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  •   Hillary Clinton Plays Coy, Wows New York

    Hillary Clinton
    First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, with Sen. Charles Schumer (D), speaks Wednesday in New York. (AFP)
    By Michael Grunwald
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, March 4, 1999; Page A6

    NEW YORK, March 3 Who knew the national news media took such a passionate interest in arts education? And since when do reporters care so deeply about women's participation in politics?

    Since today, it seems. Then again, Hillary Rodham Clinton's presence at an arts education awareness-raiser in Queens and a Democratic women's leadership fund-raiser in Manhattan might have had something to do with the massive media turnouts at both events. Journalists certainly care deeply about that particular woman's participation in politics.

    "One might ask: Why is this such an important event?" the first lady said with a mock-innocent grin during the fund-raiser. "Why are we all gathered here today?"

    As if she didn't know. The question of the day, of course, was whether the first lady plans to run for Senate in New York. The answer, for the record, remains: maybe. So on her first visit to the state since the speculation began about her political future here, the media gaggle was reduced mostly to parsing her speeches and pestering her allies. When she said she "thinks about the future in political terms," was that a hint? When she urged women to "get involved in the political process," was she talking about herself? Her long riff on how "politics is a noble calling," was that a sly way of saying it's calling her?

    "I don't want to play psychiatrist, but she did sound a little bit like she was convincing herself to run," suggested Elliot Spitzer, the state's newly elected attorney general.

    Clinton has said she is giving "careful thought" to the race to replace Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), and today her only public announcement on the topic was that she had no announcement to make. But she did engage in that time-honored political activity usually described as "sounding very much like a candidate," although most candidates don't have so many dark-suited men around them with earpieces and bomb-sniffing dogs.

    The other obvious difference between the first lady and most other politicians is the intense reactions she inspires. She is a confident and polished speaker, scanning the room from side to side, deftly alternating between hard-nosed policy and rousing emotion. But that alone cannot explain her rock-star appeal to fans like Rosaria Bonomo, 20, who nearly hyperventilated with excitement after snapping a photo of Clinton in her limo.

    "She is absolutely my role model," shrieked Bonomo, a community college student who works two part-time jobs and hopes to go into broadcasting or psychology someday. "She's so strong. She's so beautiful. And she stands by her man. I love everything about her."

    New York was President Clinton's second-best state in 1992 and third-best in 1996, but not everyone around here feels warmly toward him and his wife. As speculation about a Hillary Clinton candidacy has increased, her lead in a hypothetical Senate race against New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani (R) has dwindled. According to a new poll by Marist College's Institute for Public Opinion, Hillary Clinton leads the mayor 50 percent to 46 percent, down from 49 percent to 38 percent two weeks ago.

    Kathy Ray, a librarian who stood outside a Queens junior high school to protest the first lady's visit, says the Clintons have driven her out of the Democratic Party. "I know she has a lot of support, but I'd hate to see her get a Senate seat as a payoff for keeping her mouth shut about her husband," she said. "That man just lies and lies. And she just sits there aiding and abetting him."

    But that was a minority view at her two events today.

    First, Clinton came to Community District No. 25 to release a study heralding the benefits of arts education, one of her pet issues. In the early 1990s, the district had almost no arts programs to speak of, and no music program whatsoever. Now it has a $4.7 million arts budget, with impressive student ceramics projects and pencil drawings posted all over the hallways, and has produced the second-highest math and reading scores in the city as well.

    A miffed Giuliani said today that federal dollars had nothing to do with District 25's arts program. But nobody else talked about that, or about the chronic school overcrowding here, or about the data in the first lady's own report revealing that the Illinois district where she attended school spends three times as much per pupil as District 25. This was the first lady's day. She quoted Winston Churchill. She said "Mr. Holland's Opus" was "a wonderful movie." She recalled lip-syncing in high school chorus because she was tone-deaf. The crowd loved it.

    "New York is a town that thrives on excitement, and she's exciting," said Jeff Dobbs, a dance teacher in Queens whose fourth-graders performed their "Love and Kindness Dance" for the first lady. "It really validates what we're doing to see her here."

    Then it was off to the opulent Grand Ballroom in the Plaza, to address the party's Women's Leadership Forum. The group expected 500 donors at $150 to $10,000 a pop, but after the Hillary-for-Senate frenzy started, the guest list grew to 900, with another 300 on a wait list. Introducing the first lady, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he hoped she could make her decision in a "nonfrenzied atmosphere." But that was not what ensued when he asked the crowd: "Don't you think it's time for a woman to represent New York in the U.S. Senate?"

    Then Clinton spoke about the importance of public service, and women's responsibility to get involved in politics. She shared her ideas about Social Security, Medicare, class sizes and a patients' bill of rights. "The issue is not what we have done, but what we will do," she said, sounding very much like a candidate.

    She will be in Manhattan again tomorrow, first at a United Nations event for International Women's Day, then to view an HBO documentary about women in sports. Rumor has it the national media are about to take a new interest in International Women's Day and women in sports.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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