The First Lady’s First Debate

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Hillary Rodham Clinton and Rick Lazio met last night in the first debate of this year’s Senate election, which aired on national networks with all of the trappings of a presidential debate. It was Clinton’s first political debate, and Lazio’s first at this level. The candidates fielded difficult questions from local reporters addressing health care, education, environment, the upstate economy, and the fate of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard, avoiding abortion. From the beginning the candidates exchanged jabs at one another. Lazio derided Clinton for her outsider status in New York, declared her 1993 health care reform proposal an “unmitigated disaster”, and repeatedly questioned her trustworthiness by virtue of association with the president. Clinton pounded Lazio for casting his votes to support Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America and deep cuts in education and health spending. She called him head whip to Newt Gingrich’s right wing policies. [includes rush transcript]

The debate took an early turn into a character assassination trial when the mediator, Tim Russert of NBC’s Meet the Press showed a video clip of Mrs. Clinton on the “Today” show in 1998 defending her husband against allegations that he had an affair with Monica Lewinsky. Russet questioned if New Yorkers could trust Clinton given that she had misled people. The character assassinations escalated from there between her and Lazio.


  • Mediator plays tape of Hillary declaring her husband’s innocence in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and Lazio’s doctored commercial with Moynihan. This and their reactions. Later on in the debate, Lazio insisting Hillary sign a pledge on the air and Hillary’s response. Ends with the closing statements of the candidates.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Long Island Congressmember Rick Lazio met last night in the first debate of this year’s Senate election, which aired on national networks with the fanfare of a presidential debate. It was Clinton’s first political debate and the first election debate of a First Lady, and Lazio’s first at this level.

The candidates fielded difficult questions from local reporters addressing healthcare, education, environment, the Upstate economy and the fate of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard. They did not talk about abortion.

From the beginning, the candidates exchanged jabs at one another. Lazio derided Clinton for her outsider status in New York, declared her 1993 healthcare reform proposal an “unmitigated disaster” and repeatedly questioned her trustworthiness by virtue of association with the President. Clinton pounded Lazio for casting his votes to support Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America and deep cuts in education and health spending. She called him head whip to Newt Gingrich’s rightwing policies.

We’re going to turn now to excerpts of that debate, which took place in Buffalo, the hometown of Tim Russert, NBC Meet the Press’s talk show host. He moderated the debate.

TIM RUSSERT: To both the candidates, Mrs. Clinton first. The issue of trust and character has been raised repeatedly in this campaign. Mrs. Clinton, I want to start with you. In January of ’98 you went on The Today Show and talked about what had occurred at the White House. I want to play that for you and our viewers and our voters and give you a chance to respond.

MATT LAUER: So these charges came as big a shock to you as anyone?

HILLARY CLINTON: And to my husband. I mean, you know, he woke me up Wednesday morning and said, “You’re not going to believe this!”

MATT LAUER: So when people say there is a lot of smoke here, your message is where there’s smoke —

HILLARY CLINTON: There isn’t any fire.

MATT LAUER: If an American president had an adulterous liaison in the White House and lied to cover it up, should the American people ask for his resignation?

HILLARY CLINTON: Well, they should certainly be concerned about it.

MATT LAUER: Should they ask for his resignation?

HILLARY CLINTON: Well, I think if all that were proven true, I think that would be a very serious offense. That is not going to be proven true.

TIM RUSSERT: Regrettably, it was proven true. Do you regret misleading the American people? And, secondly, in that same interview, you said that those who were criticizing the President were part of a vast rightwing conspiracy. Amongst those eventually criticizing the President were Joe Lieberman. Would you now apologize for branding people as part of a vast rightwing conspiracy?

HILLARY CLINTON: Well, you know, Tim, that was a very — a very painful time for me, for my family and for our country. It is something that I regret deeply that anyone had to go through. And I wish that we all could look at it from the perspective of history, but we can’t yet. We’re going to have to wait until those books are written.

But from my perspective, you know, I’m very hopeful that we can go forward in a united way. That certainly is what I’ve tried to do. And I’ve tried to be as forthcoming as I could, given the circumstances that I faced. Obviously I didn’t mislead anyone. I didn’t know the truth. And there’s a great deal of pain associated with that, and my husband has certainly acknowledged that and made it clear that he did mislead the country, as well as his family.

But you mentioned trust and, you know, I’m standing here running for the Senate. I didn’t cast the votes that Newt Gingrich asked me to cast. I’ve been a steady, consistent voice on behalf of children and families and what I’ve worked for for thirty years. And I want to try to put that experience to work for the people of New York.

TIM RUSSERT: In trying to unite people, however, is it appropriate to brand anyone who criticized the President as part of a vast rightwing conspiracy?

HILLARY CLINTON: Well, I certainly didn’t mean to extend that to anyone who might criticize the President, especially after the truth came out. You know I have the greatest respect for Senator Lieberman. I’ve known him for thirty years. He and I share a lot of the same concerns about media violence, for example. There have been a lot of books written about this whole matter, and people are free to believe whatever they choose. But I think there is strong opposition in the country to the vision that I share with many about what we’d like to do for our nation. You know, we just have a very different set of ideas about everything from the economy and education to, you know, strengthening families and providing healthcare. And that’s what I think we should be focusing on, are those kinds of issue differences.

TIM RUSSERT: In your response, Mr. Lazio, would you also address your fundraising letter of July of 2000, where you said the First Lady embarrassed our country?

RICK LAZIO: I stand by that fundraising letter. I stand by that statement. And I think that, frankly, what’s so troubling here with respect to what my opponent just said, is somehow that it only matters what you say when you get caught. And character and trust is about well more than that. And blaming others every time you have responsibility? Unfortunately, that’s become a pattern, I think, for my opponent. And it’s something that I reject and, I believe, that New Yorkers reject. We can do well better.

TIM RUSSERT: Mr. Lazio, your credibility was brought into question earlier in this race, when this television commercial ran throughout the state:

NARRATOR: Lazio and Moynihan made a difference. They’re from New York. They’re fighting for New York. Tell Lazio and Moynihan, “Keep fighting for us!”

TIM RUSSERT: Senator Moynihan wrote you a letter and said that you have never been photographed together, that this was misleading and was, quote, “soft money fakery.” He asked you to contact the Republican Leadership Committee, who paid for that ad, the two members of the advisory board, George Pataki, Alfonse D’Amato. And your campaign said, “We don’t know how to reach them.”

RICK LAZIO: Well, let me say, first of all, that ad did not come out of my campaign. I’m taking full responsibility for everything that my campaign does, whether it’s the letter that you referenced or any commercial. The truth of the matter is, though, that I was the author and was the prime mover in the House behind the work incentives bill that this commercial was all about. The fact is, is that it did help disabled Americans go back to work and keep their healthcare benefits, that it was an accomplishment, that I am a doer, that I did get the job done, that it was signed into law. And that’s the truth of the matter.

TIM RUSSERT: But why give the impression you’re walking down the hall with Senator Moynihan, when that was, in fact, dummied footage?

RICK LAZIO: Listen, I don’t stand for that. I reject that, but that’s not my commercial. We would never have created that commercial or aired that commercial.

TIM RUSSERT: Why not call George Pataki, Alfonse D’Amato, and say, “Take it off”?

RICK LAZIO: Now, it was taken off.

TIM RUSSERT: At your request.

RICK LAZIO: It was not — it was taken off. I think it ran its course, as a matter of fact.

TIM RUSSERT: Mrs. Clinton?

HILLARY CLINTON: Well, I’ve been trying to run a campaign based on the issues, not insults. And I think that we’ve just seen a clear example of how difficult that is. You know, there are such big differences between me and my opponent. We differ on a patients’ bill of rights: he’s on the side of the Republican leadership and the HMOs; I’m on the side of the American Medical Association, the Nurses Association. We differ on the prescription drug benefit for Medicare: he sides with the drug companies; I want to make sure we have a drug benefit that covers everybody at an affordable cost. He has been on different sides of issues that are critical to the future of New York, like 100,000 police officers, 100,000 teachers and the school modernization bill.

But I guess that talking about the issues is something that he’s not very comfortable about, because he does have these votes and this record, not just back when you were deputy whip to Newt Gingrich, but in the last year or two. But I think the people of New York want to know not who can write nasty fundraising letters or clever commercials that, you know, Senator Moynihan says are fakery, but where we stand on the issues.

TIM RUSSERT: A question from Mark Hammester, who is here in the audience: “Much of America is watching this race. Can both of you set an example to the rest of the country and renounce the use of soft money ads for the rest of this campaign?” Mr. Lazio?

RICK LAZIO: Absolutely. As somebody who has twice voted for McCain/Feingold, who’s a strong believer in campaign finance, who’s got the support of the leader on the campaign finance movement, John McCain, I think it’s my responsibility to try and lead on this effort. As America looks to New York, this is an opportunity for us to be able to say we don’t have to rely on soft money.

And my campaign has not aired one commercial nor raised one dollar in soft money. My opponent has raised soft money by the bucket loads. And I guess they’ve learned how to raise soft money over many years.

Let me say this, though. We have an opportunity to do something important here tonight. I have right here a pledge that I sent over to my opponent. It’s a ban on soft money pledge. I’m willing to say we will neither raise nor spend a dime of soft money and ask all outside groups to stay away, if my opponent is willing to do the same. And you know what, Mrs. Clinton? If you agree to do this, we’ll be making a huge statement about character and trust to the rest of the country. And let’s get it done now and today. Let’s make sure we bring all the press in and actually nail a deal down that we could be proud of.

TIM RUSSERT: No soft money and no outside groups advertising on New York television?

RICK LAZIO: Yeah. As my opponent is willing to agree to the same, I’m willing to not raise a dime of soft money, not spend a dime of soft money and call on all outside groups to stay away from this race and not spend any money in furtherance of my campaign or —

TIM RUSSERT: And you’ll make phone calls to Governor Pataki, if need be.

RICK LAZIO: Or make any phone calls.

TIM RUSSERT: Mrs. Clinton.

HILLARY CLINTON: Well, Tim, you know, back in May I made exactly that offer. I said, “Let’s forego soft money, but let’s also be sure we don’t have these independent expenditures,” like the one we just talked about concerning Senator Moynihan and the fake ad. And I said, you know, if you would do this, I would certainly abide by it. If you will get signed agreements from all your friends who say they’re raising $32 million and will not be running so-called independent ads, will not be doing push-polling, will not be doing mass mailings that are filled with these outrageous personal attacks, I think we can have an agreement. I’d like to see those signed letters from all those different groups that you have counted on to flood this state.

You know, I was in Tonawanda not so long ago, and I was at a senior center at a lunch and an elderly woman, you know, reached up to shake my hand. She said, “I’m so glad to see you in person, because I’ve been getting the meanest mail about you!” Well, I know that everybody in New York is getting flooded with “mean mail.”

I think if we can get signed agreements from all of your allies — well, you wouldn’t ask the one group to stop —- but if you will get those signed agreements, then, you know, we can make a deal. But I also -—

TIM RUSSERT: Do we have a deal, Mr. Lazio?

RICK LAZIO: Who said — I’d like to get it done today.

TIM RUSSERT: Will you get those signed agreements?

RICK LAZIO: Yeah, I’d be happy to. But I want you to be the — I want to get it done right now. I don’t want any more wiggle room. I don’t want any more evasion. The truth is, Tim, is that Mrs. Clinton has been airing millions of dollars in soft money ads. It’s the height of hypocrisy to talk about soft money, when she’s been raising soft money by the bucket loads out in Hollywood and spending all that money on negative advertising. Height of hypocrisy! Let’s just get this deal done right now.

TIM RUSSERT: I give Mrs. Clinton a chance to respond.

RICK LAZIO: Right here, here it is! Let’s sign it. It’s the New York Freedom from Soft Money Pact. I signed it. We can — we can both sit down together. We can all get all the media in here. We will make sure it’s an ironclad deal. And — and I’m happy to — to abide by anything that we all agree on. But let’s get it done now. Let’s not get any more wiggle room.

TIM RUSSERT: Mrs. Clinton, you want to respond?

HILLARY CLINTON: Well, yes, I certainly do. You know, I admire that. That was a wonderful performance, and I —

RICK LAZIO: Well, why don’t you just sign it?

HILLARY CLINTON: And you did it very well.

RICK LAZIO: I’m not asking you to admire it; I’m asking you to sign it!

HILLARY CLINTON: Well, I would be happy to, when you give me the signed letters —

RICK LAZIO: Well, right here! Right here!

HILLARY CLINTON: When you give me —

RICK LAZIO: Right here! Sign it right now!

HILLARY CLINTON: Well, we’ll shake — we’ll shake on this, Rick.

RICK LAZIO: No, no. I want your signature, because I think that everybody wants to see you signing something that you said you were for. I’m for it. I haven’t done it. You’ve been violating it. Why don’t you stand up and do something — do something important for America? While America is looking at New York, why don’t you show some leadership? Because it goes to trust and character.

HILLARY CLINTON: And this new radio ad from the Republican Party using soft money is not part of your campaign?

RICK LAZIO: Oh, what are we talking about here? No, let’s just put things in perspective.

TIM RUSSERT: We are out of time. We have to go out —

RICK LAZIO: Six, seven, eight million dollars that you’ve been spending —

TIM RUSSERT: We have to allow — we have to allow time for closing statements. One of the more interesting questions was from Larry Meckler, who said, “If you were on Who Wants to be a Millionaire, who would be your lifeline? If you can answer in ten seconds, Mrs. Clinton, I’ll give it to you.



RICK LAZIO: My wife.

TIM RUSSERT: And now we have our closing statements from our candidates. By a flip of a coin, Mrs. Clinton goes first.

HILLARY CLINTON: Well, I want to thank everyone who put on this hour. And I look forward to debating these issues and talking about them, because that’s what I’ve tried to run, is a campaign based on the issues and the real facts of what’s at stake in this election.

You know, I’ve traveled all over the state, and I just hope that New Yorkers will decide it’s more important what I’m for than where I’m from. I will fight very hard with specific ideas about how to provide quality affordable healthcare, modernize our schools, create good jobs in every corner of the state, including and especially Upstate, and get our fair share from Washington.

I’ll also fight to maintain our national prosperity by paying down the national debt and cutting the taxes that middle-class people need to be cut. I’ll also work to secure Social Security and add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare.

I believe that we need to get the guns out of the hands of children and criminals, protect our environment and preserve a woman’s right to choose. I will use the thirty years of my experience to go to work for the people of New York.

But, look, I know that there may be some who think that the most important issue is who’s lived here the longest. That’s the test. And if that’s the test, I can’t pass that test. But if you want someone who will get up every day and be on your side and fight for better schools, healthcare and jobs, I can pass that test. And I would be honored to serve as the senator on behalf of the people of New York.

TIM RUSSERT: Thank you, Mrs. Clinton. The closing statement from Mr. Lazio.

RICK LAZIO: Thank you, Tim. At the heart of this campaign are two critical issues: character and trust. They’ve come up all night. Now, the measure of someone’s character and trust is not what you say; it’s what you actually do.

Let me point to three things that I’ve actually gotten done in Congress. First, I wrote and passed sweeping housing legislation that’s helped the elderly, Native Americans, the homeless, the disabled, frail elderly and new parents get access to quality housing. Second, I’ve been an advocate for cancer patients in the House. I wrote and passed the Breast and Cervical Cancer Treatment Act. That provides low-income women with quality cancer care for the first time. And third, I’ve been the champion for the disabled. I wrote and passed the Work Incentives Improvement Act. That’s historic legislation that allows disabled Americans to go back to work and keep their healthcare. And I got it signed into law.

Now, you’ve got to decide, in this campaign, how you define character and trust. My opponent has talked and talked. But she’s done nothing for New York. I’ve delivered for New York. And as that old Yankee manager, Casey Stengel, used to say, “You can check it out.”

AMY GOODMAN: Long Island Republican Congressmember Rick Lazio in his first debate for the New York Senate seat against First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. It took place in Buffalo last night and was moderated by Tim Russert of NBC.

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