More Than Just A Kiss

A meeting with the wife of the leader of the Palestinian Authority is not normally on the tour of the "Three I's"--Ireland, Italy, and Israel--traditionally required of candidates courting the ethnic vote in New York. But if the candidate is also the First Lady, duty calls. Last week Hillary Clinton sat impassively at a West Bank ceremony while Suha Arafat accused Israel of poisoning Palestinian women and children in the occupied territories. She offered Mrs. Arafat the traditional peck on both cheeks. The picture of "the Kiss" was soon airing on every TV station in New York. SHAME ON HILLARY, blared the New York Post.

Navigating the shoals of New York politics is hard enough. Trying to do it while representing the United States as First Lady is an invitation to a shipwreck. Mrs. Clinton has been struggling in her double role. Last summer she first supported, then opposed, President Clinton's offer of clemency to some convicted Puerto Rican terrorists. Last week she took flak for airing some early TV ads paid for with "soft money" provided by the Democratic Party--the same widely criticized device used by her husband (as well as by the GOP) in the 1996 presidential campaign. As criticism mounts, the whispering has begun: will she decide not to run after all? Her aides insist she has no intention of backing out, but they acknowledge that the campaign of Hillary Clinton is stumbling before it even officially begins.

Mrs. Clinton's trip to the Middle East was an invitation to trouble. Sensing the worst, her advisers urged her not to go. But she felt obliged: she had made a commitment long before she began flirting with a Senate bid. Indeed, her desire to keep politics out of the trip was one reason she put off formally announcing her candidacy. Trying to recover from her ill-fated side trip to the West Bank, she told reporters that she had not realized that Mrs. Arafat's remarks were so inflammatory until she saw a transcript. But she had been provided with simultaneous, if halting, interpretation. According to aides, Mrs. Clinton wanted to strongly and quickly denounce Mrs. Arafat's remarks, but she wanted to clear her statement with the White House. That took hours and produced a terse and somewhat tepid critique. The White House rejected as too harsh a first draft by Hillary's campaign advisers. The statement didn't even mention Mrs. Arafat by name, though Hillary later did sharpen her attack.

The First Lady's popularity is starting to slip with New York voters. Her favorability rating has dropped from a high of 52 percent last spring in one New York Times poll to 37 percent, while her unfavorable rating has jumped 16 points, from 22 to 38 percent. Polls show her in a dead heat with New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. The state Democratic Party was nervous enough to begin running soft-focus ads of Hillary "listening" to New Yorkers. Her aides say Hillary saw no need for the ads but went along. That sort of tactic is easier to sell if you're just the First Lady than if you're trying to impress the hard-bitten voters of New York.

More Than Just A Kiss | News