Hillary on Her Own
In the end the race for U.S. senator from New York had little to do with education, campaign finance reform or Middle East strife. At bottom, only one issue mattered. As former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich put it, the race was "a contest between people who love Hillary and people who hate Hillary." Ultimately, her resounding victory over Republican Congressman Rick Lazio, making her the only First Lady ever to win elective office, reflected a personal resilience rivaling even her husband's.
Certainly no President's wife had met with such unrelenting critical scrutiny. She had weathered investigations into her integrity, been accused of arrogance and self-serving ambition, and endured the impeachment of her husband following his dalliance with a woman less than half her age. Other women might have waited out their spouse's term and slipped quietly into the shadows. Instead, Hillary charged into the glare, running not for school board but for the Senate, and not in Arkansas but in the white heat of the Empire State. "Thank you, New York, for opening up your minds and your hearts," Hillary, 53, told supporters at Manhattan's Grand Hyatt Hotel, noting that her campaign had lasted 16 months "and six black pantsuits." (For the record, Mrs. Clinton, who had spent the better part of the day at her Chappaqua home, was wearing turquoise on the critical night.)
Granted, she had help in her triumph. Daughter Chelsea was an undeniable asset, often drawing louder cheers than her mother. And Hillary's opponent, a four-term moderate congressman little known outside his suburban Long Island district, proved a less formidable foe than Rudolph W. Giuliani, the prickly New York City mayor who abandoned the race last May after learning he had prostate cancer. Unconvincing in his occasional attempts to assume Giuliani's pit-bull persona, the boyish Lazio, 42, tried wooing New York's large bloc of Jewish voters by repeatedly criticizing Hillary for a congratulatory kiss she had given Suha Arafat, wife of PLO leader Yasser Arafat, and $50,000 in contributions she had accepted from the American Muslim Alliance. Above all, Lazio branded her a carpetbagger for presuming to run for the Senate just a month after moving from the White House to the affluent Chappaqua. "No one," he said at rallies, "whether they're from Washington, Little Rock or Hollywood, is going to tell New Yorkers who they can put in the Senate."
But, finally, none of that seemed to matter. "I feel like the Mets—we came in second," Lazio said in a concession speech at Manhattan's Roosevelt Hotel. Although Hillary ran behind her Democratic ticketmate Al Gore in New York, she had chosen the right time and the right place for her candidacy. Rubbing her back affectionately before she walked to the microphone to celebrate her victory, the President stood behind his First Lady, wiping away tears. "I'm the first President to have a wife in the Senate, and I like it," he said when the race was called. For a quarter century it had been Hillary who had played the supporting role. Now it was his turn.