If she can make it on Letterman?

Hillary seduces Dave, McCain burned by flag in S.C. and -- surprise! -- voters like pols who have nice families.

Published January 13, 2000 5:30PM (EST)

Hillary Rodham Clinton made her long-awaited "Late Show" appearance Wednesday night, and mostly aced it. Letterman ran a cordial interview with a quick pop quiz -- on New York's state bird, tree, lakes and counties -- and let Clinton rattle off her own top 10 list. "Reasons I, Hillary Clinton, finally decided to appear on 'The Late Show'" included "I lost a bet with Tipper" and "If Dan Quayle did it, how hard could it be?"

She passed the quiz with flying colors, though her achievement lost some of its luster once her spokesman hinted that she may have been given the questions before the show. And while she was mostly charming and at ease, she became the pursed-lipped equivocator of old when Letterman asked her about the plight of Elian Gonzalez, the 6-year-old Cuban boy caught in a tug-of-war between Fidel Castro and Miami exiles. She tried to have it both ways, saying his father's commitment mattered but his late mother's struggle to bring him to the United States also had to be "evaluated" (she couldn't quite say "valued"). But she pointedly did not side with her husband's attorney general, Janet Reno, who insists immigration law is clear: The boy must return to Cuba. Mostly she shined, and with this confidence builder behind her maybe she'll take up Lorne Michaels' offer and appear on "Saturday Night Live" next.

Dan Quayle never ran for office in New York: The latest Marist College poll has Clinton trailing Rudy Giuliani by 9 points, the exact margin of the last poll conducted in November.

Behind every man:
Thursday's Washington Times focuses on Al Gore's daughter and campaign advisor, Karenna Gore Schiff. The Times cites Talk magazine's upcoming profile titled "She lived through grunge," which reveals high school partying and marijuana use and reports that she is a living bridge between Generation X and her father. This sounds remarkably similar to the campaign role of John McCain's daughter, who accompanied her father to last year's MTV Music Awards and introduced him to pop music luminaries like Puff Daddy and the music of Trent Reznor.

It's who's got the biggest smile:
The race may come down to which candidate most loves his wife, boasts a luminous family history or can say he was a Vietnam POW or an NBA All-Star. In conversations with New Hampshire voters, the New York Times found that most of them select candidates not on the basis of any issue but on their character and personal history. And the images they hold of the candidates are the same ones the candidates have been trotting out for years: Bradley is a thoughtful maverick on and off the court; McCain tells it like it is and made great sacrifices for his country while imprisoned in Vietnam; Gore suffers from President Clinton's proximity but has White House experience under his belt; and George W. Bush is lauded for being, well, a member of the Bush family.

Among other responses from the font of American wisdom:

  • "He [Bush] has that Bill Clinton smirk that goes right through me."

  • "I kind of like Steve Forbes, but he is becoming kind of a joke. He keeps running, and nothing happens."

  • "I'm sorry. Alan Keyes is a very nice person and I hate to burst his bubble, but he's not going to be elected president."

  • "They're just that Campbell's Chicken Noodle-style type of family. The best
    feeling I'm going to get is, God Bless America! Clinton is out, and we've got the Bush family."

  • Regarding guess who: "I like his dad."

The Washington Post picked up on the same theme and examined Iowa voters' sense that Bradley feels distant and aloof, no matter what Bradley says. "Take a look, am I aloof? I'm not aloof at all. The best thing I like about politics is going out and meeting people." Now voters are adding another descriptor to Bradley's campaign persona: arrogance, because they saw him smirking at Gore's responses to debate questions.

Michael Powell followed up with a piece on the Zen of Bradley, which describes him as "running rather hard for the Democratic nomination but the sense conveyed is of a Zen Charles Kuralt. A diffident bard of our yearning come to seek votes." It features Bradley's theory of presidential campaigning: "Someone who runs for president has as his or her challenge to give the American people a narrative. Basically I think we're good people and if we have a narrative it will make us feel less empty and less isolated and less fearful." Of course that might lead another man to write the great American novel rather than run for president.

Anyone for a decent flag burning?
The issue that McCain and Bush would dearly like to avoid won't go away: What, if anything, would they do about the Confederate flag flying over the South Carolina statehouse?

Bush has pretty much stuck to his original answer: that South Carolinians have to decide. But when asked what he would do in Texas, the governor said he wouldn't allow the flag to fly there because of its symbolism. Consistency wasn't the forte of the other major GOP candidate. Sunday McCain said "the Confederate flag is offensive in many, many ways, as we all know. It's a symbol of racism and slavery. But I also understand how others do not view it in that fashion." Wednesday he read from a written statement: "I understand both sides. Some view it as a symbol of slavery, others view it as a symbol of heritage. Personally, I see the battle flag as a symbol of heritage." (Note to McCain: In parts of the South "heritage" has become a code word for a revisionist history of the Civil War that sees the North as greedy imperialists, the South as brave communitarians and African-American slaves as, well, kind of tough to explain away but why does everything have to be about them, anyway?) McCain, of course, was right about the flag issue the first time, but South Carolina is a must-win state for him and he needs conservative voters there. But his equivocating might cost him some of his tough-guy, plain-talking credibility with reporters and moderates.

The Arizona senator got some good news Wednesday as five New Hampshire papers endorsed him. Meanwhile, staunchly pro-life Sen. John Ashcroft endorsed Bush, despite the presence of far more zealous anti-abortion candidates in the race, and Friday Bush is slated to get the nod from the California GOP state and party chairs.

Campaign Sketchbook: Salon's own Jake Tapper can write and draw (plus he makes a mean coq au vin), and he depicts the 2000 campaign to date in Roll Call.

By Max Garrone

Max Garrone is Salon's Vice President for Operations.

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