- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 17, 2000

Some political gaffes hurt more than others. When a gaffe suggests poor instincts in the world of the common man, it can be deadly.

Remember when George Bush the Elder didn't recognize a scanner at the supermarket? He was ridiculed for being out of touch with high-tech reality, even though Sonny's Market in Kennebunkport, where the president and the first lady shopped during their summer vacation, didn't have scanners.

Not many first men and first ladies have much contact with grocery shopping, anyway. That's why Hillary Clinton went on the other day about the novelty of buying a crate of clementines in a supermarket near her new home in Chappaqua. This was whimsical and understandable.

But when she stiffed a waitress at a popular diner in Albion, in upstate New York, leaving no tip after devouring a free breakfast (two, actually, and neither to be confused with a free lunch), the locals were unforgiving. They saw her as either cheap, insensitive or both. It didn't help the matter that she had just given a speech about feeling the farmer's pain. Here was Marie Clintonette: "Let 'em eat eggs." She compounded the offense later, when she called to apologize but still didn't send a tip although hundreds of sympathetic Americans across the country, having read about it in the newspaper, did.

The first lady turned Senate candidate has a lot on her plate these days, literally and figuratively. A sharp staff person should have stepped in and covered the tip. (Rudy Guiliani left a 70 percent tip later in the week to call attention to his generosity.) Hillary, who with a man who now goes nameless just bought a house for 1.7 mil, has discovered how high property taxes are. The waitress is a single mom with two children, who works for below the minimum wage and pays for her own health insurance.

"She is the first lady, but it doesn't feed my son," said the waitress. Said a customer at the Village House diner: "It's the little things you have to look at in a political campaign."

"You never overtip a waitress or a cabbie," my father told me when I became an adult. "You not only thank them for service, but you let them know you know how hard they work for low wages." I moved into the larger world on the cusp of modern feminism, and I've always taken pleasure in following my father's advice. In the bad old days women were especially bad tippers because they were new to it, but today most women with pocketbook power tip just like men. Or should.

That makes Hillary look particularly dense. Her political rhetoric stresses that she wants to help those who are not as rich as she is, but she doesn't always reflect altruism in her personal life. This is the same first lady who set out to fire the entire White House travel office by telling an aide: "We need to get those people out. We need to get our people in."

Anita Hill, who always looks to play the "gender" card, insists in a recent op-ed in The New York Times that women like Hillary Clinton who run for office are still judged more harshly in the public sphere than in the private sphere: "Hillary Clinton's approval rating as first lady was at its lowest when she tackled health reform, rose steadily when she confined her activity to the traditional role as White House hostess and was at its highest when she stoically stood by her husband despite his marital infidelity."

True enough, but such analysis is superficial and the most naive kind of "gender" analysis. Hillary's approval ratings sank when she met her health care task force in secret, contrary to federal "sunshine" law, and emerged with a complicated formula for nationalizing health care that almost nobody, including her husband, liked. She was judged harshly, as a man would have been.

Politics ain't bean bag and when members of the opposite sex run against each other they encounter a minefield of explosive issues that in another context would be innocent enough, thanks to popular conceptions of sexual temperament. Rudy and Hillary (neither of whom any longer have surnames) are likely to keep sexual stereotyping to a minimum. He can talk tough, but he won't make an issue of Hillary as "the little lady" as Southerners not so long ago referred to women running for office. Nor will Hillary accuse him maybe of being "too tough" on an issue which would expose her to accusations of feminine weakness.

One of the reasons reporters and commentators love the New York Senate race is that it has the juice celebrity, sex, religion and smash-mouth politics. Before it's over we may long for those genteel good ol' days when candidates in New York merely fought over who was the putzhead.

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