THE NEXT FIRST LADY
To hear them talk, all of the Republican candidates for president are married to women more like Mamie Eisenhower than Hillary Rodham Clinton.
“She won’t be running health care,” Senator Robert Dole tells a laughing-audience of chiropractors, referring to his wife, Red Cross Chairman Elizabeth Dole. Asked on television what his wife might do in a Dole administration, the candidate can’t think of a single job that might occupy this woman who has already served as secretary of labor, secretary of transportation, a member of the Federal Trade Commission and a top White House aide.
Senator Phil Gramm, whose wife, Wendy, has a Ph.D. in economics and served as chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, is quick to point out that “I don’t think my wife sees herself as some kind of surrogate president.” Smart, savvy Wendy Gramm draws applause from a Republican women’s club: “I have worked in the government it was fascinating. But I retired.”
Asked about the role his wife might play in the White House, former Tennessee Governor Lamar Alexander swiftly passes over her experience in business and on boards and emphasizes that she is at home with their 15-year-old, supports him in his goals and has no plans to be “copresident.”
Welcome to the era of the Un-Hillary.
As campaign ’96 approaches, even the first lady seems less and less like herself. Instead of making policy, she’s traveling with her daughter, writing a book on children and family and completing a much-publicized redecoration of the Blue Boom. Dozens of newspapers ran photos of the most powerful woman in the United States showing off new furniture and expounding on shades of paint. The New York Times made it official last spring when they dubbed her a “traditional first lady.” Has Hillary Clinton finally gotten it right? Is this what America wants from a White House wife?
The conventional wisdom says yes: We aren’t ready for a first lady with responsibility for policy as well as for parties. Candidates’ wives have been put on notice that power is not an attractive female attribute. In fact, all women are on notice; the Hillary story is being told and retold as a cautionary tale of America’s rejection of powerful women at every level, in government and in private life.
“You don’t have to love Mrs. Clinton, or share her politics, to feel that her demoniza-tion tells us much less about who she is than it does about a country that still feels threatened when its little women grow tall,” writes social critic Frank Rich in The New York Times. “It’s the power, stupid,” quips columnist Loraine O’Connell, deconstructing America’s problem w ith Hillary Clinton in The Orlando Sentinel. “Strong woman stands up, speaks out, moves forward and bam,” says former Democratic National Committee Vice-Chair Lynn Cutler. “This is not just Hillary under attack here. It’s everybody.” Even Mrs. Clinton seems to buy the argument, portraying herself to The Wall Street Journal as a scapegoat: “If someone has a female boss for the first time,” she said last year, “maybe they can’t take out their hostility on her, so they take it out on me.”
Hold on. Before we let anyone turn Hillary Clinton’s travails into a repudiation of powerful women, it is vital that we take a clear-eyed look at the impact of her tenure and set the record straight. I believe that the first lady has been unfairly at-stronger than her husband’s. Most important, she took on health care, the administration’s top priority. But what’s significant, in retrospect, is that most Americans initially endorsed her conception of her office.
Polls conducted at the time of Bill Clinton’s inauguration indicated that 60 to 67 percent of all Americans approved of Mrs. Clinton far more than the 42 percent who had voted for her husband. In the spring of 1993, 74 percent said she was a good role model for America, and 64 percent supported her selection as the head of the health-care task force.
Unsurprisingly, Republicans remained wary of the first lady: They saw her as a big-government liberal, out to change things. After her first appearance on Capitol Hill talking about health care, Mrs. Clinton’s 62 percent favorable rating translated to support from 81 percent of all Democrats and only 38 percent of all Republicans. But that’s the sort of division you get when you’re playing big-league partisan politics and winning. By any measure, Mrs. Clinton’s numbers were damn good.
Not as good as Barbara Bush’s, to be sure. Mrs. Bush was more popular on her worst day than Hillary Clinton on her best. Her approval rating among Republicans and Democrats hit 81 percent, even as her husband was losing the presidency. She membered for having brought down her husband. But Hillary Clinton stands apart from her predecessors in two ways: She made her goals clear from the outset and, for the past two years, she has been closely associated with what are seen as the worst failings of her husband’s administration.
Mrs. Clinton was a central player both in the business dealings that brought on the Whitewater investigation and in the White House’s efforts to control the damage efforts described by one senior aide as less a cover-up than a screwup. By the spring of 1994, more than half the Americans surveyed were convinced that she had done something illegal or unethical. Most damaging of all, she came to personify the disastrous Clinton health-care plan.
In 1992 Bill Clinton promised to bring health-care coverage to everyone in America a goal that five presidents have tried but failed to accomplish. Naming Hillary Clinton to head this task force was, obviously, a calculated risk. The president cannot fire his wife. He can’t disown her failures. Legislators may be reluctant to criticize her; staff may be afraid to dissent from her views. But w ho else in the administration commanded the authority and respect required for the job? Her appointment sent an unmistakable message that health-care reform would be the administration’s primary focus, that the tacked by her opponents and the press. But it isn’t because of her gender, or because she overstepped the public’s perception of her role. Hillary Clinton got hammered not because she’s a strong woman but because she opposed powerful interests and took unpopular positions.
From the beginning, Mrs. Clinton made clear her intention to be a different kind of first lady. She and her husband presented themselves as a partnership. First ladies usually have their offices in the East Wing; Hillary Clinton, fully aware of the symbolism, took an office in the West Wing, above the President’s. She hired smart, experienced advisers; many said her staff was was America’s grandmother: honest, decent, comfortable with herself. Nonetheless, Barbara’s popularity couldn’t help her husband get reelected, as the Bushes painfully discovered.
The ’96 election raises a different question: If the popularity of a first lady cannot significantly help her husband at the polls, can her unpopularity hurt him? Mrs. Clinton is not the first White House wife to be attacked for her involvement in policy-long before Eleanor Roosevelt drew fire for her “copresidency,” Abigail Adams was derided as “Mrs. President,” and the Hardings were referred to as “the President and Mr. Harding.” None of these women is remedia, Congress and the entire country would be engaged in the coming debate.
Hillary Clinton was brilliant in her public appearances on health care. The rest of the administration’s campaign was a disaster. She herself admits that her political strategy was “naive” compared to the savvy and savage anti-health-care offen- -sive. Corporate America spent more than $100 million to stop the Clinton plan; the insurance industry’s “Harry and Louise” commercials alone cost $15 million.
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