• U.S.

JUST HEARTBEATS AWAY

10 minute read
Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy

One can never really know how anyone else’s marriage works. Some unions may be more opaque than others, but all marriages are mysteries born of chemistry and Providence, self-sharpening, soul scrubbing. For movie stars and princesses and Presidents, the drama plays out in public and dares you not to watch, to read its dreams and trace its wounds. There is a reason most First Ladies tend to get along well later in life; they all know what it is like to try to protect the most powerful man in the world, to cancel the rally when he needs his sleep, to can the speechwriter who just won’t cut it, to worry about who’s in charge, to say the things no one else will when she tells her old man to clean up his language (Bess Truman), eat his broccoli (Barbara Bush), upgrade his jogging shorts (Hillary Clinton) or remind him with a Post-It note on the bathroom mirror to “Smile” (Elizabeth Dole). And to do it all with the curtains open and the lights on.

There may be little privacy at all in the First Marriage, but there is still plenty of mystery, which suggests one reason why friends of Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Dole say each is obsessed with the other. They can’t help noticing all they have in common, these two devout Methodist daughters of prosperous families, both Ivy League lawyers who married men of modest origins and vast ambitions. As the summer unfolds, they will campaign against each other, symbolically if not substantively: Bob Dole went so far as to suggest that the First Lady aspirants have a debate, rather like vice-presidential candidates, an admission of just who is really a heartbeat away from the President.

Four years ago, Bill Clinton became the first candidate to reinvent First Ladydom when he joked that with Hillary, Americans could buy one and get one free. That proved too true for his own good. The Dole camp, having studied the pathology of Hillary’s troubles early last year, is eager to argue that this is a marriage, not a political partnership. Dole has called Elizabeth his “secret weapon,” his “Southern strategy,” all the while making it clear that he is old-fashioned about the East Wing, that Elizabeth won’t be sitting in on Cabinet meetings and serving as the unofficial Minister of Health Care.

This is all the more ironic, given the fact that Elizabeth Dole, at 59 the only woman ever to serve in two different Cabinet posts for two different Presidents, has probably attended more Cabinet meetings than either Bob Dole or Bill Clinton. And that the 48-year-old Hillary, in a sense, is the more traditional of the two, the one who passed up the fancy New York City law firm and moved to Arkansas for love. Elizabeth put her career first, found her love later in life and never had children. Hillary is the soccer mom of the pair who went grocery shopping and to the baseball games and firmly hitched her wagon to her husband’s star. Elizabeth was a player with portfolio before she met Bob Dole.

Elizabeth Dole now finds herself under the lights, well rehearsed, before an audience curious to see what she may bring to the role. Polls find that she is marginally more popular than Hillary but far less well known. So as the scrutiny begins in earnest, she will have a chance to offer her own interpretation of a much reinvented part and demonstrate just what she has learned from those who have played it before.

Nancy Reagan understood the attacks on her redecorating, her weakness for fine bone china and her passion for evening wear were indirect attacks on her husband. This was true of Hillary from the moment she moved the First Lady’s office to the West Wing and set off a spirited debate about whether her critics disliked her simply for being a powerful woman or for how she used her power. She was too proud for discretion and too ambitious for mere ceremony. Hillary was certainly not the first to dive into policy. Ellen Wilson, appalled by housing conditions for workers in the capital, lobbied quietly for the Alley Dwelling bill of 1914 to demolish slums and build new housing with federal money. Nor was Hillary the first to be embroiled in financial scandals: the House Banking Committee investigated Julia Grant for allegedly making a $25,000 profit in an 1869 plot to corner the gold market. And controversy? Hillary’s oft-invoked role model, Eleanor Roosevelt, pressed a resistant Secretary of War to integrate the officer corps and fought for antilynching laws and workers’ rights, and was loved and hated for it.

But Hillary has gone her predecessors one better, drawing big red and black concentric circles on her tunic. Her office has become a target all its own, a secretive, insular place where protecting the queen isn’t just a priority, it is a matter of national security. The human being on whom the Commander in Chief most relies is, incredibly, at or near the center of Whitewater, the Travel Office purge, the health-care task force lawsuit and, because of its tangential link to Travelgate, the fbi file scandal. In a cnn/USA Today/Gallup poll last week, 57% of Americans surveyed said they believed Mrs. Clinton had participated in a cover-up of the Whitewater situation. She is at once Bill Clinton’s best asset and his worst liability.

That problem reflects a difference between the Clintons’ partnership and the Doles’. Both women abhor the loss of privacy that comes with a campaign but endure it because they are intricate parts of strong working teams in which each is the intellectual equal of her husband. Yet Elizabeth and Bob have somehow remained separate entities; she advises, she comforts, she consults, but he is forever alone with his decisions. The Clintons are such full partners in his career that it seems like one shared project, like a child or a hobby. They seem to be not just in love with each other (and at times not even that) but to share a love of policy that binds them together as a love of sailing or Mexican food or Fellini movies binds others. He owes his greatest triumphs to her talents: Hillary is the one who in 1992 rescued her husband’s campaign, giving an identity to the famous war room, explaining to a bewildered campaign staff how to get the best out of him and mowing down a forest of wannabes to put James Carville in charge. And Bill Clinton can thank her for his worst failure too: Hillary is the woman to whom the President turned to implement his biggest domestic initiative in 1993–a decision that apart from its other lessons, proved that the elasticity of the First Lady’s role has limits.

Elizabeth Dole, in contrast, would at first seem to bring to the job a style, all honey and suckle, that might have served Hillary well–an advantage common to her generation and actively rejected by Hillary’s. It is hard to imagine Hillary acquiring or abiding the nickname Sugar Lips, as Elizabeth came to be known during her tenure as Transportation Secretary for her ability to sweet-talk warring parties into compromise. She learned to fly under the radar; these women who slipped past the sentries helped fling open the gates for Hillary’s peers to storm through. She is far better camouflaged, resolutely bland in an interview, unrelentingly inoffensive and offers no ammunition, while Hillary, to her peril, tossed it out like confetti when she began ruminating on the Politics of Meaning and the excess profits of pharmaceutical companies.

That said, there are those who argue that both women would make better candidates than their husbands; unlike Elizabeth, Hillary can give the impression that she thinks she would be a better President as well. Both are more disciplined, more demanding, much less forgiving. Both are excellent speakers, though their styles are different. Hillary can speak in perfect paragraphs for an hour without notes and changes her speech with ease to suit different audiences. While Hillary knows the benefits of preparation, Elizabeth is a slave to it, ordering up dozens of position papers and memos from staff and driving campaign aides crazy with requests for clippings and briefings and updates about what is happening today with her husband, what Dole has said about Fidel Castro, what Clinton is saying about Cuban-American relations. Elizabeth never gets a word or pause or chuckle out of place, but she can no more ad lib than levitate.

Hillary may be the velvet fist in an iron glove, Elizabeth the reverse. The First Lady is considered wonderful to work for, devoted to her aides (who repay her with a loyalty that has cost them thousands of dollars in legal bills); she consults them about their lives, their loves, their clothes; she likes to have fun. Elizabeth, by comparison, is working on her third press secretary in six months. Kicking back with aides, admits one who worked closely with her for a half-decade, “is rare.” Hillary’s aides love to tell about the First Lady at play; an aide to Elizabeth could think of only one example in five years.

But the biggest difference between the two women is that we know so much about one and so little about the other. Hillary’s world has been much explored: her marriage, her feelings about children, her work as a lawyer, her attitude about money and religion and her changing views of politics and change. To help us follow along, she has written a book, pens a newspaper column and has given countless interviews, a running concordance. In baby-boomer fashion, this very private public person has become nearly as confessional as her husband.

Elizabeth, by comparison, has been slower to fill in the blanks and undress the contradictions. On the rare occasions when she talks about her faith, she can wow audiences who don’t expect spirituality from a woman who teeters on high heels in an age of sensible shoes. She smiles a lot, as if to encourage her husband by example, and wears suits with such obsessively matched accessories that voters may be forgiven if they forget that this is the woman who is responsible for those little lights at the center of the rear windows of our cars that tell tailgating drivers to hit the brakes. And while Hillary may tell us that it takes a village to raise a child, Elizabeth made sure that we know how to find the emergency exit in a smoke-filled airline cabin. If the two women ever did hold that debate, Elizabeth might try to argue that she’s “a doer, not a talker.”

Elizabeth is a Democrat who became a Republican, Hillary a Republican turned Democrat. But it is worth noting that amid all the rhetoric on both sides about the end of Big Government, these two women share a belief in its benevolent potential. Elizabeth has spent 28 years in government, largely acting on behalf of consumers, while Hillary spent 1993 trying to expand government and guarantee all Americans access to health care. If they ever sat down together, not to arm wrestle or debate but to share thoughts and trade stories, these two Methodist women might find themselves communing with all the equally devout, hopeful social reformers of their faith who over the past two centuries tried to use power to do good. And they might also wonder together about the price they pay for trying.

–Reported by Ann Blackman/Salisbury and Tom Curry/New York

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