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GOP CONVENTION '96

For Molinari, Keynote Speech Is Not 'Just the Woman Thing'

Politics: New York congresswoman believes Dole picked her because, at 38, she's symbol of generation his 'vision for the country addresses.'

August 13, 1996|GERALDINE BAUM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — Susan Molinari, tonight's keynote speaker at the Republican convention, is the first to admit she doesn't exactly come from the wing of the Grand Old Party known for great oratory.

"My strength is not in giving speeches," says the congresswoman from Staten Island, speaking fast, her hands moving nonstop for added emphasis.

Molinari also acknowledges that, as an urban Northeasterner who supports abortion rights and gun control, some might see her as a Republican anomaly.

But Molinari says she understands why Bob Dole is giving her 10 minutes under the lights tonight. And it's not "just the woman thing," she insists, referring to the GOP's vexing need for female votes. It's also not just because she was among the first in Congress to endorse him. Nor because her husband, Rep. Bill Paxon of suburban Buffalo, was the key fund-raiser and strategist for the 1994 elections that turned the U.S. House from Democratic to Republican.

Rather, Molinari, 38, sees herself as a symbol of "the generation that Bob Dole's vision for the country addresses."

"When you talk about giving tax cuts and stimulating economic growth and providing jobs and job security, it's more directed at people like us, like me," she says. "People who are at that point of doing OK but wanting to do better and certainly wanting to do the best for our children."

The world will probably get yet another glimpse tonight of Molinari's own child, Susan Ruby Paxon, born almost three months ago. The plan is to have her in the VIP lounge during mom's big speech and for dad and granddad, former Rep. Guy Molinari, to bring her up to the podium when it's over.

In fact, with baby in tow, the petite and down-home Molinari and her tall husband have become the mediagenic Republican family, radiating the message that the GOP understands the awesome balancing act of working parents.

In 1994, Molinari became vice chairwoman of Speaker Newt Gingrich's House Leadership Conference and took on the important role of voice of the revolution, defending every vote and policy with a snappy sound bite and a smile.

But Molinari isn't just some political Gidget, according to her friends.

"She is one of the brightest people in Congress," says former GOP speech writer Peggy Noonan.

Noonan says she has given Molinari encouragement but no buzz phrases for tonight's speech. "I simply warned Susan against being too 'cheerleady' but to be upbeat and, most of all, herself," says Noonan.

Molinari was standing between the kitchen and bathroom of a Buffalo restaurant when she learned that she would be addressing the convention. She was upstate to have her baby christened when she heard about Dole's offer while out to dinner and had to call CNN's "Larry King Live" television show on a portable phone to accept.

Recalling the incident in a speech to the New York Stock Exchange, Molinari said: "I'm on the phone and I'm thinking, 'I just had a martini and a glass of wine and all I can hear are flushing toilets and someone doing the dishes and I have to talk to Bob Dole and Larry King on national TV?' "

Later, during an interview, Molinari talked about the downside of the national spotlight. It had just gotten a little uglier that day in Buffalo when she was accused of using her baby as a prop because she cradled the sleeping infant while meeting with reporters after the Dole announcement.

"So my choice was to wake the baby and give her to a staffer, in which case somebody would write how I'm using my staff to take care of my kid while they're paid on federal time," she says. "Or I could hold the baby."

Indeed, new attention has brought added and harsher scrutiny of her life and political career.

This week, for example, an article in the Nation, a liberal magazine, wryly portrays her transformation from a "gum-smacking, chug-a-lugging, carefree young Staten Islander," who once said she wanted to own a bar in the Bahamas, into a GOP poster girl for family values.

The week before, another writer condemned her as a hypocrite for taking on White House drug users when, according to college friends, she, too, indulged in her youth--which she readily admits but says was "a mistake."

More recently, she was caught in a lie when a New York cable TV station aired footage of her in a 1992 interview denying ever having used marijuana. Molinari says now that lying then was "stupid" but that she had panicked at the time.

Then there's the label problem. Since she was picked to deliver the keynoter, conservatives have amplified their complaints that she's too liberal and moderates have moaned even louder than they have in the past that she's too conservative, citing her 91.2% record of voting with Gingrich.

Molinari is perhaps understandably defensive about it all.

"Labels, labels," she says. "I wish they'd make up their minds about what I am and am not. One minute I'm a right-wing extremist, the next I'm the nation's moderate."

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