• U.S.

Hillary Clinton: A Different Kind of First Lady

7 minute read
Margaret Carlson/Washington

FOR AMERICA, WEDNESDAY WAS THE first day after the election of a new President. For Hillary Clinton, it was the first day to define the most ill- defined job in America. After a decade of getting up early, popping into her blue Oldsmobile and driving her daughter Chelsea to school before heading to work at Little Rock’s leading law firm, and after a year of nonstop, around-the-clock campaigning, she now has time for a second cup of coffee. Of course, her new position has its privileges: she gets to live in the country’s most famous house, jet on Air Force One to visit heads of state and throw parties with the most impressive guest lists in the world. Someone else sees to the details.

But if it’s a fairy-tale existence in some ways — the closest a democracy comes to having a queen — the position is not without its frustrations for a woman who could be king. There have been accomplished women in the East Wing, but there has never been one who would qualify to be White House counsel, if only her husband were not President.

The question is whether being First Lady will change Hillary Clinton or whether she will change the role. Given the credentials she has, there is speculation that Bill Clinton will find a way to employ his wife without igniting a protest. After all, a new generation of leaders brings with it new assumptions about the roles that women — even wives — should play. Hillary may eventually conclude that she can use the First Lady’s bully pulpit however she wishes, and then let her accomplishments carry the day.

On the other hand, the Clintons were schooled in caution by the mixed reception Hillary received during the campaign, and they may continue to move carefully. When the Governor talked about “buy one, get one free” and possibly appointing Hillary to the Cabinet, her popularity took a dive. “People have changed their attitude about Hillary,” says pollster Peter Hart, “but if they see her reinforcing one of their earlier negative feelings, they won’t like her.” Last week when leaders in the field of family law sent her a thick proposal to bring all the varied government programs on families and children under her East Wing purview, Hillary responded only by saying that she wanted to continue to be “a voice for children” — which fits within the choose-a-cause deportment of First Ladies past.

Such careful hedging will be less necessary now that Bill Clinton has won. It is telling that Hillary seems to have mastered the lessons of accommodation just as meticulously as any law school text. As the campaign unfolded, she was able to lower her public profile even as her private influence grew. She did not wield power for its own sake, but rather intervened as needed, fixing speeches, poking holes in arguments, warning the Governor of his foes and rewarding his friends. She was the candidate’s most pointed critic, arguing that he was too passive in the first debate in New Hampshire (he has never been so laid back again), and his most trusted ally. She was much more likely to end a meeting than hold one, the one person who could cut off debate and force a decision. Without diminishing other First Ladies’ intelligence, Hillary Clinton’s is that of a trained killer lawyer, and the Governor says proudly that he wants her mind brought to bear on whatever he is doing, including being President. In any event, her influence is so pervasive that he has it with him whether or not she is in the room.

The presidential race was not Hillary’s first experience with expedient self-censorship. Bill Clinton lost his first re-election bid as Governor in part because voters did not like the way this attorney out of Yale and Wellesley kept her maiden name. After she began answering to Clinton instead of Rodham and acting more like an archetypal wife and mother, she gradually expanded her role. Over the years she headed up an education task force that instituted a competency test for teachers, brought a neonatal-care unit and two fully equipped hospital helicopters to the state and introduced a home- instruction program for parents of preschoolers, all the while attending teas in Batesville and Pea Ridge. Conservative columnist John Robert Starr of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, a rabid opponent of Bill Clinton’s, says that “the best thing that could happen would be to let Hillary run the country. I know that sounds ridiculous, but she has just never failed.”

Having successfully refurbished her image in Arkansas, Hillary Clinton had to start all over again once she stepped onto the national stage. “The Hillary problem,” as some aides called it, reflected the perception of some voters that she combined the aura of the teacher’s pet with the grimness of the first generation of women lawyers, afraid to crack a joke about a client for fear of being sent back to the typing pool. To some, her marriage looked like a merger. Former candidate Michael Dukakis only read about Swedish land- use planning in his spare time; the Clintons talk about similarly dense topics with friends over dinner in the huge kitchen in the statehouse.

Throughout the months of scrutiny, Hillary took the criticism seriously enough to change, but not personally enough to wilt. Her critics contend that she underwent a personality transplant, allowing handlers to substitute the heart of Martha Stewart for her own. But she insists she just offered people a more complete picture of herself as mother, wife and friend, as well as attorney. Chelsea, whom she initially shielded from publicity, was gradually incorporated into the family’s public picture postcard. The lifelong friends who swear she is the first person they would call from the police station, and not because she is a lawyer, became available for interviews. When Carolyn Staley, Bill Clinton’s childhood friend, had a miscarriage, Hillary, who had had her own troubles with pregnancy, was the one who gave her comfort. Says , Parenthood star Mary Steenburgen, a longtime friend: “She’s utterly there for you.”

The experience of 1992 argues for a careful, perhaps even slow assumption of responsibility. Washington remains the heart of tea-pouring country, where Senate wives still hold Red Cross blood-bank drives and frustrated political wives have a long tradition of giving up their high-powered careers to advance their husbands’. Marilyn Quayle was not worried about preserving her essential nature as a woman until the demands of her husband’s rising political career required her to give up her law practice. She often complained about not being valued in her own right, and about her treatment by reporters when she took off the white gloves and came out policymaking.

It is natural in a democracy for people to worry most about the influence they cannot see — which helps explain the uproar when their worst suspicions are confirmed by what they do see. Some commentators went off like a cheap car alarm when Rosalynn Carter’s fingers grazed the doorknob of the Cabinet room. Columnists conjured up Lady Macbeth when Nancy Reagan introduced policy-by- horoscope, or when she nudged her husband at a press conference on the hostages and urgently whispered, “Tell them you’re doing the best you can.”

As she flies into Washington for the Inauguration, having studied closely the biographies of past First Ladies for guidance, Hillary Clinton may vow not to go to Cabinet meetings and take notes, declare a tablecloth crisis or order up a set of gold-rimmed china. She may carefully find a way to chart a new course. But however circumspect, she will make her own mistakes. And if history is any guide, for reasons as old as Adam and Eve, some Americans will punish her for them out of proportion to their significance.

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