There was shock and awe on her face. It was as if no one had ever dared to contradict Hillary Clinton before, far less challenge her directly. All through her husband’s presidency, Mizz Clinton never even suffered the indignity of having to carry her own suitcase. (She forced the Secret Service to do that for her during the interludes of guarding him from her well-thrown lamps and ash trays). For her to now suffer the indignity of people saying that her answers were evasive, contradictory and vacuous was almost too much for her to bear.
When John Edwards, Barack Obama and the hitherto reliable Tim Russert all stuck pins in her during the Tuesday night MSNBC “debate”, Clinton became visibly angry. Her face was a frozen mask. Before that night, the inevitability of a Hillary nomination was the Common Wisdom of the non-working classes. But by the next morning, that was in doubt: Clinton is vulnerable and — though John Edwards and Barack Obama are still longshots — it’s no longer inconceivable that one could beat her in the primaries and actually be the Democratic nominee next year.
But one thing isn’t in doubt after Tuesday night: Hillary Clinton can dish it out, but she can’t take it.
I grew up in the Bronx and Yonkers, in a time when the ethnic admixture of New York City and the ‘burbs kept the American melting pot boiling. We were right atop the front burner on the stove. We were all mashed together — in our neighborhood, entirely Irish, Italian and Jewish — and anybody who couldn’t take the everyday insults and jibes of the schoolyard just didn’t survive. In grammar school, there were only three choices: you gave back better than you got, you had a fistfight, or you went home crying to mommy. For guys, crying was not an option. And most girls didn’t want to be labeled whiners. We learned that the best way to get through it was verbal combat. We learned to make a joke of an insult and to be amazingly creative in hurling counter-insults.
Poor Hillary didn’t grow up in New York. (She didn’t grow up in Arkansas, either.) She’s a Chicago girl, but not from downtown. She grew up in the hoity-toity suburb of Park Ridge where, according to the 2000 census, the population was still about 95% white. In 2000, the average commuting time for a Park Ridge resident was only 28 minutes, which about the time it takes to drive a mile on the Cross-Bronx Expressway. Hillary was cosseted growing up there and wasn’t quite tossed out into the cold, cruel world after high school. She went on to Wellesley College, not known for a sharp-elbowed womens’ basketball team.
In short, Hillary Clinton is no New Yorker. New Yorkers love verbal combat: it’s much more fun arguing than talking to someone who agrees with you. And anyone who doesn’t get that isn’t one of us. I asked a couple of other real New Yorkers about Hillary’s performance.
Said New York State Conservative Party Chairman Mike Long, “Sen. Clinton clearly displayed that she’s not a New Yorker, and she can’t handle the tough questions. And what could be happening here, she could be unraveling because people are starting to catch up with her forty some-odd positions on each issue. … She just has the wrong answer on every given question.” (Just for the record, Mr. Long is a New Yorker, born in Brooklyn and raised in Queens. Long apologized for his New York accent, but my ear didn’t detect it. My hearing may not be tuned to Wellsley frequencies.)
What about Hillary’s evasive defense of the Spitzer “driver’s licenses for illegal aliens” plan? Long said, “If you’re gonna be the leader of the free world, number one: you have to have the stamina to do it and you also have to know the difference between what’s legal and what’s illegal.” He said the plan could lead to voter fraud and a lot of other problems, and was, “…just wrong.”
Could someone who gets as upset in a debate as Hillary did be a New Yorker? In the words of New York Republican State Senator Serphin Maltese, “No, absolutely not.”
Maltese said, “But, you know, the fact is that if she expects to even be in contention for president of the United States and confronting the national problems and terrorism, she certainly has to be less thin-skinned. It’s easy to see that she’s not a native New Yorker because, growing up on the Lower East Side I think any of my friends at that time could have handled themselves better. You cannot go into these things expecting not to be contradicted, not to be criticized. And, of course, to talk about trying to maintain a position, either in defense or certainly on the same side as Eliot Spitzer on this driver’s license for illegal aliens is an untenable position. And I think that’s the problem. She’s trying to remain on all sides of the issue rather than come out and say she’s for ‘em because that’s going to cost her votes or say she’s against them because that’s going to cost her votes. So she’s trying to remain on the fence and at the same time take umbrage at questions that are legitimate and should be answered.”
And what are Maltese’s bona fides as a New Yorker? “I was born in Corona, Queens County and I grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Thirty-Third Street and First Avenue. A life-long New Yorker thank goodness.” Can’t argue with that.
Statewide success, even in New York, doesn’t necessarily translate to national strength on the rough-and-tumble road to the presidency. Sen. Clinton made it — temporarily — in the Big Apple. Hillary may yet disprove Frank Sinatra’s best line about New York. If you can make it there, it doesn’t mean you can make it anywhere.