Run, Hillary, run

The first lady should run for the Senate, so she can be asked the ethical questions she's so far evaded.

Published July 12, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

In her terrible book "It Takes a Village," Hillary Clinton gave us an intimate glimpse of the political and decision-making process as it played out chez Clinton in the crucial gubernatorial year of 1986. It was beginning to look like a tough race, and the question became, How to break it to Miss Chelsea?

One night at the dinner table, I told her: "You know, Daddy is going to run for governor again. If he wins, we would keep living in this house, and he would keep trying to help people. But first we have to have an election.

Skipping lightly over the remainder of that nauseating passage (Hillary Clinton proposed a "role-playing" dinner-table game in which her 6-year-old daughter had to play Gov. Clinton, and then sit and listen to hypothetical abuse of the candidate, until she cried, which she repeatedly did) one notes that the "priorities" and "agenda" haven't altered all that much. First one has to have a house, and then one has to have an election. In between, Daddy -- most ably seconded by Mummy -- makes like he wants to help people.

In almost two decades of unstinting service to the Nation magazine, I have never quite penetrated to the pulsing quick and core of New York liberalism. I understand dimly that Hillary Clinton must have somewhere to live. I also quite see that she must have something to do, and somewhere to sit. I haven't yet had it convincingly explained to me why this is all up to us, and why a nomination to the United States Senate is not just hers for the asking, but hers even without the asking.

Over the Independence Day weekend, I couldn't open a newspaper without being prompted again to wonder if I had missed something. The July 3 New York Times advised me solemnly of the predicament of the soon-to-be homeless Clinton, as it appeared from the vantage of Westchester County:

The $3.8 million North Salem house that Mrs. Clinton likes is owned by James Kohlberg, of Kohlberg & Company, an investment firm he started with his father, Jerome Kohlberg, a founder of the leveraged buyout firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Company. Jerome Kohlberg is also a Democratic contributor.

Then on July 4, Parade magazine brought me a carefully posed cover story, in garish color, about the first lady's current squat. Pegged to the bicentennial of the White House, and ostensibly written by Hillary herself, it was pitched with an affecting folksiness. ("I almost fell off of my chair ... On my birthday in 1995, I came down the formal staircase to find the entry hall transformed into a 1950s-style living room -- replete with plastic-covered divans and rabbit ears on top of a big old TV!")

But the grand historical note has also to be struck, even in these pulp pieces: "No one can enter the Lincoln Bedroom without thinking of President Lincoln drafting the Emancipation Proclamation. Or walk into the Map Room without picturing FDR commanding our forces during World War II ... The president and I know that we are only short-term tenants."

Again, one catches that thin, high note of accommodation anxiety. Of course, when the president and Mrs. Clinton were asked who they had had to stay overnight in the Lincoln bedroom, the humble "tenants" replied that it was nobody's business but their own. It took the Center for Public Integrity several months of intrusive questioning to establish that almost 80 high-tab donors had been entertained there, for as much as $400,000 a night. (It was, however, stipulated that unmarried contributors could not sleep together. Excuse me, but there are still some standards.)

The map room and the Roosevelt room were used, "privately" to be sure, to receive John Huang and Roger Tamraz and other cats, who saw the president rather more often than his own Cabinet did. (He convened two Cabinet meetings last year, both of them devoted to his own self-pitying explanation of the Lewinsky affair.)

Also in the map room, he had his blood drawn for the DNA match that showed him a liar. Hillary Clinton does not say what emotions overwhelm the visitor to the Oval Office, scene of so many special moments between the president and Monica Lewinsky, but Parade magazine makes up for this reticence by printing a photograph of the president himself in this hallowed room. He is shown embracing his daughter.

So let me see if I have this right. The Kohlberg family is looking for an impeccable tenant, and may lower the rent for a distinguished customer, while Clinton is soliciting a bargain from the family firm that brought us "Barbarians at the Gate" and the buyout of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. Was it for this that she banned, or fondly imagined she had banned, all smoking materials from the White House?

I leave to one side the much-hyped question of the first lady using military airplanes and reimbursing the taxpayer at a phony rate: After the travel office scandal and the rip-offs cited above one must not strain at swallowing a gnat or two. I think that I hope she runs. I want to ask her several questions, and her backers one question.

To her: Was it not your idea to bring back Dick Morris and employ him in the White House under a code name? Was it not your idea to put health care into the hands of the HMOs? Do you still maintain that people dislike you because you are "from" Arkansas? Did you watch the NBC interview with Juanita Broaddrick? Did your daughter watch it? What did you think? (And don't dare, after what you have allowed, to accuse anyone of "dragging" Chelsea into anything.) How come the Chinese government made out a check, through an intermediary, to your chief of staff? Are you still in favor of sexual abstinence for teenagers? What did you mean when you told Larry King that "there is no left in the Clinton White House?" Have you recently reviewed the client list of Harold Ickes?

Oh, and the question to her New York backers? Why haven't you asked these questions? Well, I mean to say, after all she's done for us ... This is the servility of mind -- from the applause for privately financed housing to the indulgence of publicly financed Air Force jets -- that characterizes the banana republic. By the debased standards of today's New York liberalism, then, Hillary is, in both senses, home-free.

By Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens is a regular contributor to Vanity Fair, the Nation and Salon News.

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Bill Clinton Hillary Rodham Clinton