Go Hillary!

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The Independent Culture
She stood by her

principles. She

stood by her man.

And now she's

standing for the

Senate. Or so it has

been rumoured.

Whatever you think

about Hillary, she is

probably the last

best hope for the

restoration of

dignity to the

Clinton name.

And to American

politics

Just when you thought that the epic of the President, his girlfriend, his wife and their lawyers had finally played itself out, White House Pictures has come out with an inspirational cliff-hanger of an epilogue. Will the wronged wife take to the campaign trail on her own account? Could she take her place in the very body that voted 50-50 to remove her husband from office? Will Bill, chastened puppy-dog that he is, redeem himself by cheering her on?

In short, will Hillary Rodham Clinton run for the US Senate? Without a pause to catch their breath, audiences across America are responding: "Yes, Yes and Yes! Go Girl!"

And the lady herself, the object of all this enthusiasm? When the clamour this week became too loud to ignore, she said she would think about it. Or rather, in the delicate wording of a statement issued late on Tuesday, "I will give careful thought to a potential candidacy in order to reach a decision later this year." America, agog for a new thrill after a rollercoaster year, must wait and see.

In this land of great opportunity and great projects, which agonises endlessly about the role of women in public life, there would be something both poetic and heroic about Hillary Clinton running for the Senate - which is exactly why the idea has taken wing. Back in November, when Daniel Pat Moynihan, the venerated Democratic senator for New York State, announced that he would not stand at the next election in two years' time, Mrs Clinton's name was not mentioned. To be sure, Moynihan's seat was considered a plum for any Democrat, but it would also be hard fought. The Democrats had just wrested the second New York Senate seat from the tenacious Republican senator, Alphonse d'Amato. The Republicans, and perhaps even Mr d'Amato himself, would be desperate to recoup the loss in 2000.

Mrs Clinton's name flashed on to the screens initially because she had been largely responsible for Al d'Amato's defeat, visiting New York repeatedly to raise funds and campaign for his Democratic rival. She had proved herself an accomplished campaigner, not just in New York but elsewhere, throughout last November's congressional elections, raising Democrats' spirits across the country at a time when the future of her husband's presidency - through no one's fault but his own - was in serious question.

What is more, New Yorkers had embraced her with huge enthusiasm at every level: from Democratic Party donors (a crucial constituency) to immigrant taxi-drivers, to suburban housewives, Mrs Clinton was admired for her self-starting toughness, her get-up-and-go, her resilience and independence. The leading lights of the Democratic Party, among them the New Jersey senator Robert Toricelli, noted this affinity and sowed the seed of the idea. After all, New York Democrats needed a celebrity and they needed a winner, and Mrs Clinton could be both.

Mrs Clinton initially kept a judicious silence - her husband was, after all, in the middle of being impeached for lying about an adulterous relationship with a White House trainee. Perhaps in frustration, or more probably because the idea was just too delicious to pass over, the bandwagon rolled of its own accord. One seasoned commentator ventured in The New York Times that a "dream contest" for the Senate in 2000 would be Hillary Clinton v Rudolph Giuliani: the tigress wife of the President of the United States versus the bulldog Republican mayor of New York City. That was it: so far as the media were concerned, the horses were already at the starting gate. Small matter that neither Mrs Clinton nor Mayor Giuliani had announced their intentions.

When Mr Clinton was acquitted last week and the Monica Lewinsky affair was consigned to the past, the Hillary-Rudy battle for New York, with its potential for glitz and personality and politics-to-the-death, filled the gap. What had begun as little more than a few quips over cocktails had developed a life of its own. Last weekend's television talk shows, which have thrived for a year on Bill and Monica, turned their attention to Hillary. With that came endorsements from all sides.

The White House chief of staff, John Podesta, surprised his interviewer by taking the question seriously and saying he thought that if she ran, she would win. So, no less surprisingly, did Pat Moynihan. A senator of the old school, who was rumoured to be not best pleased that Hillary Clinton might succeed him, and then to be miffed that she was taking so long to make up her mind, he said he thought she would be an excellent candidate and that she would win. The polls give her a margin of five points or more over Giuliani in a hypothetical contest.

Through this crescendo of wishful thinking there has been no suggestion at all that Mrs Clinton put herself in the frame for the New York Senate seat, still less that her husband put her up to it. Her political activity in recent years - with the one unhappy exception of her failed health service reform bill - has been to support her husband and Democratic candidates for Congress. Although she was known among her contemporaries at Yale as a formidable political activist on the left, she gave up campaigning on her own account when her husband first succeeded in his bid for political office in Arkansas, and became the family's main breadwinner instead.

Bill Clinton seems genuinely bemused by the prospect of his wife as senator, but by no means hostile. Answering questions from reporters during his visit to Mexico this week, he said he thought she would make "a terrific senator" if she chose to run, but that the decision had to be hers alone. He said that the thought had "never crossed her mind" before others started mentioning it, and that she had not had time to turn her attention to it - for reasons which he sensibly did not broach. He also said that if she did run, he would support her "enthusiastically" - the first tantalising hint that we could see Bill Clinton singing his wife's praises on the campaign trail next year, paying back some of the loyalty and conviction she has applied to getting him elected over more than two decades.

Mr Clinton's ramblings on the subject were almost the first spontaneous utterances he had made on any subject after a year in which his every syllable, dot and comma seemed to have been approved by a dozen lawyers before he spoke.

By yesterday, the spinmeisters at the White House - who know a good thing when they see one - started to play up the prospect. There was talk of how Mr Clinton saw a reversal of roles as a chance for "redemption", to make it up to his wife for all the hurt he had inflicted. More sceptical souls theorised that the togetherness of the Clintons on the mooted New York run provides a welcome carapace for them as they await some of the more gruesome sequels of the Monica Lewinsky affair: Monica's book, Monica's television interviews, Monica's promotional tour.

It is unprecedented for the First Lady to make a bid for public office - a thing none of her predecessors would have dreamt of - still less, except perhaps in the case of Eleanor Roosevelt, for her to be qualified for it. But in a revealing contribution to the question of his wife's prospects in New York, Mr Clinton said that she had not yet had time to talk to the people who thought she should run, and - "perhaps more important - to those who think he shouldn't".

No one doubts Mrs Clinton's stamina or her resilience. She has demonstrated both in ample measure over the years she has been in the White House, especially in the past year. She has proved, too, her capacity to fight, and she has no weaknesses in the field of policy. Unusually for a woman, especially a woman in American politics, she has surmounted the appearance factor. People listen to what she has to say now, without first appraising her hair, her make-up or her suit.

And boy, would she need that resilience. If she chose to run, she would face unpleasant questions of a personal and political kind. There would doubtless be men, and women, who would ask whether she had "failed" as a wife. Her political skill would be called into question, especially her plans for health reform which failed, in part, because of her naivete about the need for political consensus.

All the investigations of the past years would be revisited: the Whitewater land deal in Arkansas which lost money she invested; the spectacular gains she made on a cattle futures investment courtesy of a family friend; and the "Travelgate" affair in which she was blamed for the disbanding of the White House office travel staff.

Despite exhaustive investigations of each of these - and the formal questioning of Mrs Clinton on her role in Whitewater - no charges have been brought. The independent prosecutor, Kenneth Starr, even conceded during the Lewinsky investigation that his other Clinton inquiries had so far turned up nothing incriminating. Even if Mrs Clinton is in the clear, however, more of the mud may have stuck to her name than to that of her husband so far as money matters are concerned - if only because she was the lawyer and main investor in these ventures.

While this may presage a difficult and contentious campaign, there is no suggestion that Mrs Clinton would crumple. After all, what unknown horrors can a political campaign hold compared to those of learning of your husband's infidelity, detail by gruesome detail, in the full glare of the world's media?

The two bigger questions about Mrs Clinton's candidacy are propriety and winnability. The propriety of a First Lady running for elected office while her husband is still president is obviously untested, but could produce tricky conflicts. Who pays for her transport and security? Is she travelling as First Lady or as candidate? What if her policy pitches conflict with those of her husband, who will be out campaigning not just for her, but for his current Vice-President, Al Gore?

The bigger question is whether Hillary can win. This winter she is riding as high as any First Lady ever. The voters, with the memory of her heroism in the Monica Lewinsky scandal fresh in their minds, are falling at her feet. Party fundraisers see dollar signs in her eyes. Almost two years, though, is a very, very long time in American politics. The mood of the country could change. If it turns against her husband, it could turn against her. New York could drop her as capriciously as it embraced her. She lacks any local power base, and her stated support for a Palestinian state last year alienated many Jewish voters.

For an "ordinary" candidate to fight and lose would be no dishonour. But the loss to Mrs Clinton from failure could be greater. To run for New York, she would be sacrificing the other opportunities - to raise money, to earn money, to support good causes - that will come her way when her term in the White House ends. To lose in New York could reduce her "price" and limit her opportunities. It could also close two other Senate doors that might open after her husband leaves office: in her home state of Illinois and her adopted state of Arkansas.

Just this once, though, the canny and cautious Mrs Clinton might throw caution to the wind, seize the moment, and run for New York. Hillary for senator against the backdrop of the Statue of Liberty. Bill leads the cheers. What a poster, what a campaign pitch, what a race. Run, Hillary, Run!

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