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There are moments when I am still amazed that a first lady of the United States is scaling down her role, in her words, to run for the U.S. Senate. I don't know why I'm surprisedwe've all gotten used to the Clintons' dramas, to all the twists and turns on the hair-raising ride. But the idea that she would abandon her position, which is really a job, and an elevated one, and start hopping on government planes to come to my state and tell me what we need . . .
When, a year ago now, it became clear that she was going to run in New York I sat back in wonder, like everyone else.
I thought: For her to say to a state that she had no connection to, no history with, no previously demonstrated interest infor her to say to a state whose greatest city she has used for seven years as her own personal cash machine, tying up traffic and inconveniencing millions as she trolls, relentlessly, for campaign moneyfor her to say to this place full of gifted residents that she deserves to be its. senator is an act of such mad boomer selfishness and narcissism that even from the Clintons it was a thing of utter and breathtaking gall.
And then there came the moment when I realized: They're never going to leave. Other presidents and first ladies do their work, leave their imprint, and make a graceful exit, departing the stage and attempting to become, if they were not already, wise, high-minded, and fair. But the Clintonsthey'll stay until the last footlight fizzles and pops, and then we'll have to wrestle them to the floor of the stage.
I called afriend, a great liberal of the city, a Democrat of forty years, and caught her mid-sputter. "To think of all they've put us throughand now they won't even go away. Who are these people, and why do they think they are necessary to us?" Another, a journalist and Democrat, e-mailed from work when I asked her reaction. "This is how I feel: Lady, keep your hands off my state."
And they are Mrs. Clinton's base.
I was wonderfully angry those first few days, in the spring of '99. 1 asked everyone I bumped into what they thought, and no one assumed Mrs. Clinton's motives were elevated; there were no choruses of "She is concerned about us" or "She wants help." Conservatives said she was launching her candidacy to fill the vacuum in her life with our money and our freedom; liberals that she needs therapy after years with that brute, and New York makes a good couch; moderates assumed she needs a place to hang her hat while she ponders her next move.
But then I experienced what everyone experiences with a Clinton story. Within forty-eight hours I had absorbed the new reality and was calculating her prospects and imagining her strategy. It was now all . . . just a fact to me. Not an outrage, just a fact.
We have learned to absorb the Clintons and their many shocks; they have taught us to absorb the brazen, to factor it in and in time discount it. And I suspect they are fully aware of this, that they have learned a number of things in their life in politics, but one of the biggest is this: They can do anything. They are used to the tumbling rhythms of public acceptance: the gasps of shock, followed by the edgy discussion on Hardball followed by the earnest discussion on Wolf Blitzer followed by the enthusiastic discussion on Geraldo. The Clintons watch the news wheel turn, grinding down the pebbles in their path: Let 'em yell, let 'em send their anger into the air, where it dissipates. When they're done talking I'll still be here.
There is, always, something admirable in such human toughness. But never has the admirable been so fully wedded to the appalling, never in modern American political history has such tenacity and determination been marshaled to achieve such puny purpose: the mere continuance of Them. Would that they had marshaled their resources to help somebody or something elsetheir country, the poor, the national defense.
And of course she may well win. Republicans hope that in the rigors of the campaign her essential nature will emerge and, in the words of Grover Norquist, the soul of an East German border guard will pop out. They think her inner prison matron will escape and start disciplining the people on the rope lineNo pictures here, buddy, can't you see the sign? But I've seen her work rooms large and small, seen her on the campaign trail, and she will be a pro, articulate, smooth, and smiling. Babies laugh in her arms.
She is a star, and New York likes stars. She will have the passionate support of the unions and interest groups, and New York has unions and interest groups in abundance. She has a human shield in the Secret Service, a twelve-foot cordon of safety, and won't be as exposed as other candidates. She'll raise a lot of money with ease, especially money outside New York, and won't even have to spend it like other candidates because she'll put every cost she can on the public dime. "Mrs. Clinton says she doesn't want to fly on a government plane, but the Secret Service insists." "Mrs. Clinton says she didn't want the pool, but the Secret Service insists." "Mrs. Clinton says she doesn't like the Chanel body moisturizer, but the Secret Service insists."
There are those who say she isn't tough enough, that she's used to being treated like a queen and handled with kid gloves; she won't know how to put a game face on. But a game face is what she's been wearing for years, and she is plenty tough enough. One example speaks for many: In the 1990 Arkansas gubernatorial campaign she humiliated her husband's . . .