Hillary’s Bronx Cheer

Hillary’s Bronx Cheer 

NEW YORK, June 21—I suppose that attendees at a Democratic fund-raiser in Ohio pay their $300, eat their roast chicken, and listen to their Senate candidate. But at the Bronx County Democratic Dinner, Democrats pay their $300 so they can talk to one another. This congregation is very happy to have been called to worship but doesn’t really want to hear the sermons, even when spoken by tonight’s featured speaker, Hillary Clinton. Platitudes about how everyone should have “a place at the table” fall on deaf ears here. The Bronx Dems are already at the table, they’ve already eaten the main course, and they’re more interested in consuming gossip and dessert than what’s happening at the podium.

The Marina del Ray catering hall, the site of tonight’s event, lolls on a gray sweep of river and overlooks the Throg’s Neck Bridge. The banners, tables-for-12, clutches of red, white, and blue balloons are standard-issue, except that the signage features Coors and Corona beers in addition to the names of various Democratic assemblymen. On the parquet dance floor, a salsa band warms up, blowing raspberries into their horns. The Bronx Dems, who have generated, through some sort of grass-roots alchemy, a fiery local revival, have turned out 1,700 strong tonight. In previous years, I’m told, there were no more than 350 participants at this event. The room is crammed with persons of color, persons of yarmulke, persons of cornrow and cane. Orthodox rabbis chat with Hispanic assemblymen while women in pashminas check out the buffet table. It’s either a Mel Brooks movie or the same America that keeps interfering with Pat Buchanan’s REM sleep.

I belly up to the buffet behind Robert Novak, nearly unrecognizable without Crossfire’s theme music playing in the background. Plantains, paella, and pastrami. Oh my. A dinner of disenfranchised delights. My initial reaction is, God, even the food here is pandering, until I twig onto the fundamental injustice pervading this campaign: The preppy blond girl reaches out to minorities and is accused of pandering; the Republicans make the most token efforts to reach out and are lauded for their inclusiveness.

Reporters cluster around the 4-by-6 platform onto which about five TV cameras are jammed. Pretty staffers with jolly cruise-director smiles promise interviews with their assorted council- and assemblymen, and other untold fun on the Lido Deck. June Eisland, council member for the 11th Council District, introduces Council Member Adolfo Carrion for the 14th Council District, who belts out the national anthem. Rabbi Greenberg and Father Gorman, “a newly minted lawyer,” offer the invocation. It’s hard to decide which clergyman is more cut-to-the-chase, the priest who urges us to enjoy our bread while thinking of those who have none or the rabbi who blurts: “There is just one God. God bless all of you.” Next come remarks from Assemblymen Jeffrey Klein and Roberto Ramirez, who appears to be reading every other sentence from his speech. It seems Hillary has another campaign stop tonight, and everything is happening in bullet points.

Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer stands to introduce Hillary, and like the other speakers, he must shout to be heard over the chattering of the crowd. He locates Mrs. Clinton within the “tradition of Eleanor Roosevelt”—although it cannot be her campaign strategy to win a pedestal in the pantheon of First Ladies Who Were Loathed and Eventually Acquitted by History. Ferrer, shouting, accuses Republican candidate Rick Lazio of being “Newt Gingrich with a smile” and a “crypto-conservative,” and then introduces Mrs. Clinton.

Hillary shouts her speech. After the Bronx voices that precede her, her accent, as a colleague from the press observes, is “so wrong for New York.” Her voice rings with the wind and the flat places of Illinois. There is none of that bounce-off-the-buildings quality to her cadences, so familiar to the New Yorker. Like her opponent Rick Lazio, much of what Hillary says tonight is cut-and-paste material from previous speeches. She thanks Bill and Al for making this country what it is today. (A place where anyone can dream of growing up to someday have sex with the president.) She calls for better health care, for revamping Social Security and Medicare. She wins her first heartfelt applause when she promises to fight the gun lobby and the NRA. Then again when she promises to stand up for the right to choose, by repeating the bizarre statistic that the next Senate will likely confirm between two and four new Supreme Court justices. (Who runs the regressions showing that half the court plans to kick off over the next few years? And how does Justice Scalia, fourth most senior and doubtless planning to be on the court for at least 20 more years, feel about not making the cut?)

Then Hillary fires some buckshot over Lazio’s bow—noting that he has declined to march in this weekend’s Heritage of Pride parade down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan and that he may not support the bill treating attacks on gays as hate crimes. Hillary then says that the Republicans “want people to believe there are no differences” but will in actual fact bring “deficits and disinvestment” should they gain office. She warns against overcrowding in New York classrooms and the creeping reality of a digital divide. She excoriates the health insurance industry and finishes quickly. Maybe Hillary is yelling simply because she is stumping—preaching to the converted, getting the vote out. My guess is that this is less about passion than auditory Darwinism, because at least 20 percent of the audience has been talking, loudly, throughout her speech. Feisty Bronx Democrats, evidently, do not make the most rapt of audiences. They are either organizing for the next campaign or congratulating themselves on how well-organized they have been for this one.

The other explanation for Hillary’s volume is frustration. And not just because hell hath no fury. Hillary’s frustration can only be attributable to the fact that she is a smart, talented, ambitious woman who is loathed for no discernible reason. Like her husband, she is driven, savvy, and passionate. But unlike her husband, no one will give her a break. Poor Mrs. Clinton has reinvented herself several times over the past three months. (Listening Hillary was replaced by Soccer Mom Hillary, who has now given way to Attack Hillary.) (Batteries sold separately.) But nothing seems to be working.

The polls here continue to show Hillary and Lazio in a dead heat. It seems the Republicans could have run Giuliani, Lazio, or Gilligan for Senate and it wouldn’t much matter. Hillary Clinton is running against herself, or at least against the various selves many New Yorkers have come to loathe. Interestingly, few of them can truly articulate why they loathe her. Whether it’s Carpetbagger Hillary, Blond Ambition Hillary, or Feminist Visionary Hillary, she, personally, appears to be the single voting issue in this campaign.

I’d yell too.