It’s an odd sensation to be sitting on the back of a golf cart, holding on for dear life, as a member of Hillary Clinton’s security team—bald and meat-headed, his blazer straining to remain stitched around his bulky arms—speeds like O.J. Simpson in order to deliver you to a secure location. This can happen, I now know, if you happen to make the mistake of walking down the wrong pathway—of a public park—on your way to a Clinton speech.
“Get in!” he barked. Then, a sigh: “Not your fault.” That’s just the way things are around here.
Here would be Hillary Island—formerly Roosevelt Island—a strip of land located in the middle of the East River between Manhattan and Queens that some 10,000 New Yorkers call home. More specifically, here is Four Freedoms Park—a grassy island enclave named for the Four Freedoms FDR spelled out in his 1941 State of the Union speech: Freedom of speech, of worship, from want, and from fear—where the Clinton team has assembled a red and blue stage, in the shape of an H, for her to pace on as she delivers her first major campaign speech.
Clinton formally declared her candidacy for the Democratic nomination almost exactly a month ago, in April, with a 2:15 video. “Everyday Americans need a champion,” she said then. “And I wanna be that champion.”
Since that time, Clinton has not been heard from much as she has traveled around, talking to some voters and ignoring questions from the media and trying to seem as normal as possible despite being anything but. Saturday’s event was designed to highlight her champion-ness by contrasting her with the New Deal Democrat, whose Four Freedoms she has attempted to mimic with her own “Four Fights,” the economy, families, campaign finance and national security.
Saturday’s event, according according to The New York Times, was organized by a small group of Clinton insiders including Huma Abedin, Clinton’s longtime aide and the vice chair of her campaign and Jim Margolis, who helped orchestrate both inaugurations for President Obama.
The result felt borderline dystopian.
Roosevelt Island, transformed by architects in the 1930s to serve as a “living memorial,” looks like a cross between something out of Grand Theft Auto and a ghost town. It has a fake forest, and brutalist apartment complexes. Its abandoned insane asylum was turned into a luxury highrise.
Roosevelt Island’s Amalgamated Bank, owned by unions and serving unions, now sports a sign declaring it proud to be the bank of Hillary For America.
And Four Freedoms Park, located partially beneath the 59th Street Bridge, is lush and green, and houses a decaying, vine-covered Smallpox Hospital, abandoned in the 1950s. The Hillary campaign installed a forest of port-a-potties and lined the walkways with arrow signs (Hillary’s logo) pointing in the direction of her speech, which could be accessed by ascending a glimmering white staircase. In the distance, you could see the “Pepsi-Cola” sign in Queens.
The park feels divorced from Manhattan, whose skyscrapers loom from across the water, not just geographically, but spiritually. With the bomb-sniffing dogs, security guards, metal detectors, police officers, Men In Black-looking security guards and campaign staff speeding around on golf-carts, Hillary Island felt like its own world with its own rule. It’s a serene summertime police state—wherein campaign staffers told reporters to stay in their designated area, away from attendees—pleasant and creepy at the same time.
Which might be the best way to describe Clinton herself during Saturday’s launch.
In a royal blue blazer and glowing blonde hair, Clinton took to the stage to deliver her Four Fights speech. At times she sounded robotic, like the pol who won’t take a position without poll testing it as she has been accused at others some humanity crept through. All the while, though, it was hard to shake the feeling that she was already president—of this island.
Clinton borrowed from Elizabeth Warren and her primary competitor Bernie Sanders in her tough-talk about no-good corporations and the need for campaign finance reform. About the latter, she said, “If necessary, I will support a Constitutional amendment to undo the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United.”
She repeatedly called for equal rights for the LGBT community, going as far as to criticize the GOP for “turn[ing] their backs on gay people who love each other.” (Something Clinton was doing herself just a few years ago.)
Some of Clinton’s notes were sour, however. In her criticism of the Republican field of candidates, Clinton alleged, “Now, there may be some new voices in the presidential Republican choir, but they’re all singing the same old song—a song called ‘Yesterday.’” She continued, “You know the one—all our troubles look as though they’re here to stay, and we need a place to hide away. They believe in yesterday.” Clinton tried to crack a joke, “You’re lucky I didn’t try singing that, too, I’ll tell you!”
At another point, Clinton said, “I may not be the youngest candidate in this race, but I will be the youngest woman President in the history of the United States! And the first grandmother as well.” She followed it up with another attempted joke. “And one additional advantage: You won’t see my hair turn white in the White House. I’ve been coloring it for years!”