Dispatches From the Clinton-Lazio Race

Hillary’s Choice 

NEW YORK, Oct. 17—It’s lunch time in Manhattan, and 700 or so women are lunching on what looks to be chicken. It looks to be tasty, too, from the balcony, but then there’s something about the Waldorf Astoria that makes even the upholstery on the chairs look tasty. Mmmmmmm. Upholstery …

Hillary Clinton and Caroline Kennedy are speaking at a lunch for New York Women for Hillary, and there are only 21 days left in this race to the Senate.

The polls are showing that Hillary has gained a slight lead over her opponent, Rick Lazio, and that she has made significant inroads into what has, until now, been Lazioland—Republicans in Upstate New York, and suburban white women. In a room teeming with white women, Hillary offers a modified version of the “choice” speech she’s been using on the stump.

Kennedy speaks first and the comparisons are inescapable. Both she and Hillary are famous. Both are lawyers. Both are working mothers who take great pride in having raised normal children. Both live under the shadow of a larger-than-life president.

It’s just that Kennedy seems to like living there.

Caroline Kennedy refers, in her brief remarks, to her father (twice) and to her Uncle Teddy (twice). As she did in her speech at the Democratic convention in L.A., Kennedy somehow manages to diminish her own achievements by focusing on the greatness of the men in her life. As intelligent, accomplished, and educated as Hillary, she demonstrates yet again that public life is a struggle for her. She smiles when she is most in earnest. Her awkwardness makes your head hurt. And she reads her speech like an airplane hostage at gunpoint.

Hillary delivers her speech like the president of the Harvard debate team. It is not about Bill Clinton. In fact it’s not about anyone famous, including Hillary. Instead, it’s about the vast soup of choices from which we construct our lives. Hillary’s “choice” speech is an interesting amalgam of feminism, liberalism, and self-justification. She opens by telling the assembled crowd that there is no more important issue in this Senate campaign than choice. They explode into applause, but she interrupts them to explain that “choice” isn’t merely about abortion, but implicates a “Revolution of Choice” that has changed the lives of every woman present. She refers to their professional, familial, and other choices, and says something that sounds rhetorical, but is in fact quite radical: She says that for the first time in history, “women are being recognized for their own dignity and integrity” and “respected for the choices we make.” Amazing words from a woman who is loathed by half the electorate for no reason other than the choices she makes.

Hillary takes a moment to celebrate the women in the room who have broken the glass ceiling in academia, in the military, in politics, and in fire departments (!), then smoothly sews the choices these women have made into another celebration—of the “legislative and judicial decisions” that have created an “atmosphere of choice.” She explains that she chose to run for the Senate, over a friend’s offer to head up an international foundation, because “so much of what I hope for women can be achieved in Congress.”

And then she ticks off her programmatic initiatives for women. She talks about health care and education (she is for “choice” but not for vouchers) and why she is against privatizing Social Security and for prescription drug benefits. She explains why she is against squandering the budget surplus, saving most of her passion for protecting the environment and regulating guns. Then she circles back to choice. She affirms that “we are voting on the future of the Supreme Court” and addresses Rick Lazio’s recent claim that his favorite sitting justice is Sandra Day O’Connor. She points out that Lazio’s position on abortion could not be more different than O’Connor’s, adding that earlier in the campaign, Lazio named O’Connor and Scalia as his favorite justices.

Now, putting aside the absurdity of the notion that one should have a “favorite” Supreme Court justice the way kids have favorite baseball cards (“Aw c’mon Joey, I already have two Souters, and Kennedy is my favorite“), it seems unfair to beat up on Lazio for having made a different choice than hers for favorites. Still, since “choice” is the theme of Hillary’s speech, she takes her stand on abortion and moves on to a few personal reflections. She muses over the fragility of life, as experienced in Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan’s death last night.

Then Hillary waxes cerebral and—in truth—wistful, musing that public service is about one main thing: the commitment to creating the best possible circumstances in which people can make choices. She contrasts Lazio’s “politics of finger-pointing and personal destruction” with the public service tradition of personal choice: the choice to try to make a difference, the choice to “work on ourselves,” the choice to see poverty. She concludes that poverty is about “making tough choices,” and that this election is about “a lot of choices.”

At first blush, as a thematic vehicle, the idea of “choice” is so … well, so Republican. Dubya is for choice—vouchers, Social Security investment. Choice is what you get, according to Dubya, when you renounce Big Government (which is bad, according to Dubya, except for when it’s good).

But Hillary is celebrating choice these days and not the choices made by markets, but choices made by individuals. I do not catch the number of times she says it today, but her second TV debate last week with Lazio shows that her fondness for the word is not limited to female audiences. In response to moderator Marcia Kramer’s question about New Yorkers who are desperate to know, “why, after all the revelations of the past few years, and because you are such a role model, why you stayed with your husband?” Hillary offered a very uneasy disclaimer and then stated that:

For my entire life I have worked to ensure women could have the choices they could make in their own lives that were right for them. I have made my choices. I am here with my daughter of whom I am very proud. We have a family that means a lot to us. The choices I have made in my life are right for me. I cannot talk about anybody else’s choice. I can only say that mine are rooted in my religious faith, in my strong sense of family, and in what I believe is right and important.

She even got Lazio to hum along with the chorus as he responded: “I think this was Mrs. Clinton’s choice and I respect whatever choice that she makes.”

Now, the cynical interpretation of Hillary’s word, um … choice, is that it’s merely a sort of subtextual shriek to woman voters that she favors abortion. But there is something more profound at play under Hillary’s use of a choice theme to woo the white women who will likely decide this race. Because the idea of “choices” is only as compelling as your conviction that you have the power to make them.

Hillary, whether she likes it or not, is the voting issue for most New Yorkers. (Lazio recently released a fund-raising letter summarizing his qualifications as, “I’m running against Hillary Rodham Clinton.”) And for all that she maintains that this election is not about Hillary, she remains one of the most polarizing figures in the national consciousness.

What first polarized this country about Hillary Rodham Clinton? As I recall it, it was her choice to keep her maiden name. It was her choice to be involved at a policy level in her husband’s administration. It was her choice to stand by him after Cigargate, and her choice to run for office, while still first lady. It was her choice to do so in New York. Usually, when we hate someone in this country, it’s for something they are. But we hate Hillary for her choices.

The feminist reading of all this is that we are still so uneasy with female power that we punish women for making choices at all. Dick Cheney’s a carpetbagger. No one hates him. It’s very our uneasiness with women’s power to choose that makes Laura Bush preface every speech with the caveat that she is not making these speeches by choice.

The more troubling possibility is that it’s women voters who have the hardest time with Hillary’s choices because we are so fouled up about our own. We like her best when she is cornered. Hillary’s popularity with women voters soared for the first time in this election when, in their first televised debate, Rick Lazio rushed her lectern, brandishing a proposed soft-money agreement, and gave her no choice but to look terrified. That one act may have tipped the scales in this election.

Why do women hate Hillary’s choices so much? Because we wish they were ours? Because she ditched his career to promote her own. Because she messed with the idealized ideas we have about first ladies. Because she’s too weak to leave him. Because she’s too tough to be a woman. Because this morning, she had the chutzpah to address the Council on Foreign Relations on foreign policy, claiming an international role for New York senators.

Is it possible that we hate Hillary not only because of the choices she’s made but because she keeps shamelessly and unrepentantly exercising her power to choose?

If that is the case, Hillary’s “choice” speech is a brilliant piece of political calculation. She has finally gamed us, not by defending her choices, but by urging, whispering, and wheedling us to get off our duffs and exercise some of our own.

Photograph of Hillary Clinton on the Slate Table of Contents by Brad Rickerby/Reuters.