Hand it to her. Hillary Clinton had a spectacular day yesterday as she stood on the edge of a rolling field on Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s upstate farm and announced that she may announce. It was as deft and clever a political presentation as I’ve seen, a marvel of spin and more. She was poised, articulate, both cool and warm and—a first for her—modest.
She was in fact a natural.
I watched all morning rapt as CNN and MSNBC went live, and I think I saw some of what the future will hold.
[Header] ‘Listening Tour’
The media presence was huge, a reported 200 journalists, and most if not all seemed transported. “The listening tour” they breathed as they filled time. “Hillary Clinton’s listening tour is about to begin.” It is of course not a listening tour but a talking tour aimed at defusing bombs and getting good press, but the reporters called it the magical listening tour because—well, because her people told them that’s what it is. And if there’s one thing her people know it’s them people.
It wasn’t only a lack of skepticism from the elite press but a presence of enthusiasm. CNN’s Bruce Morton said of the day: “It’s really the voters’ show. . . . The point is to hear what they have to say.” But that was not the point, as he surely knew. MSNBC’s Chris Jansing made a sad-clown face and said of Mrs. Clinton’s candidacy, “It all began in the depths of her depression.” Ms. Jansing asked reporter Chip Reid how Hillary was feeling now—excited, nervous? Mr. Reid, reporting from the White House, said he thought the first lady was excited. “She’s running on Clinton time,” a now-happy Ms. Jansing said of Mrs. Clinton’s lateness.
Martin Kettle of London’s Guardian newspaper lightened things up just by answering questions. “Why are you here?” he was asked. “Hillary Clinton’s a world figyah!” he replied. Does she have star power? “Well she’s been well received in Britain—she has a huge stah following!”
Now we saw Mrs. Clinton walking, live, down a lane as she chatted with Sen. Moynihan in full, lanky gentleman-farmer-by-way-of-Harvard button-down shirt and khakis. He introduced her to the press—“Hi, Gabe!”—saying: “I hope she will go all the way. . . . I think she is going to win. . . . I think it will be wonderful for New York.”
Then Mrs. Clinton stepped forward—no notes, no text, standing behind a bare standup mike, looking exposed and undefended, a brave woman entering the arena, which is how her people wanted her to look. Surrounded by the huddling press she explained her candidacy.
“The last few months have been quite extraordinary for me,” she said. “I’m humbled and surprised to be standing here today.” She suggested she had in fact been drafted—hundreds of New Yorkers had come to her, and she listened to their excitement, and soon she too was excited by what she could do with them and for them. They e-mailed and sent notes and phoned. It would not have been gracious to ignore them. And so she will “spend the next few weeks and months listening.”
“I care deeply”, she said. “I am concerned that we work together to face the challenges that face New York and the people of New York.” She’ll be “listening hard, trying to figure out how to serve the people of New York.”
She said she wants to help improve education and health care, and specifically to help “the crown jewels, the teaching hospitals” of New York. Her husband has cut their federal funding. She has announced she opposes his move. Just watch, the Republican political consultant Jay Severin said yesterday: Mr. Clinton will announce a plan, she will oppose on the grounds it hurts New York, he will change his mind based on the eloquence of her arguments, and she will call news conferences announcing her triumph.
“I’ve been a tireless advocate all my life,” she said in a note of self-congratulation that was her one mistake of the day. Hearing how she’s worked so hard to help us reminded me of how the Clintons are always saying that they’ve devoted their lives to public service. When politicians say, “I’m in politics,” it may or may not be possible to trust them, but when they say, “I’m in public service,” you know you should flee.
The press threw softballs, and she neatly hit them deep into left and right, but the carpetbagger issue she hit out of the park. “It’s a fair question,” she said, conceding the obvious with grace. “I have some work to do to demonstrate that what I’m for is more important than where I’m from.” They must have worked for weeks on that one. (Mrs. Clinton did prep sessions in the White House this past weekend, and a Clinton supporter said she was excellent from the beginning.)
She said she takes seriously New Yorkers’ legitimate questions about what skills she’d bring to the state and to the Senate. She said in effect that she brings not a lack of ambition but a gift for advocacy.
She was disciplined. A question about Monica got the mantra response: I’m looking forward to meeting with New Yorkers. A question that might have been tough was rendered soft in the phrasing: How will she respond to charges regarding the $100,000 profit in cattle futures? She’s looking forward to creating a new future with New Yorkers.
The press was impressed.
Mrs. Clinton right now is doing two important things. First, she is nailing down her base. This means building excitement in the left wing of her party by convincing them that she is one of them and worth fighting for. Thus her blunt attack on vouchers the other day before the National Education Association. A year from now, when it matters, she will speak not as a “progressive” but as a moderate; her base, knowing the game, will not take offense. Yesterday’s speech was a departure, but Mrs. Clinton will be talking to the left for the next few months. This will garner renewed criticism, some of it fierce, from those who are not of the left. But that doesn’t matter, because of the second thing she is doing.
That is absorbing attacks, every day. For the next nine months or so she’ll be playing rope-a-dope, exhausting her foes by taking every blow they can throw. She’s doing this now because right now it doesn’t matter what is said of her. A year from now, when it matters, if New York’s pundits—the Dunleavies and Dowds, the Brookhisers and Breslins—are still attacking her, they will look obsessed and winded. She will look long suffering and glistening. The criticisms of ‘99 will be but a memory. Reporters will be reduced to covering her latest proposals. She knows this. Her people know this. It’s why, right now, they don’t mind attacks.
Yesterday was a very good day for Mrs. Clinton because it gave her wall-to-wall great coverage. But that may turn out to be good news for Republicans, in the same way that an alarm clock going off at the right time is good news. It rings, you hear it, you wake up and get dressed and stop dreaming and go to work.