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Hillary's Turn: Inside Her Improbable, Victorious Senate Campaign
By Michael Tomasky
Free Press
309 pages, $25

For almost two years -- from early 1999 to late 2000 -- the people of this state, and indeed the world, watched transfixed as the only first lady in history ran for political office. And Hillary Rodham Clinton did it here, among us, catapulting our state into the spotlight in a way too spectacular for even a "sophisticated" place like New York.

Now Michael Tomasky, the respected New York magazine writer who followed Clinton on the trail for months, gives us a remarkable portrait of a remarkable campaign.

Here was quite possibly the most famous woman in the world traipsing around Brooklyn and Queens, not to mention down-on-its-luck cities like Buffalo and forgotten burgs in the North Country.

What exactly was she up to?

Tomasky's inside view of the first lady's campaign, first against New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, then against Rep. Rick Lazio, offers the inside story that began with Daniel Patrick Moynihan's decision to end his celebrated career. And like so many other political ventures, Hillary Clinton's candidacy blossomed from a perfect alignment of the political stars, moons and planets. That included a state Democratic Party still reeling from reverses dating to 1994, the reticence of major Democratic names to join the fray, and a less than stellar stable of second stringers able to meet the challenge.

Tomasky has brilliantly chronicled what ensued, in a way very unlike all those other "Hillary" books that pop up periodically. This work is not just another examination of Hillary Clinton (her intelligence, her relationship with Bill Clinton, her ambition, etc.). This is a close-up "how to;" a primer in running in the incredibly complex world of New York politics -- where ethnic groups and tabloid front pages carry as much weight as the meatiest issues.

"They are weird things, these New York elections," he writes. "Hillary wanted to debate issues, but precious little coverage of New York elections is devoted to issues. New York elections are obstacle courses. A candidate who hopes to win a high-profile election in New York has to be acceptable on the issues, but mostly, that candidate has to jump and crawl and tunnel and rope-climb her way through the course's various elements and come out looking a little less roughed up than the other guy."

Sure, Hillary sat down early on with close advisers like Harold Ickes Jr. and hammered out a platform to carry her in New York. And sure, she could quite easily spout views on abortion rights, education, and health care in her oh-so-New Democrat way. But what this veteran of 30 years of her husband's political wars could probably never be prepared for was the "weird things" of New York politics: the Brooklyn Museum of Art's "pornographic" portraits of the Virgin Mary, cop shootings of unarmed blacks in New York City, donning a Yankee cap, endless debates over "soft money," kissing Yassir Arafat's wife, and the bombing of a U.S. warship in the far-off Mideast.

These were the "issues" that would ultimately decide the race.

Tomasky makes it clear that this New York immigrant learned -- sometimes clumsily -- how to run and win in a diverse and complex place like New York.

First, and maybe foremost, she concentrated much of her early campaign days in upstate New York, the place where most pundits believed the quintessential representative of the liberal elite would fail miserably. Instead, she listened and learned, and then responded by detailing a plan for the region's flagging economy.

Second, Tomasky outlines how Clinton confounded the experts and mobilized her Democratic base in New York City and the big upstate cities. That meant relentless Sunday morning sweeps through the black churches of Brooklyn, Harlem, Queens, Rochester and Buffalo.

"Most polls, for example, assumed that black voters would constitute about 8 or 9 percent of the statewide vote," he writes of her successful minority efforts. "It ended up being 11 percent -- in raw numbers, at least 120,000 more black voters than anticipated. The increase was not an accident, and it was another reflection of just how well organized this once-haphazard campaign had become."

Third, the obligatory luck factor. And Clinton stepped in a pool of it during the September televised debate co-sponsored by The Buffalo News at the studios of WNED-TV.

That's when Lazio, still a little known Long Island congressman, unwittingly "invaded the space" of the first lady by pulling from his pocket a pledge to ban soft money, walking to her lectern, and demanding she sign it.

Though the tactic was designed to embarrass Clinton, it backfired big time. "On some of the radio talk shows, one could hear women beginning to take a somewhat less judgmental view toward Hillary. Instead they turned their sights on Lazio, the physical space invader, and Russert, the emotional space invader," Tomasky writes. "There would be other pivotal moments in the contest's final days, but, in a broader sense, the advantage shifted toward Hillary the night of that first debate and never really shifted back."

Even for someone as intimately involved in the 2000 Senate campaign as this reviewer (whose day job is political reporter for The News), Tomasky's book serves as a treasure trove of new information. He truly goes behind the scenes to provide incredible detail on the internal battles and New York City media to show how a modern campaign is crafted.

Oh, there are a few annoying aspects. Though he acknowledges upstate New York's crucial role on Election Day, the book overwhelmingly fixates on New York City -- its politics, its ethnic groups, its media. It would have been nice to see a little more analysis of what made upstate vote for Hillary in unprecedented numbers, but then again most upstaters are used to that short shrift.

Still, Tomasky demonstrates why he is considered one of the state's top political journalists. He tells the insider view in a compelling way, not only capturing the essence of this woman who is suddenly so much a part of our lives, but telling us who we are in the process.

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