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Of herbs and politicians

(I wrote notes on a Schuyler County political event shortly after it occurred at the end of May 2000 -- a campaign year. I fashioned it into an essay soon after, and have fiddled with the wording on and off since. Here's where it stands now -- kind of interesting, considering how deeply entrenched Hillary Clinton seems now in the life of New Yorkers. The two photos are not mine, but rather from Clinton and Lazio websites.)

By A.C. Haeffner

I had just descended from a visit to my newfound herbalist on a hill above Watkins Glen.

I was in a mellow mood, having been put into an Alpha state that had progressed to Delta -- in other words, I'd been practically hypnotized by the woman, who had been plumbing my psyche as she formulated what flower extracts, exactly, I would be needing to curb my various allergies and emotional shortcomings.

It's not a run-of-the-mill civilization in these hills of Schuyler County. No ... you kind of come to expect "intuitive people" (a term the herbalist employed, and a group to which she clearly belongs); and homegrown remedies, and kindnesses. That last springs from a fairly common denominator in a county like Schuyler, where the population is scarce -- just 19,000 souls -- and the job market is tight. The denominator is struggle; and neighbors tend to look out for neighbors.

So the woman in the hills -- who my wife met through volunteer work and recommended to me after experiencing stunningly successful reversals of long-suffered allergies -- had taken me into her network of clients. On my first visit that morning, she had given me a single introductory dose of her art: a watered-down extraction she had pre-planned for me to help curb any anger I felt at shenanigans practiced by my two teen-aged sons.

"We all need that; all of us with teen-agers, anyway," she said.

And then she applied a little hands-on treatment -- her right hand to my chest, which generated a seeming torrent of internal heat in seconds; and then both of her hands to my back, in the area of the spleen.

"It's a cleansing maneuver," she explained of the latter move.

Whatever it was, I was left noticeably drained within two or three minutes; calm to the point that a back knot I'd experienced since waking was no longer in evidence. And I stayed that way for an hour -- throughout an interview in which she learned more about me, the better to treat me.

"It's an Alpha state," she said of that first stage. "It's a state of relaxation."

And then the relaxation started to deepen, along with my journey into the Greek alphabet.

"It appears you've reached a Delta state," she said at last, as I sat immobile, serene, loose-limbed. I smiled a lazy contentment.

And she smiled back.

"I haven't seen this deep a reaction before," she added. "It's quite amazing."

Whatever that might mean -- I don't know if I'm highly susceptible to herbs or just easily directed -- I floated along like that for awhile before eventually reversing course. Slowly, I ascended to a level of alertness -- to a control of my senses -- that allowed me to drive home by the time our session was concluded.

As we said our goodbyes, and I thanked her for an interesting experience, she smiled again. It was the smile of someone who does not get rich from what she practices; of someone who, as she explained at one point in my Delta state, derives from her art "the satisfaction of helping people, of making a difference."

I turned that term in my mind as I descended to Watkins Glen. It's such a political term -- "making a difference" -- and yet so unaffected when done through kindness instead of ambition.

Which is why I found the timing amusing. There I was, just down from the hill, making my way along the crowded main street of downtown Watkins Glen, when I spotted a huge dark bus on a side street to the right, parked facing the main thoroughfare, taking up a large portion of what is normally the parking lot of Savard's, a popular restaurant.

I might have gone by without even noticing had I not been stopped at the light. In any event, the commotion in the lot -- several dozen people next to the bus, with one head poking above the others, clearly speaking to them -- caught my eye as I sat waiting for the red to change. And it took but a couple of moments for me to realize that the speaker was our congressman, an elderly Republican statesman named Amory Houghton, and that this bus was probably the campaign vehicle of a man who wanted to be U.S. senator, the fellow who had recently replaced Rudy Giuliani as the GOP candidate when the New York mayor pleaded health concerns, the man who wanted to send Hillary Clinton packing, back to Arkansas.

Rick Lazio.

Sure enough, as traffic cleared on the side street -- pulling in front of me and onto the main street -- the sign on the side of the bus came into clear view: Lazio 2000. I had read that this man -- a congressman once spurned by the Republican Party as a Senate candidate because they wanted Rudy, but now embraced (and nominated the day before in a Buffalo convention) -- would be traveling our way. He was supposed to stop north of the village, along Seneca Lake, at the Glenora winery, then touch base with the folks of Watkins, and move on to Corning before leaving our little pocket of civilization for points east, which offered greater voting numbers.

The light turned green, and I edged ahead, looking for a parking spot. I was still a little weak-kneed from my visit to the herbalist -- Delta states can do that -- and so I wasn't in the mood for a sizable walk. But my concern was unwarranted; a parking spot was available not 50 yards away, just vacated by an accommodating motorist who either had no interest in politics or had not noticed the hubbub at the corner.

I decided, after parking and approaching the group near the bus, that the motorist might indeed not have noticed. If not seen, the goings-on were fairly unobtrusive, for the sound system being used -- Houghton, atop some platform (a soapbox?), had a microphone in hand that was linked to a couple of portable speakers -- was being drowned out by the traffic passing by just yards away.

I could pick up only a few of his words as I approached, but got the sense that his remarks were introductory. He was clearly (and logically) the host in our area for Lazio, who had entered the fray against Hillary late, and needed to boost his name -- and face -- recognition quickly.

"He's a man," intoned Houghton, "who..." -- and then the words were drowned out, but I had been proven right; this was the introduction. Lazio would likely be next to speak, though I -- being of mere average height -- couldn't see him immediately in the crowd; but he was no doubt somewhere near Houghton. I nodded approvingly. I would -- as unexpected as it was -- have the opportunity to compare his live style to that of Hillary, who had visited Watkins a month earlier.

I edged closer, moving around a couple of firmly planted observers, to try and hear better what Houghton was saying. He was mouthing something about the people of the region, and the beautiful day (it was clear, and quickly warming, and I couldn't help but notice that Amo had seen some other sunny days; he carried a ruddy, tanned healthiness about him, unusual for a man in his 70s), and then something about the Lazio bus, and how large it was next to Amo's own usual campaign vehicle: a van.

And the bus was big; bordering on huge. It was primarily black, emblazoned on either side with colorful (red, white and blue) Lazio 2000 signs, and carrying a rather contrived designation in the front, above the windshield: "Mainstream Express."

At which I chuckled. Lazio was known as -- or at least suspected of being -- a man of the political right, while Hillary always swung from the left. Either camp considered the other side extremist, and tried to shade their attack-rhetoric accordingly. Both wanted voters to believe, though, that they were firmly of the mainstream middle ground -- which is where the average meets, though I suspect few people actually inhabit that particular plot of philosophical terra firma.

"... great turnout," Houghton was saying, along with something about "old friends" meeting a new one. But the traffic was louder than he was.

I looked around at these "old friends," and smiled. There were some of the local dignitaries there, for sure -- a member or two of the legislature, I noticed, and a couple of familiar businesspeople -- but mostly there were people with notepads and tape-recorders and cameras. This was a crowd primarily of media; for of course this was a media event. The advance word on it hadn't even said where, exactly, Lazio would be stopping; just that it would be downtown. It would be difficult to build much of a crowd in those circumstances; but of course there was no need for a large one. All the candidate needed was media, and those cameras and reporters and sound bites would do the rest.

"And so without further adieu," Houghton was saying, as I noticed another familiar face off to my left: the sheriff of the county, Michael Maloney. As usual, he was dressed smartly in a dark suit, with no sign of weaponry, though he may have been carrying a pistol in his waistband. Hard to say. But it did raise the matter of security in my mind.

"... our next Senator, Rick Lazio," Houghton was concluding, and there was applause drowned out by the passing traffic, and then some music being piped through the sound system to try and dramatize what was, really, anything but dramatic.

And as Lazio -- dark-haired, trim, a young-looking 42, and sporting a visible swelling on his lip, compliments of a fall he had taken while walking in the Memorial Day parade in New York City just a couple of days earlier -- jumped up on the small platform in place of Houghton, my eyes scanned from the sheriff to points in and around the crowd, seeking other signs of security. Common sense told me it must have been there; but I didn't see it. So maybe it wasn't.

I couldn't, as a result, avoid comparing the scene to one a few weeks earlier, to a day when Watkins pulsed with an excitement and boasted a noticeable police presence -- the day that Hillary came to town.

That visit was (like Lazio's) on short notice, but its dramatic presentation -- enhanced by the security inherent in protecting the President's wife -- looked like a polished Broadway (or at least seasoned off-Broadway) production next to Lazio's drowned out, poorly attended corner show.

Hillary had secured an entire gymnasium, and had drawn a crowd large enough to fill most of it. She had been introduced through a sound system that, while issuing an occasional rebellious screech, did not have to contend with vehicle noise, and she had sat on a platform in front of a stage full of well-scrubbed students hand-picked from the county's high schools to serve as visual backdrop. Her speech -- well-rehearsed and delivered flawlessly (if somewhat lacking passion) -- drew moderate applause at appropriate pauses, and then she fielded questions from members of the audience lined up at two microphones.

The questions were tame -- "What would you do for Upstate if elected Senator?" -- and, I was informed later, screened beforehand. No surprises, thank you. You mustn't ruffle the First Lady's studied calm. That Giuliani had just that morning announced he had cancer -- a precursor to his withdrawal from the race a couple of weeks later -- was not raised by the auditorium audience, though journalists naturally asked Hillary about it throughout the day as she made her way from community to community. And she always gave a perfect, polished response that began: "I, like all New Yorkers, was sorry to hear..."

That phrasing, of course -- "I, like all New Yorkers" -- was something of a sticking point for a lot of folks in New York who actually had been raised in the state or had lived there for more than the handful of days needed to establish residency for a Senate run. She wasn't really a New Yorker, not beyond a minimum legal requirement.

Sure, Bobby Kennedy successfully ran from New York, despite being of and from another state. And Hillary, a student of that history, had decided to try the same thing. But add her Illinois-Arkansas-Washington background to the knee-jerk dislike she engendered in a sizable percentage of the populace, and she was fighting a seemingly tougher battle than Kennedy -- or James Buckley, elected from New York as a Conservative in 1970 despite perceptions that he was of and from Connecticut (but had the good grace, at least, to have been born in New York). Both men had on their resume the luster of respected brothers, one of whom was martyred. Hillary had no martyr to ride; she had instead a husbandly albatross.

As Lazio began to speak, I was thinking of her visit -- of the Secret Service flitting about, communicating to each other with headsets, bulges showing in the area of their suit-coated armpits; of the presence on the streets near the auditorium of what seemed (understandably) like every on-duty law-enforcement officer in the county. The contrast between that earlier scene and the one before me now was striking. The only law I saw now was Sheriff Maloney, who was positioned behind the candidate, his face somber and his eyes darting and dashing, looking for trouble to forestall at the street corner.

And somehow, that imbalance -- the difference in importance of the two candidates -- made Lazio more appealing to me as he spoke.

" wife, Pat, who with me is raising two fine daughters .... and I can tell you it takes loving parents -- and not a village -- to raise a child."

Hillary slam. Not bad. Kind of subtle, targeting her famous book "It Takes A Village." And the crowd, as small as it was outside the media crush, murmured its approval, and Lazio smiled through his fat lip. I looked for telltale signs of drool caused by the wound, but there was none; he was under control, if rambling. This was a stump speech, I recognized; informal, an attempt to connect on a personal level with those who turned out. But he was equally playing to the media -- smiling, turning this way and that so the various cameras and camcorders could pick him up, struggling (it seemed) to put the words together smoothly. It was the injury, I told myself. I'd have trouble saying anything with eight stitches in my lip, too.

"To me this dream of serving in the Senate would be the pinnacle of my career," he said, and paused -- perhaps wondering if he'd said it right. Then, deciding it was okay, he surged onward, drowned out in the course of his words by a passing horn here, a downshifting truck there, and an occasional blast of cooling lake breeze.

The breeze was welcome, in fact, for it was getting hot on that blacktopped corner. One couple in front of me cleared out in the middle of Lazio's address, the woman saying she'd heard enough.
"But you can stay; I'll just be up the street."

"No, no, I'm going," her husband answered. "Too hot."

Which I suspect it would have been later if the wife was a Hillary fan and the man had opted to stay.

After they left, I had a clear field of vision to Lazio and to his wife, who was standing dutifully to his left, a notch lower than her platformed husband. She was smiling and nodding approvingly as he pointed to her -- "It's important you know her, too, because we're together and we're a team on this" -- and, indeed, through the remainder of his words.

Lazio seemed to energize an extra notch as he neared the end of his spiel; took on the attitude of a cheerleader:

"We'll get out and get those votes with your help. Are you with me, gang?"

And then, with a final, sly slap at Hillary's rather controlled show, he closed with this:
"I don't have to be anybody other than who I am. That's the beauty of where we are right now."

Which of course wouldn't last long, if it was true at all. For when the election draws near, candidates are generally whatever they think will get them votes.

Now, his sales pitch concluded, he stepped down from his perch and started shaking the hands of whoever approached him -- and I was reminded of the perils of campaigning, of what happened to George Wallace in a crowd, and Jack Kennedy in a limousine, and Bobby Kennedy in a hotel. I looked around for the sheriff; he hadn't moved, though his eyes continued to, darting, studying, analyzing.

As the candidate pumped the flesh, his wife backed away and onto the bus, followed by someone with a camera and someone with a camcorder -- members of the GOP entourage, I decided, since most of the media was heading for a different vehicle: a white bus parked not in the close confines of the side street but around the corner in a Pudgies lot. As I passed by it in my own vehicle on my way home, I pondered the stark contrast between its brightness and the dark tones of the Lazio 2000 "Mainstream Express."

At first I thought it quite fitting, since government and media are often necessarily at odds; and then I thought it more than fitting -- perhaps symbolically essential -- since even when they're not at odds, they feed off each other in a symbiotic dance. Without white, would there be black? Or vice versa?

Yes, Rick Lazio, the sudden darling of the GOP, was getting publicity by the literal busload as he started his drive for a possible Senate seat.

And the media was getting an easy, readable story -- about a fresh-faced guy with a swollen lip who seemed to know how to play the game.

And the game was Stop Hillary.

After I cleared Watkins and the neighboring community of Montour Falls and started up the hill toward my home in Odessa, I wondered how she might react.

She would fight, would attack, for that is the way of politics. And he would respond. The question was how stridently it would all transpire -- at what level of decency. Would she impugn Lazio's character in subtle and not-so-subtle ways? Would he in turn question her character -- and that of her trouble-plagued husband? Would this be a campaign of issues, or a campaign of name-calling?

I feared the latter, that Hillary would bare her figurative fangs, and that Lazio would morph into a younger, male version of her -- take the low road of attack politics if the polls were against him.
I hoped not, though.

If I saw signs of it -- saw signs of the campaign turning into a two-way, mudslinging, disagreeable rant, I could always send along a suggestion -- by letter to Hillary, to circumvent her entourage, but in person to Lazio, should his grassroots campaign continue to offer such easy access to his ear.

I could tell them both, I thought, about an herbalist on a hill above Watkins Glen.

And about the calming influence -- the civilizing effects -- that an induced Alpha state ... or Delta state ... might have on Senate hopefuls from New York state.












© The Odessa File 2005
Charles Haeffner
P.O. Box 365
Odessa, New York 14869