‘Town Hall’ TV

Hillary’s Performance: All Smiles, No Substance

Late last week, Conservative Party kingmaker Mike Long sat in Brooklyn, hoping for a seismic shift in the Rudy-Hillary race, waiting to pick through the rubble of fallen celebrities to find a candidate he can support.

"Their negatives are so high, they're like two buildings about to topple," Long says from his modest party headquarters in Bay Ridge. "They're leaning on each other. They need each other."

Does Rudy need Hillary even more than he needs Judi?

For now, at least, Giuliani is still Hillary's opponent, and Long is still waiting for his earthquake.

His party holds a crucial ballot line that usually draws a few hundred thousand voters—sometimes the deciding factor for New York Republican candidates in a close race. The party more aptly should be called Religious Conservative—its platform is right in line with that of the Christian Coalition. The sticking point for Long in the U.S. Senate race is abortion, not economic policy. If Giuliani, an acknowledged supporter of abortion rights, would just come out against so-called "partial-birth" abortions, he probably would get Long's support.

But Rudy never has budged on abortion.

So for Long, the Senate race is still just a battle of the network stars.

"There's a lesson here: Never blindly accept a celebrity without talking about the issues," he says. "Fifty-five percent of the Democrats don't want Hillary, and 44 percent of the Republicans don't want Rudy. Personally, I'm not into celebrity. I want someone who's good on the issues."

That would never be Hillary, who's far too liberal for Long. Like many others on the right, he has a visceral dislike for Bill Clinton's wife. He caught part of her act on last Thursday's Today show, where she starred in what was billed as a "town meeting."

"They've trained her well," says Long. "She's got that constant smile. There's almost a glowing look to her. But if you pierce that veneer, there's no substance behind the smile."

Piercing that veneer isn't always easy. Hillary's campaign headquarters at 34th and Seventh has a small anteroom similar to that of a suburban police precinct. Signs order staffers to keep the doors to the inner sanctum closed to outsiders, and even her press people are constantly unavailable in person. The tight control of her image was apparent at the "town meeting" in NBC's studios. Her campaign caught grief after a similar appearance on a CNN "town meeting" upstate. In that appearance, according to press reports, Clinton's staff had access to the audience's questions in advance.

No such arrangement was made for Clinton's appearance on Today, according to NBC spokeswoman Allison Gollust. But it was a safe venue for her anyway, because Today wasn't going to bus in, say, a Jerry Springer audience to hoot, holler, and heckle its guests.

Gollust says the idea for the show was NBC's and that no special deal was made with Clinton's campaign staff. "Our producers identified key topics—education, taxes, and health care—and we sought out organizations, a wide cross-section of them, to find guests," she says. "They picked the top 30 to 40 organizations, and we got just under 60 people. One of our producers spoke to all the guests. That by no means means that we screened the questions. You have an hour of live television, so you want thoughtful questions."

Only one journalist, an Associated Press reporter, was even allowed in the studio. The rest of the press corps watched from the greenroom as the polite, respectful audience asked serious, sober questions, and Clinton, after fending off questions about Giuliani's candidacy "out of respect," tried to exude some personality and warmth.

Obviously prepped to try to make a personal connection, she prefaced each reply—to the audience and to hosts Katie Couric and Matt Lauer—with such standards as "I appreciate what you've done" and "I'm a very strong supporter of several different things."

Not that she didn't take any tough questions. One of them came from Karen Shore, a Long Island psychologist who's head of the National Coalition of Mental Health Professionals and Consumers. Shore blasted the Clinton administration's embrace of managed health care, telling Hillary: "You and Mr. Clinton were strong supporters of managed care and managed competition. This system has denied citizens needed treatment, killing many people that we could have saved and causing others unnecessary pain. It has frustrated and angered citizens by denying them choice and control over their own health-care decisions. It's almost fully destroyed mental-health care. And it has demoralized and depressed a nation of clinicians."

 
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