The Breakfast Table

Handicapping Hillary

Dear Cathy,

Talking to you daily has really kept me on my toes, and I’m sorry to see our dialogue nearing its end. But it’s not over yet, and I still have time to respond to your most recent questions and maybe to pose a few more myself.

On the religion topic, I would personally like to see the kind of “creative combination of the modern and traditional” that you sketch and that American Reform Judaism seems to be moving towards. As a Catholic, I have been saying for years now that I would like to see the church move backward and forward at the same time. I think we should go back to something like the pre-Vatican II liturgy and make Catholic kids learn Latin and really learn the Bible. But at the same time we should allow married clergy, the ordination of women, and the toleration of homosexuality and birth control. But I say this whimsically because I don’t think very much of it is likely to happen. So I guess the answer to your question is that I hope such a creative synthesis will prove in fact to be the wave of the future, but I can’t say with any certainty or much confidence that it will be.

As for Hillary, I have been saying that if she runs Giuliani will win–in part because he is very popular and a strong candidate in his own right, and in part because he will benefit from a reaction against Hillary as a carpetbagger. In this view I may be unduly influenced by my mother’s frequent reminders that my father, a diehard Irish-Catholic Democrat, nonetheless voted against Bobby Kennedy in his New York State Senate campaign because he resented his carpetbagging opportunism. Hillary’s people should not underestimate the likelihood of similar responses to her candidacy. And Nita Lowey seems more deserving of the nomination anyway.

But there is another variable that a friend pointed out to me last night. It is by no means a given that Giuliani will actually get the Republican nomination. He supported Mario Cuomo against Pataki in the New York gubernatorial race, we should remember, and Pataki is now a very powerful player in New York politics. Pataki and Al D’Amato and friends could easily swing the party’s support behind a more conventionally conservative candidate than Giuliani. Against such a candidate, I believe, Hillary would have a better chance. So here’s how I see it. Hillary shouldn’t run, because Nita Lowey is more deserving. But if she does run, she’ll have a better chance against someone more conservative than Giuliani. As for me, I confess I like Rudy. But I really wish someone would talk Moynihan into one more term.

Finally, since this may well be my last message to you, I’d like to close on a slightly different note. As you know, I teach English and American literature when I am not busy doing the “Breakfast Table” for Slate, and in a recent class my sophomores and I discussed a poem that I think you as a feminist will find interesting. It’s by Emily Dickinson:

If ought she missed in Her new Day,
Of Amplitude, or Awe,
Or first Prospective–Or the Gold
In using, wear away,It lay unmentioned–as the Sea
Develop Pearl, and Weed,
But only to Himself–be known
The Fathoms they abide.

As I read it, briefly, this is the unmarried and decidedly unconventional Dickinson trying to imagine what it would be like to be part of a conventional marriage. With typical darkness of spirit, she imagines it as a role that is “honorable” but also full of silent– “umentioned–disappointment. For her, “to rise” in the eyes of society is to “drop” the artistic play that was so important to her. She implies that there would be some compensation in the depth and even richness–“pearl”–of her spiritual life, but these depths are also lonely and full of “weed.”

My students had a great time trying to decide who “Himself” is in the next-to-last line. God? The Husband? The sea? Any thoughts?

Hope all is well. This has really been a pleasure.