For more than 200 years, through all the Marthas and Dollys and Mamies and Pats and Nancys and Barbaras, we've never had a first lady run for office on her own. Hillary Clinton, who hopes to pioneer in the New York Senate race, is finding out why.
The problem is the president, whose shadow looms over her like an 800-pound gorilla. No matter how independent, smart and savvy she is, the first lady is inevitably tied to the triumphs, scandals and failures of her spouse. Especially the dumb mistakes.
Sure, the Hillary and Bill Show -- she gets top billing -- was going swimmingly in the golden ebb of summer. In the Hamptons, they charmed the ultra-rich out of campaign bucks. In Westchester, they picked their post-presidential roost, a $1.8 million mansion resembling a scaled-down White House. In the Finger Lakes region, Hillary, Bill, Chelsea and Buddy drew friendly mobs.
Then reality jolted the Bill and Hillary adventure. Suddenly, Mrs. Clinton discovered the perks of running as first lady had a dark underside. Political hell broke loose when the president offered clemency to 16 members of a Puerto Rican militant group doing 15 to 90 years for a series of 130 bombings in the 1970s and 1980s.
Critics howled suspicions that Clinton offered to free the ultranationalists -- despite warnings by the FBI and cop groups -- to boost his wife's popularity with 1.3 million Puerto Rican voters in New York State. I have no idea -- nor is there evidence -- whether Clinton had such raw political motives.
Would Clinton, whose political radar is fine-tuned, imagine he could rig such a crass clemency deal without a backlash? If so, it was a first-class blunder that gave Rudy Giuliani, likely to be Hillary's 2000 opponent, a wedge issue. It won't take any TV genius to concoct the ads Giuliani can run against Hillary. He merely has to package the bitter quotes. Presto, a rerun of the Willie Horton ads of 1988.
The cops were angry. First came New York Police Detective Tony Senft, blind in one eye after being struck by an FALN (Spanish acronym for Armed Forces of National Liberation) bomb. "I believe in my heart that votes in the Senate race had a lot to do with the clemency offer," Senft said.
Then Richard Pastorella, blinded in a 1982 FALN explosion at police headquarters: "Don't believe these people didn't commit murder. The president shouldn't let them on the street."
Even Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., whose Senate job Hillary hopes to inherit and who introduced her at his farm last month, condemned the clemency deal.
You can bet congressfolk will add gasoline to the bonfire. Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., Clinton's noisy nemesis, subpoenaed White House records on the clemency offer. Sen. Orrin Hatch, flirting with a presidential run, wants in on the act. They're keen on Bureau of Prison tapes of FALN inmates plotting more violence.
Did Bill say to Hillary, "By the way, dear, I'm going to release 16 Puerto Rican terrorists -- might help you with the Latino vote . . ."? Sounds doubtful. If Hillary helped cook up such a crude plot, the backfire might blow her out of the race.
What's clear from the clemency flap is that Hillary's Senate hopes are hostage to the president's fortunes. Sure, a first lady has advantages: instant celebrity, Air Force One flights, a cocoon of Secret Service agents. Even more than Al Gore, Hillary's tied to Bill's popularity, travails and mistakes.
I've written that Hillary's best strategy in New York is to keep Bill away. It's her only hope to develop her own style, persona and ideas. She's tried to distance herself in minor ways (welfare reform, Medicare cuts). The clemency furor shows the problem of a "two-for-the-price-of-one" candidacy -- Bill's meddling.
Not that Giuliani, hotly defending another cop shooting, is home free. He has his own baggage. But now we may know why no first lady -- not even Mrs. Clinton's heroine, Eleanor Roosevelt -- dared to run solo.
Hillary's a passenger on Bill's roller coaster. Hang on, New York, it's going to be a bumpy ride.