Hillary Rodham Clinton spent the last night of her summer vacation in a sports bar.
The Syracuse University football game played on big-screen televisions and Labatt Blue (that's just "Blue" for those who truly know their Canadian lagers) was on draft. It was supposed to be "Flip Night" here at Mulrooney's on West Lafayette Street--as in buy a drink, the bartender flips a coin, and if you call it right, the next one's on the house.
But tonight things were a little different at Mulrooney's, known as Mully's to the faithful. Invitation was by ticket--the tab ranged from $250 to $1,000--and the beer nuts and popcorn disappeared in favor of shrimp cocktail, bacon-wrapped scallops and delicate pastries served by waiters circulating with trays. After all, the president and his wife were in the house, attending the final fund-raising event of their vacation.
"I think it's good for her," Joe Rainone, the bar's owner, said of the first lady's venture into the kind of venue Wellesley College probably did not prepare her for. "She said she wants to be a person of the people." And New Yorkers, said Rainone--well, "when it comes to sports, they're nuts."
The 16-day vacation, which spanned Martha's Vineyard, the Hamptons and the Finger Lakes region of central New York, seemed stuffed with more fund-raising events than sightseeing, especially for the first lady, who appeared to be campaigning every step of the way. Tonight the Clintons were expected to rake in more than $150,000 for Hillary Clinton's Senate exploratory committee, bringing her total take during this "vacation" to around $800,000.
The Clintons took a motorcade to Mulrooney's after stopping at a $250-per-person event that drew an estimated 250 attendees. Its location--a gracious private estate in a ritzy section of nearby Cazenovia--was far more like the upscale, often celebrity-studded events in Martha's Vineyard and the posh Hamptons to which the Clintons have become accustomed.
Mulrooney's, by contrast, is in a part of Syracuse that was little more than abandoned warehouses and crumbling buildings a dozen years ago. The focus of an urban renewal project that turned the area into a downtown nighttime entertainment center, Armory Square now sports several bars and restaurants.
Though upscale by sports bar standards, Mulrooney's is a testosterone-heavy kind of place, the sort of joint where a significant percentage of the women in attendance are there because . . . it's a testosterone-heavy kind of place. A sign over one of the doorways reads "Size Matters." (Underneath, in much smaller type, a reference is made to 20-ounce glasses of draft beer.) It's a place where prissy drinks made in blenders are frowned upon. Fights--verbal, not physical--regularly break out on NFL Sundays over split loyalties between the Giants and the Jets. Next to the football helmets and lacrosse sticks and baseball gloves mounted on the walls is a huge buffalo head.
When he arrived, the president stopped to peruse said head, and apparently found it fascinating.
"All I can say is, this has been a very interesting night," he said. "[John] Duke [Kinney] and Terry [McAuliffe] throw a little party in an Irish bar, and the first thing I see when I walk in besides all of your smiling faces is a buffalo head. Now, I don't know what that means."
McAuliffe was the true host of the party, having recruited his high school buddy Rainone to provide the site. Frequently seen at the Clintons' side this week, McAuliffe is the Democratic fund-raiser who cosigned the note on the $1.7 million house they bought in suburban New York City this week. And when McAuliffe called Rainone a few weeks ago and asked to use the place, Rainone felt, in his own words, "like the luckiest guy alive."
"Jesus Christ Himself would probably have to walk through the door to be a bigger deal," Rainone said. "This is the most powerful man on the planet. Who's going to beat that?"
But tonight's event was not about the president. It was about the first lady, who is wandering into sensitive territory, given New Yorkers' relationship with their sports teams.
This the first lady learned firsthand when she blithely declared herself a Yankees fan earlier this summer, despite a lifelong affiliation with her hometown Chicago Cubs. ("I am a Cubs fan, but I needed an American League team," she explained to Katie Couric on the "Today" show in June.) Her comments made New York Mayor (and likely Clinton Senate opponent) Rudy Giuliani apoplectic. Giuliani, who wears his Yankees jacket in rain, sun, snow and the heat of photographers' flashbulbs, long ago positioned himself as the No. 1 Yankees fan.
The key issue these days, though, is when the first lady will declare. Not her candidacy, mind you, but her football loyalty. New Yorkers want to know: Will it be the Giants or the Jets?
"If she's a Bears fan, she's going to have to convert," Rainone said. "The football issue is very important here."
So important, it seems, that Rainone swore he was not going to turn off his bar televisions--which perpetually show sporting events--for the first lady's visit. After all, Syracuse kicked off its 1999 season with an 8 p.m. tilt against Toledo tonight, and SU football is not to be missed. And he was hoping the first lady would be savvy enough to time her remarks for halftime, so "we can turn off the TVs and nobody will get upset."
But it wasn't to be. The televisions clicked off when McAuliffe began introducing the Clintons--and the game was still in the first half. "What a great night," McAuliffe said. "Syracuse is up 7-0 . . ."
The crowd--nearly 400 strong--immediately interrupted.
"Fourteen!" they shouted, correcting his outdated Syracuse score. "Fourteen!"
They could only hope the first lady was taking note.
CAPTION: Hillary Clinton is hugged by Democratic money mogul Terry McAuliffe last night at Mulrooney's sports bar in Syracuse, N.Y.
CAPTION: Joe Rainone rolls out the welcome mat: "Jesus Christ Himself would probably have to walk through the door to be a bigger deal."
CAPTION: Chris Orr and Stacy Tobin of Syracuse's WSTM-TV interview Rainone.