Analysis: First Lady at Best in 'Listening Sessions'
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 12, 1999; Page A3
SYRACUSE, N.Y. – Hillary Rodham Clinton nods her head rhythmically, slowly, like a passenger on a bus, as her hosts at a gear factory tell her about building partnerships and empowering workers and the importance of technical training. Her eyes do not glaze over. She takes dutiful notes. Her nods seem to say: Yes. You're so right. I hear that all the time. "You know, technical training is an issue I care a great deal about," she finally says out loud. "I think it's something we're not paying nearly enough attention to as a nation."
To prepare for a historic Senate race in an unfamiliar state, the first lady is spending her summer "listening to New Yorkers." She started her statewide "listening tour" last week, with well-received "listening events" in Oneonta, Cooperstown, Utica, Rome and Syracuse. She will do more listening this week in Westchester and Long Island. Her campaign spokesman, Howard Wolfson, answers most questions about her plans with the same mantra: "She wants to listen to New Yorkers in small groups and learn about the issues that matter to them most."
There is more to these "listening sessions" than mere listening; the first lady is also launching a campaign, with a media mob recording every moment of her supposedly intimate forums, and she is talking, too, starting to tell New Yorkers where she stands. The fact is, Clinton's aides believe the "listening tour" is good politics, an appropriately humble way for a carpetbagger to signal that she does not presume to know all the answers for New York. It is also a way to highlight the first lady at her wonkiest best for the local news: empathetic, curious, engaged. As Wolfson recently put it: "The listening is the message."
But there is also a certain inconsistency at the heart of the tour. Clinton says she is traveling the state to find out what issues matter to New Yorkers. At the same time, she says she is considering the race because the issues that matter most to New Yorkers are the issues that matter most to her: education, health care, jobs. Those issues, not coincidentally, were the subjects of her first "listening sessions." So does she already know what issues matter here, or is she really listening to find out? At a news conference last Wednesday, right before she launched her tour, she sounded like she had done her listening homework.
"I have to confess, when I was first approached about this, I said, you know, that seems like a very strange idea," she replied to a question about her carpetbagger credentials. "But the more people talked to me, and the more I listened, and the more encouragement I got, and the more I really began to understand the issues that New Yorkers are concerned about from one end of the state to the other, I started to think maybe I could make a contribution."
So there has been something contrived about this tour, a sense that listening is being used as campaign performance art, through scenarios where Clinton learns that education is a key issue in New York by attending an "education listening session" at the state university at Oneonta with a hand-picked panel of teachers and school administrators. So far, she has not fielded any hostile questions, and she has not disagreed with anyone in her audiences. And as New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani (R) has pointed out, there is something odd about a candidate needing to take a tour to figure out what issues matter to the state she hopes to represent.
Still, there is something undeniably powerful about the sessions themselves. Clinton has attended hundreds of similar forums around the country, and as one of her advisers put it, she was born to run these events. She never interrupts, condescends or gets flustered. She seems to feel questioners' pain almost as well as her husband does. She is an expert validator, mmm-hmming while she listens, asking follow-up questions before commenting, congratulating panelists on their insight: "I'm really glad you raised that issue." Or: "I agree with you 100 percent." Or: "You've really put that dilemma in a very eloquent way."
Of course, these policy discussions also showcase the first lady's straight-A-student knowledge about issues, both national and New York issues. At the gear factory in Syracuse, she noted that if upstate New York were a separate state, it would rank 49th in job creation. At a health center in Cooperstown, she mentioned that New York is one of only two states that fund Medicaid through property taxes. At a business and technology center in Rome, she explained that New York has the nation's second-highest electric rates. At every stop, Clinton discussed dual-use technologies and loan forgiveness programs and telecommuter tax incentives and managed-care reimbursement formulas with an almost unfathomable ease.
"She's very attentive, and her knowledge about issues is just incredible," said John Clow, a State University of New York professor who told Clinton about his wife's battle with cancer during the Cooperstown event. "You can see that she's heard all of this many times before."
Often, she has, so the sessions sometimes feel staged to confirm what Clinton already knows. When a parent at her education forum in Oneonta bemoaned the lack of resources for young teachers, the first lady responded: "That's what I hear just about everywhere I go, in this state and all across the country." At her senior citizens' forum in Utica, Clinton asked her audience members to raise their hands if they knew someone who had trouble affording their prescription drugs: "People tell me that's a real serious issue for seniors right now." When she was asked about rural poverty in Cooperstown, she responded that she knew all about the issue because she used to live and work in Arkansas.
In fact, in the five "listening sessions," Clinton seemed truly surprised only once, when Hartwick College professor Larry Malone proposed a modern equivalent of the Rural Electrification Act to improve high-speed Internet access in sparsely populated areas. Even then, her surprise was not so much with his idea as with the way he presented it. "That's very interesting," Clinton said. "Nobody's ever mentioned it to me in quite that way."
The underlying message of the forums is that New York's key issues are the nation's key issues--the issues that Clinton, as she often puts it, has "spent my entire adult life working on."
Judith Hope, head of the Democratic Party in New York, acknowledged with a grin that Clinton had a pretty strong suspicion of the issues that matter to New Yorkers even before she started her listening tour. The tour, Hope said, is a "brilliant" way to remind New Yorkers that those are Hillary Clinton issues and to figure out the New York nuances.
"She's being proven right, don't you think?" Hope said. "This whole listening tour will reconfirm that the issues she cares about are the issues New York cares about."
Jan Laytham, the owner of two radio stations in Oneonta, is the kind of voter Clinton is trying to convince of that, a political independent who complains without prompting that only 2 percent of the nation's radio stations are owned by women. After listening to the first lady listen to New Yorkers, Laytham said she'll be voting Democratic.
"You don't have to be from upstate New York to help people in upstate New York," she said. "She cares about education and health care and women's rights. Who cares where she lives?"
Then again, if America's key issues are no different from New York's key issues, Clinton still needs to find an answer to the question even she admits is nagging at her candidacy: Why New York? Leon Kalmus, a retired surveyor who attended the Cooperstown event, says the answers are obvious: She's a politician. She's looking for a job. Why not New York?
"Come on, she didn't come here to listen," said Kalmus, a registered Democrat. "She came here to talk. She came here to campaign. I don't have any illusions about that."
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