Clinton's celebrity a double-edged sword

Junior senator from New York will be expected to take on national issues, yet keep constituents happy.

Hillary Clinton insists she wants no special attention.

Yet New York's junior senator, ranking 97th in seniority, got bumped to the front of the line for the ceremonial reenactment of her swearing-in this week. Not for the historic significance of the event, but for security and media considerations.

Welcome to Senator Clinton's intricate new world, where the inescapable glare of her celebrity status can as easily be a stumbling block as a boon. Where every pronouncement, especially early on, will be heard as clearly in Los Angeles as in Albany, N.Y.

"The potential and the expectations for her could not be higher," says Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "She'll command the attention of the national news media from Day One. In the entire modern period, there's only been a handful of senators with that kind of power and authority."

But New Yorkers, as usual, are a bit skeptical. They've lost an enormous amount of clout in the clubby, seniority-conscious institution with the retirement of 24-year veteran Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D). For many, the key is whether Clinton can successfully leverage her national celebrity to become an effective, local senator - and keep her campaign promises.

In Buffalo, people are waiting to see if she does, as promised, introduce as her first piece of legislation a bill to jump-start job growth in the economically floundering region. In the Hudson River Valley town of Newburgh, the focus will be on how well she negotiates funds and environmental protections for its historic waterfront. And in Manhattan, Wall Street will demand proper attention to the financial community's needs.

"Clearly, New Yorkers have high expectations for her," says Lee Miringoff of the Marist Polling Institute in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. "The worst thing is that she's a junior senator who no longer has a friend in the White House. The best thing, from a media point of view, is that she enters the Senate as a major national Democrat."

A national figure

That national platform is a double-edged sword for the first first-lady senator. Clinton will be expected to be a leading voice on major issues from education to healthcare to child welfare. But speaking up too loudly from the well of the tradition-bound Senate could undermine her effectiveness behind closed doors.

And then there's the fundraising her high-profile position already demands. With a razor-thin Republican majority in the House, and a historic tie in the Senate, she'll no doubt be seen as a key weapon in the Democrats' bid to retake control (although GOP fundraisers are pretty happy to have her around, as well).

But all that takes time away from tilling the political ground in New York, which some experts say will be the key to whether she can maintain her political viability here.

"I don't think people expect her to go down and come back with a barrel of special privileges, protections, and funding for upstate New York, but they will want to see her and know what her priorities are," says Richard Fenno, a political scientist at the University of Rochester. "She campaigned very heavily up here, and people will want to know that she did it because she cares, not because she wanted our votes. And the way you tell people you care is that you come back."

Clinton's campaign focus on upstate New York and its struggling economy was a page taken directly out of Sen. Charles Schumer's playbook. And many pundits here are suggesting that she continue following his lead.

"He's like the Energizer Bunny - the prototype of what a proactive senator ought to be. He's here all the time," says New York Assemblyman Samuel Hoyt (D), who represents the Buffalo area. "I think she'll be successful up here if she's as energetic and remembers the motto of her husband's two campaigns: 'It's the economy, stupid!' "

Earlier this week, Clinton picked a seasoned Senate insider to be her chief of staff, a signal to some that she's determined to be as attentive to New York's potholes as to the nation's larger social ills. But with the laser-sharp national focus on her every move, she's also expected to proceed cautiously, at least in the beginning.

"Virtually everything that she does in her first 100 days will be highlighted, identified, and dissected even more than other women, and that's already far more scrutiny than most men get," says Laura Liswood, secretary-general of the Council of Women World Leaders at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass. "She'll have a short honeymoon, and there will be very little tolerance for mistakes."

Early controversy

Already, Clinton has raised alarms by buying not one, but two houses that top a million dollars. And then there's the $8 million book deal - only the Pope has gotten a bigger advance for his story. While it's all legal and within the rules of the Senate, critics are questioning the appropriateness of the advance and are calling on her to refuse it.

Many would like her to take a lead from her one-time nemesis, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who gave back an advance half that size after allegations about a potential conflict of interest arose.

Still, pundits are looking forward to the next few years.

"She's going to be enormously fun to watch because she is so daring and talented," says Professor Sabato. "And Republicans shouldn't be quite so glum. She's the devil figure they've wanted since [Massachusetts Sen.] Ted Kennedy faded from the national scene."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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