At a recent dinner party in Manhattan, the subject inevitably came around to Hillary Rodham Clinton's Senate candidacy.
Our host, a television executive, declared unequivocably, "Well, she's the best thing that could happen for women and New York. Have you ever heard her speak? She carries the room."
Another guest responded, "I don't get her marriage, but I do think she should be senator." She turned to me. "What do you think, Wendy?"
I smiled nonchalantly. "I've met her a number of times, and I do think she's very impressive." I knew better than to say, "I don't understand why Hillary Clinton's candidacy has become a fait accompli." And I knew that asking me, "What do you think?" was really a euphemism for "Don't you agree?"
New Yorkers don't especially like being told what to do. We get cranky that way. But now, with Clinton's filing last week to form an exploratory committee for a New York Senate race, it seems we've been targeted for takeover, and for Democrats, that means it's time to get with the program. This is steamroller politics, and it doesn't allow for choice or dissent. United we stand behind Mrs. Clinton, the anointed one.
Well, pardon me for ruining the party, but as a Democrat and a New Yorker, I'm more than a bit uncomfortable with the notion of a holding a coronation rather than a primary election.
It is interesting that this steamroller candidacy is plowing through, of all places, New York, home of the bigmouth. We are known to be people who have something to say about most things. Just ask the taxi drivers. They'll tell you they hate Rudy Giuliani or admire him because the city seems safer. But either way, they have an opinion. They're New Yorkers.
We're not people who get taken in by packaging, either. Look at our recent senators, Al D'Amato and Pat Moynihan. Whatever one thinks of their politics, these are characters straight out of Characterville. New York is a place of rough edges and larger-than-life personalities, whereas Mrs. Clinton, who when we first knew her as first lady seemed to vary herself all the time, has now created a stylized patina of cool strength.
This Hillary bandwagon is obviously a reflection of her staggering political stamina. Not many could survive the year she's had and commit to remaining in the public arena. She has a profound sense of public service and ambition, two basics for any candidate.
But the bandwagon is also rolling along to New York Democrats' longtime mantra, "Anyone but D'Amato." After endless years when no Democratic candidate came close to beating Al, Chuck Schumer's victory last year was almost a fairy tale come true. Now the fantasy of Schumer and Hillary together seems to some New York Democrats like the Mets and the Yankees both winning the pennant.
The question of the first lady's legislative track record seems irrelevant to the fantasizers. Bottom line, Schumer's calling card was his nine terms as a congressman. Mrs. Clinton's is her presumed ability to win. Whenever a liberal dinner party strays into a Hillary discussion, the conversation inevitably ends with, "But she can beat Giuliani." Never mind the fact that she's never held office. Never mind the question of why she suddenly deserves this office--and why New York. Besides, her experience as a single-minded advocate wouldn't necessarily translate well in a body where compromise is key.
But however raucous a Giuliani-Clinton race would be, the downside to this bypassing of the Democratic primary is clear. Whereas Democrats considering the presidential primary can truly debate the virtues of Bill Bradley versus Al Gore as their party's nominee--beyond the question of which is best equipped to take on the also apparently anointed George W. Bush--New York state Democrats will not have this privilege.
And there are other worthy candidates, or at least there would have been.
Take Nita Lowey, for instance. She's in her sixth term as a congresswoman from Westchester County. She has been an impressive advocate for women's health issues, education, the arts and gun control. Lowey, whom I met because of our mutual alma mater, Mount Holyoke College, called me this spring to say she was considering a run for the Senate only if Hillary didn't throw her hat into the ring. Hillary is, of course, better known than Lowey, so I'm sure all this makes political sense. But if Hillary moves on from the Senate to higher office, as her greatest fans hope, it wouldn't have hurt the New York Democratic Party to have had Nita Lowey as a veteran candidate. It also, frankly, wouldn't hurt Mrs. Clinton (or women in politics) for her to be one of the many capable girls and not a singular saint.
But to say such things about Mrs. Clinton brings instant retribution. (I'm afraid someone's calling me right now!)
That's what I found out last August when, in the middle of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, I wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times about Hillary. In the article, I questioned not her abilities but precisely why her intellect and strength--viewed by many as threatening at the beginning of her husband's presidency--were now being heralded as the second coming of Eleanor Roosevelt. This apparent change in perception, I believed, had to do with her surviving with grace one of the most traditional of feminine ordeals: the public humiliation of a woman scorned. My interest was that in an era of so-called "post liberation," the transformation of a woman from cold manipulator to icon of strength was accomplished in the most pre-liberated manner.
After expressing this view, I found myself in a script meeting with Miramax Chairman Harvey Weinstein. Before we got around to talking about my work, he mentioned my Hillary piece.
"Wendy, I thought you were a nice girl," he said, smiling. "What was that? You don't hurt a person when they're down." (It's rumored that Mrs. Clinton will be featured on the first cover of the Miramax- and Hearst-owned Talk magazine.)
I have always been under the impression that part of the democratic process was to say things. I didn't know that in matters concerning Mrs. Clinton there is a bit of a, pardon the expression, left-wing conspiracy. That can be seen in the nearly absolute lack of public discussion of any viable alternative candidates in New York. Moreover, at a recent awards luncheon in Manhattan honoring women in communications, Hillary Clinton (who was presenting an award to Katie Couric) was referred to as the "next Senator from New York." It is possible at that gala luncheon there were one or two women in need of a little communicating before they made that decision.
Of course for the New York press, a Giuliani-versus-Hillary race is the only one worth having. Tabloid reporters can hardly wait for Rudy to tell her to remember to say please and thank you, just as the mayor taught manners to taxi drivers. In the world of casting, Rudy and Hillary are headliners. They get star billing. Why bother having auditions with a primary? Just do as the big guns in Hollywood would. Call both their agents and offer them the parts.
My hope is that Mrs. Clinton will prove to be the spectacular candidate that every New York Democrat tells me she will be. My fear is that, especially in her adopted state, enforced silence breeds resentment. Steamroller politics could result in dissenting opinion being expressed in the voting booth in November 2000.
New York has always been a place where ambitious immigrants thrive. We pride ourselves on that. But we're nobody's fools, and we also pride ourselves on the possibility that the little guy, the working man or woman who makes good, can win. In this particular Senate primary, there are no little guys--just a national figure who's now studying the economy of Elmira and listening to the good people of Oneonta. I look forward to her visiting the Cheese Museum in Rome, N.Y.
I might even tag along for a nice piece of cheddar and to see how well she carries the room.
Wendy Wasserstein is a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and a New Yorker, born and bred.
CAPTION: What the first lady had to face near Oneonta, N.Y., last week.