In Vodka Non Veritas
By MAUREEN DOWD
Hillary Clinton always reminded me of Sarah, the Mission Doll, in “Guys and Dolls.”
As first lady, she had that earnest, sometimes sanctimonious, air of certitude and do-gooding that earned her the nickname Saint Hillary. As a senator, she has gotten friendly with conservatives in her Congressional prayer group and has lately been spotted wearing crosses around her neck, a gold one and a diamond one.
“Is it, perhaps, a sign that her faith may be a bit more in the foreground as 2008 approaches?” Ben Smith mused in a New York Daily News blog.
And yet Hillary always struck me as the sort of buttoned-up and driven woman who would be really fun if you could get her out for a night of dulces de leche in Cuba, as Marlon Brando did Jean Simmons in “Guys and Dolls.”
My instinct about Hillary’s subterranean saucy side was confirmed when I read a front-page story in The Times about her unlikely friendship with her expected rival in the 2008 race, John McCain.
Anne Kornblut wrote that two summers ago, on a Congressional trip to Estonia with Lindsey Graham and Susan Collins, Senator Clinton “astonished her traveling companions by suggesting that the group do what one does in the Baltics: hold a vodka-drinking contest. Delighted, the leader of the delegation, Senator John McCain, quickly agreed. The after-dinner drinks went so well — memories are a bit hazy on who drank how much — that Mr. McCain, an Arizona Republican, later told people how unexpectedly engaging he found Mrs. Clinton to be.”
It seemed a refreshing breeze of bipartisanship in W.’s acrid era. But a few days after the anecdote appeared, Mr. McCain flatly denied it on Fox News as “Not true.”
“Didn’t happen?” Alan Colmes pressed.
“No,” Mr. McCain insisted.
“But you and she have a good working relationship, right?” Mr. Colmes asked.
“I try to have a good working relationship with all senators, and I have a good working relationship with Senator Clinton, and I try to do that,” Mr. McCain said.
Sean Hannity chimed in, “I’m glad to hear, Senator, you weren’t drinking shots with Senator Clinton.”
“I was not,” Mr. McCain repeated, emphatically.
Then the senator went on Jay Leno’s show and again denied the Night of Baltic Sea carousing. After joking that “we were trying to get Ted Kennedy to be the judge,” he insisted again: “Didn’t happen. Didn’t happen.”
“It was the front page of The New York Times!” Mr. Leno said, to which Mr. McCain riposted, “Don’t believe everything you read.”
Joshua Green, reporting the cover profile of Hillary for the latest issue of The Atlantic Monthly, was rebuffed when he asked for an interview with Mr. McCain about the night Hillary poured shots for fellow lawmakers. But Mr. Green ran into Mr. McCain walking through the Capitol and asked him about the Baltics escapade. “McCain lit up at the recollection,” he wrote. “ ‘It’s been 50 years since I’d been in a drinking game,’ said McCain. ... He added, admiringly, ‘She can really hold her liquor.’ ”
The Straight Talk Express was swerving again. Confused, I checked in with the McCain camp.
“They went out and had dinner,” I was told. “After dinner, they had drinks. It was not a drinking contest, the way you and I think of a drinking contest. John had two drinks.” Team McCain wanted it to be clear that Susan Collins and Hillary Clinton were more dedicated revelers, and that it was not an intimate party — “there were six senators and staff and Estonian hangers-on.”
So the vodka vivacity happened, but Mr. McCain’s staff, eager to see the senator pander to what Jon Stewart called the “crazy-base world,” put a stop to their boss’s inviting Mrs. Clinton on trips. The former fighter jock and “scamp,” as his mom called him, has become so lifeless and base-whipped that he is scared to be seen knocking back Stolis with a nice Methodist girl from the Midwest who wears crosses around her neck.
“John was not intentionally misleading,” his person said. “The image a drinking contest sets up is not very pretty, and we’re in serious times. The best thing he’s done is to be collegial. You can do that by drinking, but it’s not a drinking contest. Is this splitting hairs?”
Actually, yeah. The once candid senator is starting to sound downright Clintonian with all this silly parsing and dissembling. I did not have drinks with that woman!