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First Lady’s Take-Charge Style Surfaces in New Job : White House: As head of health care panel, she is expected to reach out to many, ask tough questions.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was almost 10:30 at night, but her voice was morning fresh. First she asked about the wife and kids, one of whom had the flu.

Only then did Hillary Rodham Clinton get down to business, intensely and urgently.

“We need your help,” the First Lady told Sen. John D. (Jay) Rockefeller IV (D-W. Va.) in one of an extraordinary series of telephone calls to key members of Congress just hours after she was named to head the White House task force on national health care reform.

Sen. Donald W. Riegle Jr. (D-Mich.), the next person she called, was home watching the Detroit Pistons on TV when the White House operator asked him to “please hold for Hillary Rodham Clinton.” After a short exchange of pleasantries, they too quickly got down to the nuts and bolts of health care reform.

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“She clearly was very familiar with the details,” Riegle said.

“We also talked strategy--how to get the legislative package developed, how best to proceed. She locked in on those issues very quickly. I’m very encouraged she’s so tightly focused on the problem,” he added.

Taking charge, reaching out and making a good first impression typify her style, say long-term Hillary Clinton watchers.

So do bluntness, impatience with obstacles and sometimes an unwillingness to conform to traditional expectations about the wife of a high public official, say her critics, though even many of them are quick to add that--overall--she has repeatedly proved to be an effective asset for her husband.

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Admirers and critics alike invariably cite as their prime example her controversial role in helping then-Gov. Bill Clinton reform Arkansas’ public education system a decade ago.

Certainly the quick, authoritative way she bolted out of the starting gate last week stood in bold relief against the disarray that overtook the White House following the ill-fated nomination of Zoe Baird as attorney general and President Clinton’s effort to lift the ban on gays in the military.

“It was as if she’d been doing this for five years,” Rockefeller said.

Still, health care is not education and Washington--the nation, really--is not Arkansas.

And Hillary Clinton faces unprecedented pitfalls--in public and behind closed doors--as she takes on what may be the Clinton Administration’s most contentious challenge: designing a comprehensive overhaul of the health care system that expands coverage while cutting costs.

Almost without a doubt, the reform agenda--whatever its particulars--will arouse stiff opposition from a powerful array of interest groups.

Hillary Clinton’s unique role also will continue to raise questions.

“The best I can say is that it’s an odd arrangement to have powerful Cabinet members, confirmed by the Senate, reporting in a formal way to the President’s wife. I don’t envy them,” said Gail Wilensky, a respected health policy analyst and, until Jan. 20, President George Bush’s top adviser on the issue.

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“You’ve got some pretty heavy hitters on this task force. But there will be disagreements, and you’re going to need somebody who’s going to be the ultimate arbiter as to how to proceed. And I don’t know if Mrs. Clinton will play that role,” Wilensky said.

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For those who may be uncertain about how to deal with the First Lady, here’s some advice from those who know her well:

She will be inquisitive, tough--and, if necessary, confrontational. She will push for answers that go beyond convention. Above all, she will be tirelessly demanding--of herself and of others.

“Look for her to do a lot of listening and learning, a lot of pushing: Have we thought of this? Could we try that? Can we go beyond conventional wisdom?” said author Diane Blair, a University of Arkansas political scientist who has known the Clintons for nearly 20 years.

She said Hillary Clinton expects candor--even if that means disagreeing with her. “She has enormous respect for people who are articulate, outspoken and forceful,” she said.

“She does not expect yes-persons; that’s going to be immediately evident to anyone who deals with her. She will demand the very best of people. And she will be interested in solutions--not in winning political points,” she added.

Hillary Clinton is also far more capable than her husband of focusing on an issue, according to Charles F. Allen, co-author of “The Comeback Kid: the Life and Career of Bill Clinton,” published in 1992 by Birch Lane Press.

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“She’s very persuasive, and she will give more than eight hours a day. She has this ability to go on five hours of sleep. She’s very focused on getting a job done. Whereas he will be easily sidetracked because he loves to interact with people, she will stay on task,” Allen said.

Among other congressional leaders the First Lady called last Monday were Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Reps. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) and Pete Stark (D-Oakland).

Stark was hosting an informal get-together for Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala and members of the House Ways and Means health subcommittee, which he chairs, when the First Lady called his home around 6:30 p.m.

“She said she was looking forward to the challenge and looking forward to working with us,” Stark said. Of her leadership role on the task force, he added: “I think it adds some emphasis to the President’s position that this is a key issue.”

Because President Clinton throughout the campaign said health care reform would be a pillar of his economic recovery program, aides expect him to immerse himself in the task, alongside his wife, as a reform agenda takes shape.

“They’ve always worked closely together on important issues,” one longtime friend of the couple said of a relationship that some now refer to as “Billary.”

The task force’s other members are Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, Defense Secretary Les Aspin, Veterans Affairs Secretary Jesse Brown; Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown, Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich, Office of Management and Budget Director Leon E. Panetta, White House economic adviser Robert E. Rubin and Council of Economic Advisers chief Laura D’Andrea Tyson.

And when Hillary Clinton convened the group’s first meeting on Wednesday, a new face popped up: Mary Elizabeth (Tipper) Gore, the vice president’s wife, who will be focusing on mental health issues for the task force.

“She’s going about this as someone reaching out with open arms and wanting it to be a very inclusive process,” Lisa Caputo, the First Lady’s press secretary, said of her boss. “She will solicit as much input as possible. One of her strongest assets is the ability to reach out and go to grass roots and build a consensus. That’s really going to be her role here.”

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Hillary Clinton’s blunt style was never better illustrated than during the 1990 Democratic gubernatorial primary campaign in Arkansas, as recounted in another recent biography, “Clinton: Young Man in a Hurry,” by Jim Moore.

While Clinton was in Washington, a Democratic rival for the nomination, Tom McRae, held a Little Rock press conference to chide Clinton, the incumbent, for being away so much, insinuating that Clinton was ducking a debate.

Suddenly, Hillary surged forward from the back of the crowd.

“Do you really want a response from Bill when you know he’s in Washington doing work for the state? That sounds a bit like a stunt to me,” she said. ". . . I’ve really been disappointed in you as a candidate, and I’ve really been disappointed in you as a person, Tom,” she told McRae.

Then she distributed to the press reams of articles and documents containing favorable appraisals of her husband.

The Clintons’ struggle 10 years ago to reform the state’s public school system was also not without its bumpy moments.

At the time, Arkansas teachers were vastly underpaid and school funding throughout the state was woefully inadequate. Students tested far below national averages in reading and math.

In 1983, the governor set up a 15-member Education Standards Committee and named his wife, then a 35-year-old lawyer, as its leader.

She conducted hearings, some up to nine hours long, in all 75 counties in Arkansas, telling local school districts that they must become as “fanatic” about education as sports and extracurricular activities.

“High school activities don’t last forever; life goes on after age 17,” she said repeatedly. “We Arkansans have to quit making excuses and accept instead the challenge of excellence once and for all.”

Her task force met its deadline, completing a set of preliminary recommendations that instantly raised a hue and cry from the Ozarks to the Mississippi Delta region. Opposition was led by the powerful Arkansas Education Assn., whose 17,000 members were outraged by a plan to test all of the state’s teachers for competence.

As the committee’s proposals came under growing fire, Hillary Clinton lobbied members of the Arkansas Legislature, strongly defending the reforms and, in the process, drawing whispered criticism from some quarters for being too brazen a woman who did not know her place. She, after all, hadn’t even taken her husband’s name until after he lost his first bid for reelection.

“Maybe she moved a little too fast and didn’t stay two steps behind her husband, which is the traditional Arkansas posture, at least in early days,” Allen said.

In the end, however, the key elements of the reform agenda got through the Legislature, including the teacher competency testing. Also approved were limits on student-teacher and student-counselor ratios, a longer school year and the first increase in Arkansas’ sales tax in 26 years to help finance the reforms, including a pay raise for teachers.

“Education in Arkansas was a very complicated issue, one which aroused a great deal of passion and a lot of controversy, with many sharply conflicted interests,” Blair said in a telephone interview from Fayetteville, Ark.

“What Hillary Clinton managed to do was not make everybody supremely happy,” she said, but she did get the key people to work together “to come up with some meaningful, long-range solutions that ultimately proved beneficial to the public interest.”

Amid that controversy, Blair and Hillary Clinton were walking into a school one day when they passed a small group of teachers, who jeered and hissed at Arkansas’ First Lady.

The two women kept walking. Later, Hillary Clinton remarked sadly to Blair:

“I get this all over the state. It’s heartbreaking. It’s hard. But someday they’ll understand.”

A former commission member who now serves as an Arkansas state senator, Charlie Cole Chaffin, remembered the highly charged debates that followed the teacher-testing proposal.

“The teachers were ugly, ugly, ugly to Hillary Clinton, and they were ugly to Bill Clinton too,” Chaffin said. “I don’t know whether (the teacher-testing requirement) came from Bill or Hillary.”

But given the merits of the proposal and a supportive commission to back her up, Chaffin said Hillary Clinton publicly deflected the criticism “with her head held high, and (she) just continued talking to the general public.”

The Arkansas Board of Education is in the process of building on the reforms, according to Allen, who was the school superintendent of Hamburg, Ark.

Today, President Clinton counts the reforms as among his major achievements as governor. And when he named Hillary to lead the health care reform task force, the White House press office passed out 21 pages of clippings about her work.

One of the newspaper stories, now 10 years old, tells how Hillary Clinton testified before a legislative committee for 90 minutes--without notes--and quotes an Arkansas lawmaker as gushing afterward: “We elected the wrong Clinton.”

Times staff writer Karen Tumulty contributed to this story.


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