Dispatches From the Clinton-Lazio Race

Heee-la-reee’s People

Long Island, N.Y., July 20—Having weathered the “F**king J*w b*stard” flap early this week—as any moron could have predicted—candidate Hillary Clinton busies herself handing out trays of lunch to senior citizens at the Ridgewood-Bushwick Senior Center Picnic. Sponsored by the Brooklyn Senior Center and Assemblyman Vito Lopez, the picnic sprawls all over the fields of the Sunken Meadows State Park in Long Island. The senior center—”a day camp for seniors”—provides hot lunches, dancing, bingo, and meals on wheels for Brooklyn’s elderly. Its members, along with those of many other Brooklyn and Queens senior centers, are out 4,000 strong today to glimpse the first lady.

Her catering duties completed, Clinton shakes hands, holds hands, interlaces fingers, and waves as a throng of elderly voters, principally black and Hispanic, press in to hug and kiss her. They are generous and careful with one another, pulling their more frail companions into the coveted spots up next to the rails. Clinton slowly makes her way from the barbecue area to the makeshift bandstand, where funky octogenarians had been swing dancing in what can only be described as a GAP commercial on the set of Cocoon (“Everyone in sensible shoes!”). The well-wishers, many of whom speak no English, chant: “Heee-la-reee,” and a stray zealot beating out the three syllables on a drum follows the candidate.

As she greets each prospective voter, Clinton’s eyes oscillate between surprised delight and absolute joy faster than a strobe light at Studio 54. Thus, are campaigns won or lost.

“Hello,” she wishes the woman in the blue terrycloth sun hat.

“I’m so glad to see you,” she tells the tall black man in the yellow senior center T-shirt. She sees the clutch of cameras and microphones and hastily tacks a course in the opposite direction. She will say nothing to the press here.

“I’m here to talk about issues,” she says to a tiny old lady. The lady says something joyful in Spanish, which probably translates as: “There are only two issues in this election. Hillary and everything else.”

“I need your help,” she tells an elderly man. Her eyes project surprised delight. When her handlers redirect her toward the bandstand, Clinton’s eyes settle on a third strobe light value: Fierce Concern. Whether the concern is for the 700,000 children in New York without health insurance or the polls that show her still tied with Rick Lazio, the look—unlike Lazio’s look of earnest complacency—projects compassion and intensity. It’s the sort of attention your mother paid to the festering place at the back of your heel where the splinter pieced your skin.

On her way to the bandstand, she stops pointedly to greet a middle-aged man in a yarmulke and long beard. Her eyes flip through their stations and settle on the Empathy Channel. “Hello,” she pauses. “How are you?” The man looks delighted.

I refuse to believe Clinton tagged a Baptist with the wrong racial epithet 26 years ago. You don’t graduate from Yale Law School throwing around inaccurate insults. Neither does the All-Star Jewish Team she assembled this week to vouch for her: Elie Wiesel, Charles Schumer, and Joe Eszterhas. Nor does her husband, but he doesn’t register very high on the Pinocchiometer. “No, she’s not a liar. That’s my job.”

So far, this race has been more of a POW interrogation of Mrs. Clinton than a political dialogue between the candidates. “She’s not even a New Yorker,” we accuse. “She didn’t tip the waitress,” we condemn. “She bungled health care,” we point out. And she justifies. “But he witnessed all that conflict as a child,” she protests. “But it’s a vast right-wing conspiracy,” she fumes. “But the translator told me Suha Arafat was saying Israelis poison Palestinian children with fruity breakfast cereals.” In a mailing this week, the state Republican Party chairman trashed Hillary for not sending Chelsea to school in New York. You don’t know whether to feel sorrier for the victim of the outrageous lies or yourself for having to endure the tedious rationalizations. Meanwhile, Lazio has holed up in D.C.—an unknown who apparently sees no percentage in becoming known.

In Clinton’s defense, she doesn’t exactly bend truth. She just misplaces it sometimes. Like the Rose law firm billing records, the truth will turn up someplace. Still, the seniors adore her. She delivers her brief remarks, and they shout Heelareee and wave blue banners and clap at the good bits. Social Security. Health Care. Medicare. Prescription drugs.

 As Clinton concludes, a woman shouts loudly: “You’ll win Hillary! You deserve it. You deserve it!” Her name is Mary Lovick and she’s from Brooklyn. She says she supports Hillary because she “respects seniors, and all people,” but mostly because she “stands by her husband and her vows” through thick and thin. She wonders how anyone could vote for Lazio. “He’s unknown to us.” As Clinton meets and greets her way from the bandstand back to her car, another aging voice in the crowd buttonholes me to insist that Clinton will win because “she deserves it.” It’s a fitting slogan, one that she should test market with senior citizens, who know that sometimes you win just by hanging in the longest. If this philosophy is accurate, and the spoils belong to whoever has been pummeled and pilloried, yet still remains standing, Hillary Clinton will be the next senator from New York. Not because she feels our pain, but because she survived her own.