wife.

So interrupt her, press her, knock her off her stride. Do it politely, but persistently. “Oh, Mrs. Clinton, that is only rhetoric. The truth is—.” She may well reveal the imperious temper that rattles her staff. It ain’t a pretty sight. Help her show it.

*   *   *

Hillary, you have to be careful. But you can win this. Rick Lazio has that fatal politeness, that disheartening good cheer. He’s one of the Love Republicans. They’re just so happy and eager they could burst. You go wipe the smile off his face.

Go in hard, right away, and destabilize him. Remember, no one thinks you’re a woman, they think you’re a toughie. Fine, be tough. Tough, but pretty. ‘Cause in a funny way, the prettier you look, the more competent you look.

People aren’t sure Lazio has enough heft to fill the Moynihan seat. One of his problems: Like most Republicans, he is palpably bored by the complexities of public policy and legislation. But Democrats—position papers are their pornography.

Dazzle and impress people with your grasp of the arcana of public policy. When he says, “We have to cut taxes,” you just smile and shake your head and assure him you want to cut taxes as much as the next guy but it has to be done in a way that helps working families and not the rich. Then say we have to protect the Kilicott Amendment within subclause 746 of the IRS Code as amended in 1982 by Ronald Reagan. I just made that up. But it sounds real. You can make one up, too. Rick’ll get that earnest look and try to puzzle it out and by the time he catches up you’ll be on a woman’s right to choose. He’ll be so confused he’ll stutter. People who stutter in debates don’t have heft.

You know that he’ll try to hit you with what his people and your people know are your weak points. A public perception that you’re dishonest, a user, too clever by half. But I like the way you’re going to turn it on him—that he’s untrustworthy on campaign funding, untrustworthy in his support of abortion, a maneuverer who got along with Newt Gingrich. You charge first. Then he has to say, “I know you are but what am I?” like a kid.

Look beautiful and smiling. The bright colors, that pastel-sweater-thrown-over-the-jacket thing you’re doing, it’s good. It heightens and warms your color. A solid hour for makeup—the eyes, the eyes. Smile a lot—a smile is your best friend, makes you look not fierce but friendly.

Hillary, you need humor. Rick, you need wit. Both of you should walk in with three good jokes or three good lines. Hillary, two of yours should be self-deprecating. Try to have a line about Lazio so good that it makes even him laugh. An opponent laughing is half taken.

Hillary, watch your voice. I saw you with Charlie Gibson on “Good Morning America” yesterday and believe me, the uninflected suburban school-board drone is wearing thin. Try to use your voice in a way that has more . . . woman in it. Don’t mean to be sexist but you sound preachy: “The Wellesley class of ‘68 tells us how to floss.” Don’t be patronizing. A little humility wouldn’t hurt.

If he gets on the scandals don’t look stricken, just shake your head sadly. “This isn’t about the past, it’s about the future.” “He can try to drag us down into this whole world of unproven allegations, and if that’s how he wants to spend his time then I think that’s just sad. I will spend my time trying to improve life for New Yorkers who aren’t as lucky as Rick Lazio, or me for that matter.”

*   *   *

Remember to thank Tim, and all the network news shows hooked in. Thank the people for their time and attention. It’s homework for them, remember. They do it because they want to be good citizens.

You be good citizens, too. Talk about the meaning of this election, and what’s really at issue.

Hillary, if you win this debate you probably win the election and reach straight for the presidency. Rick, if you win this one you stop Clinton II in its tracks, you win a moderate presence from New York in the U.S. Senate, and you settle down to being great, which is what you want on your tombstone. “New York’s Great Senator.”

That’s big, on both sides, for both of you.

Make it sound as big as it is.