According to polls, Hillary Clinton holds an early and significant lead among Democratic voters (43%, compared with 22% for Barack Obama in a Fox News poll 10 days ago). She is of course the killer fund-raiser of the race, with one of her contributors crowing this week that she’ll raise more money than all the other candidates combined. So let’s call her the likely Democratic nominee, even though Mr. Obama hasn’t even announced yet. On the Republican side it’s Giuliani time, with Fox News putting him at 34% among GOP voters and John McCain coming in second with 22%. He hasn’t announced yet either, but this week he filed all the papers.
So at the moment, and with keen awareness that not a vote has been cast, it is possible to say the state of New York is poised to become the home of both major-party presidential candidates. This is not unprecedented, but it is unusual. It happened in 1904, when New York was the home of the hero of Oyster Bay, President Theodore Roosevelt, and reluctant Democratic nominee Alton Parker, a judge on New York’s Court of Appeals, who carried only the solid South. It happened again in New York in 1944, when Teddy’s cousin Franklin sought a fourth term against the bland and mustachioed Thomas Dewey, the New York district attorney unforgettably labeled by Teddy’s daughter, the chilly and amusing Alice Roosevelt Longworth, “the little man on the wedding cake.” In 1920 both the Democratic and Republican nominees were from Ohio; Sen. Warren Harding, who seemed boring but proved sprightly, landslided Democrat James Cox, a dreamy Wilsonian who thought America wished to hear more about the League of Nations. (Illinois was the first state to enjoy dual nominees when Republican Abraham Lincoln beat Stephen Douglas, the official but not the only Democratic candidate that year.)
Right now New York, our beloved, overtaxed, postindustrial state, is the red-hot center of the political map.
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These are exciting times, with rival gangs roaming uptown and down looking for money and support. The styles of the two tongs are different. Hillary’s people are cool and give away nothing; they’re all business. They’re like a captain from an army about to crush you. Why should he bother to charm you?
Rudy’s people are more like old-style New Yorkers: They are pugnacious, and if you express reservations about their guy, they give you the chin. They don’t make the case or try to persuade; they tilt their chins up and try to argue you into conceding he can win. As if they think it’s all on them, and if they can win the conversation, he will win the nomination.
The city, as we say in the state, is full of people who’ve met both candidates, know them, had dealings with them. The other night I bumped into a veteran journalist who talked about Iran. The journalist said, “I wrote Hillary and gave her good advice but she didn’t write back!” I went to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee speech Mrs. Clinton gave last week, and the higher geopolitical meanings of the event aside, the crowd ate dinner as she spoke and didn’t seem unduly impressed. They’d seen her before and would see her again.
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What a boon the race is for the tabloid press and the mainstream media: If New York’s at the center, they’re at the center. The tabloids had fun with the formal debut, via a Harper’s Bazaar interview, of Judi Giuliani. The Post famously front-paged The Kiss, a posed and mildly creepy smooch—it was a bigger story in New York than the mad astronaut—and her recent reflections that the presidential race is “a journey” they can make “together.” It left one observer—that would be me—saying, “Oh no, please no.” In politics, in the world of political life, the proper attitude of a third wife is modesty.
Mrs. Clinton also has an interesting spouse.
Mr. Giuliani and Mrs. Clinton seem in a way to represent two different New Yorks, two different templates of what it is to be a New Yorker. Rudy as mayor: An embattled pol bickering with reporters trying to bait him. A Western European ethnic from the outer boroughs with a slight hunch to his shoulders. He does the chin too, or did. His people probably got it from him. He was the government-prosecutor son of a Brooklyn guy, a Republican in a Democratic town, a man who had ideas—convictions!—about how to cut crime and stop the long slide, and who had to move entire establishments (and if there’s one thing New York knows how to make, it’s establishments) to get his way. And he pretty much did, winning progress and enmity along the way. On 9/10/01 he was a bum, on 9/11 he was a man, and on 9/12 he was a hero. Life can change, shift, upend in an instant.
Mrs. Clinton is not ethnic or outer-borough. She’s suburban, middle class; she was raised in a handsome town in Illinois and lived an adulthood in Arkansas and Washington. She founded the original war room, is called “The Warrior” by some of her staff, has been fierce and combative in private, but obscures it all now under clouds of pink scarves. She literally hides the chin.
Both candidates seem now almost…jarringly happy. As if they’ve arrived and it’s good, which they have and it is. But good fortune distances. They are both rich now, and both have spent the past six years being lauded and praised. In both it seems to have softened their edges—the easy, ready smile. We’ll see if it’s softened their heads.
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But it is significant that in Mrs. Clinton’s case, for the past 30 years, from 1978 through 2007—which is to say throughout most, almost all, of her adulthood—her view of America, and of American life, came through the tinted window of a limousine. (Now the view is, mostly, through the tinted window of an SUV.)
From first lady of Arkansas through first lady of the United States to U.S. senator, her life has been eased and cosseted by staff—by aides, drivers, cooks, Secret Service, etc. Her life has been lived within a motorcade. And so she didn’t have to worry about crime, the cost of things, the culture. Status incubates. Rudy Giuliani was fighting a deterioration she didn’t have to face. That’s a big difference. It’s the difference between the New Yorker in the subway and the Wall Street titan in the town car.