Flashback: When Hillary's opponent for the Senate
paid visit to Watkins Glen
The bulk of the following account was written by the editor before the advent of The Odessa File, relating events that occurred on May 31, 2000 in Watkins Glen. He discovered it recently in a file folder with previously published articles. This one had never been published, and he had in fact forgotten it existed.
By Charlie Haeffner
I had just descended from a visit to a newfound healer, an ageless woman living on the western hill above Watkins Glen.
I was in a mellow mood, having been put into an Alpha state that had progressed, apparently, to something approaching Delta -- in other words, I’d been practically hypnotized by the woman, who had been plumbing my psyche as she formulated what flower essences, exactly, I would be needing to curb my various allergies and emotional shortcomings.
Here, in the hills of Schuyler County, you kind of come to expect “intuitive people,” as the woman described psychics (a group to which she claimed membership), along with homegrown remedies, and kindnesses. That last springs from a fairly common denominator in a poor county like Schuyler, where the population is scarce -- just 18,000 souls -- and the job market is tight. Neighbors tend to look out for neighbors.
And 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 dose of her art: a flower essence (defined as "liquid extracts used to address profound issues of emotional well-being, soul development, and mind-body health") she had planned for me to help curb any anger I felt at, say, shenanigans practiced by my two teen-aged sons.
“We all need that; all of us with teenagers, anyway,” she said.
And then she applied a little hands-on treatment -- one hand to my chest, which generated a seeming torrent of internal heat in seconds, and both of her hands to my back, in the area of the spleen.
“It’s a cleansing maneuver,” she explained.
Whatever it was, I was left noticeably drained within two or three minutes: calm to the point that a knotted back I’d experienced since waking was no longer in evidence. And I stayed that way for an hour, at which point the lethargy started to deepen.
“It’s an Alpha State,” she said of the first stage. “It’s a state of relaxation.”
And as the relaxation deepened, so did my journey into the Greek alphabet.
“It appears you’ve reached a Delta state,” she said, as I smiled a lazy contentment.
And she smiled back.
“I haven’t seen this deep a reaction before," she said. "It’s quite amazing.”
Whatever that might mean consequentially -- I don’t know if I’m simply highly susceptible to suggestion or easily manipulated -- I eventually, some time later, ascended to a level of alertness that allowed me to drive home.
As we said our goodbyes, and I thanked her for an interesting experience, she smiled again. It was the smile of someone who did not get rich from what she practiced; of someone who, as she explained at one point in my Delta state, derived from her art “the satisfaction of helping people, of making a difference.”
I turned that term over in my mind as I descended to Watkins Glen. It’s an often politically motivated term -- “I want to make 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 Watkins Glen, when I spotted a huge black bus to the right, off a side street, facing the main thoroughfare. It was taking up a large portion of what were normally parking spots alongside Savard’s, a restaurant that had been popular among the locals for a long time.
I might have gone by without even noticing had I not been stopped at a traffic light; in any event, the commotion in the lot -- several dozen people outside 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 to realize that the speaker was our Congressman, Republican statesman Amory Houghton, and that this bus had to be the campaign vehicle of the man who wanted to be a U.S. senator, the fellow who had replaced Rudy Giuliani as the GOP candidate after the New York mayor -- facing some adverse personal publicity and a prostate cancer diagnosis -- had departed the Senate race. In his place was this visitor to the Glen, the man who wanted to kick the backside of the Democratic nominee -- Hillary Clinton -- back to Arkansas.
He was Rick Lazio, a boyish looking four-term Congressman from Long Island.
And sure enough, as traffic crossing in front of me cleared, the sign on the side of the bus came into clear view: Lazio 2000. I had read that this man -- once spurned by the Republican Party as a Senate candidate because they wanted Rudy, but now embraced (and nominated the day before at a Buffalo convention) -- would be traveling our way. He had been scheduled to stop north of the village, up Seneca Lake at the Glenora winery, and then to 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 on the main drag, a north-south state route known in town as Franklin Street. I was still a little weak-kneed from my visit to the healer on the hill -- Greek-letter 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 simply not noticed the hubbub at the corner.
I decided, after approaching the group near the bus, that the motorist might indeed not have noticed. If not seen, the goings-on were unobtrusive, for the sound system being used -- Houghton, atop some portable platform (an actual 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 neared, 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 late against Hillary, and needed to boost his name- and face-recognition quickly.
“He’s a man,” intoned Houghton, “who ...” -- and then the words disappeared in the passing din, but not before I had been proven right: this was the introduction. Lazio would likely be next to speak, although I -- being of mere average height -- couldn’t see him immediately in the gathering, even though he was no doubt somewhere near Houghton.
I nodded at the scene approvingly. I would -- as unexpected as it was -- have the opportunity to compare Lazio's in-person style to that of Mrs. Clinton, who had paid Watkins a visit a month earlier, in a stop -- like this one -- that was short on planning. But there the similarities ended.
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 (clear and warming); and I couldn’t help but notice that Amo had evidently seen some other recent sunny days. He carried a ruddy healthiness about him, unusual for a man in his 70s.
Looming behind Amo was the bus -- black and bordering on huge. It was emblazoned on either side with colorful (blue on white) Lazio 2000 signs, and carried a rather contrived designation in the front, above the windshield: “Mainstream Express.”
I chuckled at that. As little as Lazio was known, he was recognized as -- or at least suspected of being -- a man of the political right, while Hillary swung from the left. Either camp considered the other side extremist, and would try to shade their attack rhetoric accordingly. Typical of many races, each would have had us believe that they were firmly of the mainstreamed middle ground -- which is where their average met, though I suspect few people actually inhabit that particular plot of philosophical terra firma.
“... great turnouts,” Houghton was saying, along with something about “old friends” meeting a new one. But the traffic was still louder than he was.
I looked around at these “old friends,” and smiled. There were some of the local politicos there, for sure. I noticed two members of the county legislature and a couple of familiar business people, but the dominant group there included folks with notepads and tape recorders and cameras. This was a gathering largely 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 real crowd. All the candidate needed was media; 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, Mike Maloney. As usual, he was dressed smartly in a dark suit, with no sign of weaponry, though he may have been carrying a pistol under his arm or in his waistband. Hard to say. But it did raise the matter of security in my mind.
“.... our next Senator, Rick Lazio,” Houghton concluded, and there was applause mostly muted by the noise of the passing vehicles. And then some music was piped through the sound system to try and dramatize what was, really, anything but dramatic.
And Lazio -- dark-haired, trim, 42, and sporting a barely 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 audience, seeking other signs of security. Common sense told me it must have been there; but I didn’t see any. So maybe there wasn’t.
And although I don’t generally think in such terms, it occurred to me how easily someone who wanted to could assault a candidate like Lazio -- either up close, ala a Bremer or Sirhan (though I could envision the sheriff pulling a piece and filling the attacker with a few holes), or from a rooftop nearby. But Lazio, I realized, wasn’t a high profile candidate yet, nor one particularly controversial or polarizing. He was unlikely at such a juncture to attract anybody hell-bent on hurting him. Hillary Clinton was a different matter, as evidenced by the security imposed when she had been in town.
That visit weeks earlier was also 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 thinly attended corner show.
Hillary had secured an entire gymnasium -- at the Watkins Glen High School -- which had been nearly filled by locals excited at the chance to see a First Lady; and she had no extraneous vehicle sounds with which to contend. She had been introduced formally through a professional sound system and had sat on a platform in front of a stage full of well-scrubbed students hand-picked from the three high schools in the county to serve as visual backdrop. Hillary’s 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 who had lined up at two microphones.
The questions were tame -- “What would you do for Upstate if elected Senator?” -- and, I learned later, were 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 a couple of weeks later -- was not raised by the auditorium audience, although journalists naturally asked her 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 ...”
Of course, in that rote delivery resided a potential problem for the First Lady: she was viewed by many as a carpetbagger, moved from Arkansas (via the White House) to a New York residence for the convenience of using her new state as a springboard.
Not that it hadn’t happened before. Bobby Kennedy, long of Massachusetts, ran successfully for the Senate from New York in 1964, while James Buckley, long of Connecticut, did the same in 1970. Kennedy, like Mrs. Clinton, was a Democrat running in a heavily Democratic state; Buckley, because of his status as a long-shot Conservative candidate, drew few of the carpetbagging broadsides lobbed at the other two. He won in a three-way race with 39% of the vote.
Speculation among the Republicans wearing rose-colored glasses was that Clinton would find the attempt a losing one, lacking as she did the reputation of famous brothers to fall back on, as did Kennedy (the martyred President John F.) and Buckley (the esteemed conservative writer William). Instead, she had a husband who had been impeached for, primarily, a sexual tryst with a White House intern. That the First Lady ended up dispatching Lazio rather easily (55%-43%) put the lie to that misplaced optimism.
Anyway, as I stood there near the Lazio 2000 bus, I was thinking of Mrs. Clinton’s visit -- of the Secret Service moving around her, their weapons bulging in their suit-coated armpits, eyes darting and dashing around the auditorium; and of the presence on the streets near the auditorium of seemingly every law enforcement officer in the county. 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 that street corner.
The comparison was striking: an armed Clinton camp versus, here, a single set of eyes; and somehow, that imbalance made Lazio seem more appealing. Call it the lure of the underdog.
“... my wife, Pat, who with me is raising two fine daughters,” Lazio was saying, “and I can tell you it takes more than a village to raise a child.”
That was, of course, supposed to be a Hillary slam, directed at a book she had written about child-raising titled “It Takes a Village: And Other Lessons Children Teach Us.” The phrase is an old African proverb maintaining that it takes an entire community of people to help in the growth and maturation of children.
The Lazio crowd, such as it was, murmured approval, and Lazio smiled through his fat lip. I looked for telltale signs of drool caused by the wound, but there were none; he was under control, but struggling, I thought, to put the words together smoothly. Maybe part of that was the injury; I knew I’d have trouble saying anything with eight stitches in my lip. Meanwhile, Lazio was visually playing to the media -- smiling, turning this way and that so the various cameras and camcorders could pick up his young and beaming image.
“To me the 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, almost muted in the course of his words by a passing horn here, a downshifting truck there, and an occasional blast of cooling lake wind that carried his words south.
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,” she said.
“No, no, I’m going,” her husband answered. “Too hot.”
Which I suspect it would have been later at home if he had opted to stay.
After they left, I had a clear field of vision to Lazio and to his wife, Patricia, 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, saying: “It’s important you know her, too, because we’re together and we’re a team on this.” She continued with her nods and smile through the minute or two more of her husband’s speech.
Lazio seemed to energize an extra notch as he reached the end of his spiel; I was reminded 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 Clinton’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” -- a Senatorial hopeful known to few, facing an uphill battle against someone everybody felt they knew. He could just let it fly.
Of course, his laid-back, let-the-dice-roll-as-they-may line might well have been scripted. His loosey-goosey attitude might well have been a structured pose. In any event, I didn’t see it lasting long. For when an election draws near, candidates are generally whatever and whoever 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 passageway. I looked around for the sheriff, and saw that he hadn’t moved, though his eyes continued to; and I had to content myself with the knowledge that Lazio was being protected by a pro -- albeit one with aging eyes that peered through what looked, to my own bespectacled eyes, like bifocals.
As the candidate pumped the flesh, his wife backed away and onto the bus, followed by someone with a camera and someone else with a camcorder -- members of the GOP entourage, I decided, since most of the media were heading for a different vehicle: a white bus I hadn’t seen in the close confines on the side street but that I now spotted sticking out from behind Savard's in an expanded lot that stretched around the building's western and southern exteriors. I pondered the stark contrast between the brightness of that bus and the dark tones of the Lazio 2000 “Mainstream Express.”
At first I thought the different paint jobs fitting, since government and media are often necessarily at odds; and then I thought them more than fitting -- perhaps symbolically essential -- since whether at odds or not, government and media 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 substantially free publicity by the literal busload as he started his futile drive to stop Hillary Clinton.
And the media was getting an easy, readable story -- about a fresh-faced guy with a swollen lip who professed to know how to play the game.
After I cleared Watkins and the neighboring community of Montour Falls and started up the long hill toward my home village of Odessa, I wondered how Hillary Clinton would fare.
She would fight, for sure; no doubt attack: impugn Lazio’s character in subtle ways. And I wondered if he, in turn, would morph into a younger, male version of her: visibly and verbally mannered.
As the campaign progressed, I lost interest in either one as the polls made it clear that this was a mismatch, that Lazio would lose by at least 10 percentage points.
But in the moment, on the way up the hill to home, I was imbued with at least some interest in Lazio, for I had found him likable. And I thought that if he indeed morphed from laid back to stilted, I could perhaps send along a suggestion; or deliver it in person, if his grassroots campaign continued to offer such easy access to his ear.
I could tell him how he might relax. I could tell him about a woman who practiced the art of flower essences on a hill above Watkins Glen.
Addendum: In the ensuing years, Hillary Clinton went on to be a U.S. Senator, a Secretary of State and a failed Presidential nominee; Lazio fell short in an attempt to become the New York Governor in 2010, went into private practice at a large firm, and has written and been a TV commentator from time to time; Savard's restaurant was sold, then closed, succeeded by another, faster food eatery; and Congressman Houghton, after a long and distinguished business and government service career, passed away in March of 2020 at the age of 93.
Photo in text: Senatorial candidate Rick Lazio at microphones during his 2000 campaign. His wife Patricia is at the far left. Rudy Giuliani is front right. Behind Lazio, but obscured by him, is New York Governor George Pataki. (Photo provided)