Newly Aggressive

Now that the Democrats dominate the U.S. Senate, the junior senator from New York is poised to achieve a new and rather sudden prominence. Hillary Clinton is not only her party’s acknowledged expert on health care legislation, she has taken to referring to her tenure as first lady in a way that suggests she feels those years should be added to her seniority in the Senate. When recently asked about Jim Jeffords’s jump across the aisle, she said “I’ve known him and worked with him for more than eight years,” before adding she felt his decision was “a matter of conscience.”

The quotes are from a remarkable interview published Wednesday in the Poughkeepsie Journal. It was remarkably long at nearly 9,000 words, and remarkably revealing. It deserves more attention because it provides what seems a window on Mrs. Clinton’s recent style, attitude and approach to her job.

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In her remarks Mrs. Clinton reverts to a level of partisan invective that she has not shown since entering the Senate five months ago. She says the Bush education bill is a fraud, that the Republicans only want to spend money on defense, where “the sky’s the limit”—the Bush team supports “a total blank check on defense spending.” Why would the Bush administration attempt to mislead voters? Because of their “hypocrisy” and “cynicism,” which she finds “shameless.” The Bush economic policy is “a total sham” in which “the bulk of [the tax cut] goes to the people who are already the richest taxpayers in America.”

Mr. Bush, as president, is radical. “I think many of us were surprised at how far right many of the moves were and how captured by the very large special interests the administration seems to be.” She suggests his environmental decisions were belligerent: “It’s almost like, ‘We are going to do it because we can do it and make you like it.’ ” The Bush administration must be watched: “You have to look really carefully at what these people do.” Of one Republican she says, “You had Frank Murkowski running the Energy Committee in the Senate. Bless his heart, all he wants to do is drill ANWAR.”

Those who support a voucher system or a way for public school students to opt out of failing schools just want to “dump” on needy children, using them as “whipping boys and girls” for selfish reasons. “A lot of them don’t want us to have a public school system.” “They are privatizers,” she warns darkly. She suggests one problem with getting children out of failing schools is that there is little or no room for them in successful schools.

Why did Al Gore lose? “It wasn’t an effective campaign. Unfortunately.” This slap is followed by a standard denunciation of Mr. Bush: He wasn’t elected, he was elevated by “the interference by election officials in Florida, and the United States Supreme Court.” And, of course, Mr. Bush has “no mandate.”

Throughout the interview Mrs. Clinton is sharply personal. Republicans aren’t wrong, they’re bad. Democrats are thoughtful and trying to help. This kind of thing is unusual even for New York in a non-election year. This is not the nuanced and directly dignified sound of Mrs. Clinton’s predecessor, Pat Moynihan, in a fury. Nor is it the sound of her colleague, the more easygoing Chuck Schumer, on a bad day.

This is the sound of Hillary Clinton moving forward at a seemingly dramatic time and attempting to make a vivid impression.

She claims it was not the Republican Party’s idea to cut taxes and provide a tax refund. “The refund, which was a Democratic idea, we were the ones who said give back a refund, do it this year, provide a stimulus.”

She seems preoccupied with how to sell things, how to “market” them. The Democratic Party isn’t doing “a very good job communicating to you or anybody else.” A small upstate airport can become important “if we can figure how to market it and sell it.”

Asked what can be done to help upstate New York’s economy, she seems to suggest that a greater sophistication on the part of the locals would be nice. “Look at Niagara Falls: I mean, when I was a little girl, we went to Niagara Falls, we stayed on the American side. Now everybody goes to the Canadian side. Why? The Canadian government said, ‘Hey, We’ve got this great natural resource, let’s invest some money in it.’ I mean, it’s not complicated. I was just down at Roosevelt’s Top Cottage. And they’re going to open it on June 16th. This part of America should be a tourist corridor, second to none. We have everything from pre-Revolutionary War history, and Revolutionary War history, to the Roosevelts.” We could bring in “zillions of tourists.” She has been trying to explain that to the upstate folk. “I was talking to some of the local people there. They’re just beginning to think maybe they should go out and hire somebody who knows how to market tourism.”

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How to help Poughkeepsie? She suggests “the cooperative technology extension service that I’ve advocated.” Poughkeepsie makes good products but “can’t really get them into the global marketplace.” The answer: “I think we should do a technology cooperative extension service, so that businesses would have access to that kind of know-how. . . . They can’t possibly afford it at this point.” Upstate New York, she says, is not well connected to the Internet. “There’s no doubt in my mind that if you could connect up upstate New York from one end to the other, it would be one of the most attractive places for people to do business. You could attract businesses out of California that don’t have electricity or water now and would be very interested in coming here. I have a program for grants and loans and tax credits that would be a public/private partnership to try to get the infrastructure that we need.”

This is viewing upstate as the Clintons viewed Arkansas: as a third world country in need of their knowing assistance. But it is also indicative of a mindset that does not know and perhaps cannot know the real story of upstate New York, which is a story of clobberingly high taxes that have continued off and on, mostly on, for the past half century, all of it accompanied by deteriorating public schools. Less convinced, or perhaps reflexive, ideological enthusiasts than Mrs. Clinton might wonder not if the government has the answers, but if the government caused the problems.

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In the interview, Mrs. Clinton was less cutting and colorful in her language when asked, finally, and in the gentlest terms about her “difficult” transition, in the words of a reporter, to the Senate amid charges that her husband granted pardons “that . . . were somehow connected to the campaign.” Does she think she “will have to address this issue at another point, or do you think it has been addressed?”

This was remarkably soft even for a softball and it inspired Mrs. Clinton’s shortest answer: “We’ll just let it run its course. There was no quid pro quo. There wasn’t any connection what so ever. That’s what is going to be determined and it will all fade away, as these things usually do. And we are just going to wait for that to happen.”

Read that paragraph again. That’s how lawyers talk when they aren’t sure what the prosecutor has. (We will find out when U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White of New York concludes her investigation of charges that Mrs. Clinton played a role in the granting of certain pardons in return for political support in her senate run.)

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In the earliest days of her Senate job the sharpest criticism of Mrs. Clinton had to do, not with what she said, but how she looked. Freed of the campaign obligation to be attractive and friendly looking on the rope line she showed up for Senate duty with flat hair and no makeup. She was criticized for this. It made her campaign efforts to be attractive look phony, and left her looking like a rough tough hard-line boomer feminist babe, ready to lecture you on gender equity as she orders you to put out that cigarette.

Burned by the criticism, she started doing her makeup again, or having someone do it, and doing her hair or having someone do it, and tying a soft-pastel cashmere sweater around her shoulders and throat, as she did during the campaign. The sweater does for her what 20 years ago a sweater vest did for Dan Rather: warmed the image.

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Mrs. Clinton spoke at Yale this commencement season, and joked that she had one bit of advice: Pay attention to your hair, everyone else will. Her frustration was understandable. She is right that the media take an unusual interest in how she looks, but I don’t think the reason is that they are shallow and she is not. I think the reason is this: How she looks is what she shows, as opposed to how she thinks, which she has historically hidden. Paul Wellstone and Diane Feinstein tell you how they think, so no one obsesses about how they look.

Perhaps another reason for the media obsession is this. When caught off guard—not posing, not noticing the cameras, but daydreaming perhaps or thinking about something she has to do later, her face settles into a hardness, a pale blank thin-lipped ovoid that looks very, very angry.

Remember the videotape of Bill Clinton leaving Ron Brown’s funeral in Washington four years ago, and not knowing a camera was on him? He was chuckling and chatting as he walked out of the church. Then he saw the camera, put on a pained and stoic face, and wiped a nonexistent tear from his eye.

For some of us, that captured his essence.

That’s what Mrs. Clinton without makeup, with the hard un-posed unconscious look, does. The media think so too, which is one reason they’re always taking her picture.

But perhaps after this week’s Poughkeepsie Journal interview they’ll listen to her more, and learn as much. For the interview really reveals a level of aggression that had previously remained hidden, and there are reasons for the aggression. The first is that she feels it: This is her, this is her anger. The second is that she really does see those who disagree with her politically not as intellectually opposed, but as stubbornly obstructionist for personal reasons. They are flawed, thus their policies are flawed.

And the third reason she talks like this now is that she is moving forward, gaining ground by gaining attention, and starting to lead. She is breaking past the clutter to make an impression. Only two years ago when someone said that Mrs. Clinton will run for president, people scoffed. Now almost everyone on the American political scene wonders if she will move in 2004 or 2008.

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Her party is not star-heavy. It does not have a deep bench. She is very famous, and appeals to the Democratic base. It is a mistake to think Mrs. Clinton has achieved her ambitions, just as it is a mistake to think Mr. Clinton has. He wants to be the first First Spouse. It will be part of his legacy. And it’s a lot better than what he has now, which is speeches in tacky venues and hanging out at the diner.

Mrs. Clinton, by the way, said in the Poughkeepsie Journal interview that her husband does a lot of reading, and travels, and is “pursuing some of his philanthropic activities.” He does “great interviews” with schoolchildren in the neighborhood, and when the Girl Scouts come selling cookies “he buys 20 boxes.”

Will he be back in politics? “I think he’s had a good time and he hasn’t been wanting to be in the political mix because that’s not appropriate for him to do at this point.”

Note the last three little words.