From the Archives: Mrs. Wonk Goes to Washington
Under a broad expanse of prairie sky, the bright spring sun shines down onto the neatly swept streets of Lincoln, Neb. It sparkles off the man-made lakes, glinting from the dome of the state Capitol, casting small, sharp-edged shadows around the crowd gathering near the side door to the University of Nebraska’s Johnny Carson Theater.
Later in the day, this theater will host a conference on the nation’s health-care crisis, an event that has drawn front-page attention from local newspapers. But for now, all the action is preparation. Secret Service agents, instantly recognizable in their tailored suits and dark sunglasses, with plastic receivers in their ears, stand in the middle of the quiet street talking earnestly into wrist microphones. A half-dozen local police officers anxiously check the yellow plastic tape carefully strung along two parallel lines of sawhorses-makeshift crowd barriers isolating a bare stretch of sidewalk running from the curb 30 feet to the stage door. HillaryRodham Clinton is about to arrive.
Along one line of sawhorses, television crews, elbowing each other for the best angle, begin lining up, training their cameras on the empty space. Along the other line, students bearing welcome signs practice waving them, point at the cameras, then fall to giggling among themselves. Near the curb, pressed against the sawhorses, Angie King, a 15-year-old high school student, stands with her friends, bouncing excitedly on the balls of her feet and talking about her idol, the President’s wife.
“She did not take her husband’s name,” the preacher’s voice booms.
“She speaks out for women,” Angie King beams to a reporter.
“She justifies the killing of the innocent,” the man’s voice echoes in the background.
“She’s just so exciting,” King says.
“She even insists on being called a co-President,” the preacher shouts.
“She’s making a point by what she’s doing,” King says.
A siren’s wail, the flash of lights from two police cruisers, and a nine-car motorcade wheels around the corner. The preacher intensifies his jeremiad. King and her companions cheer: “HILL-a-ry, HILL-a-ry.” The limousine pulls up to the curb. The object of the admiration and the vilification steps out, waves, reaches over the yellow tape to shake hands, receives a small gift and is gone.
In a few moments, all is silence. The officers wind up their yellow tape and dismantle their sawhorse barriers. Angie King and her friends drift away to their cars, faces flush with the excitement of having shaken hands with their heroine. The preacher climbs down off the wall and slowly walks away, fiercely clutching his Bible to his chest.
And so it goes, not just in Nebraska, but in Boston and New Orleans, Iowa and Florida, Arkansas and Montana, and, especially, in Washington, D.C. In these first 100-plus days, not just the President but his wife as well have been under scrutiny. The most controversial, and probably most powerful, First Lady in recent history is surrounded by polarized conflict-loved and hated, feared and admired. Millions, particularly young women, tell pollsters and interviewers she is a role model and exemplar of all that a modern woman can accomplish-a latter-day Joan of Arc. At the same time, conservative opponents of the Administration see her as the embodiment of American decline, a “feminazi,” a symbol of abortion and gay rights, a ‘90s version of the biblical Witch of Endor.
The crescendo on both sides of the Hillary Clinton question has risen to a level almost certainly beyond what any one woman should reasonably be expected to bear. But for Clinton, who revels in the influence her post brings while ruing the ceaseless attention the job entails, there is no relief in sight, no escape from the gilded cage of others’ expectations.
In an Administration that likes to talk grandly about change, she is change incarnate. As the first First Lady in modern times to come into the White House having had an independent career and as the first to openly take a formal, high-profile role in policy-making, Clinton has dramatically forced Americans to confront their deeply held ambivalence about the proper roles of women in public life. As the most influential of her husband’s advisers, she is cheered and booed for his policies. And as a deeply private woman, she rarely allows the public to see beneath the armor of certainty that clothes her in public or to glimpse the person behind the symbol.
For the woman at the center of all the commotion, the first months of her husband’s Administration have come wrapped in a whirlwind. Late in April, a few days after her visit to Nebraska, Clinton sits in the Map Room of the White House, where Franklin D. Roosevelt once displayed battlefield charts to Winston Churchill, and reflects on all that has happened to her.
As she talks, Clinton appears relaxed, open, inquiring about a visitor’s children, laughing at times about the ironies of her new life. Yet underneath the air of ease, she remains always in control, ever vigilant. Questions about politics, philosophy and values bring voluble responses, phrased in full, precise and lawyerly sentences. But ask about personal thoughts, feelings or memories, and she generally demurs, deflecting further inquiries in a manner that is polite, but firm.
Too much has happened too soon, she says, for her to sort out the experiences and determine what they mean: “I don’t know yet. I’m not sure,” she says. “We’ve only been at it three months. It’s hard to believe. It feels like a lot longer than that.”
Since Inauguration Day, she has met more than 50 times with members of Congress, traveled to at least nine states, visited hospitals, factories, schools and an Indian reservation. She has settled her daughter into a new school and buried her father in his hometown. She has spent hundreds of hours mastering the intricate details of health-care policy, learning quickly to talk the language of experts and trying valiantly to translate that talk into the language of ordinary Americans.
From her first moments in the White House, Clinton’s words and deeds made clear that she would be radically different from the First Ladies who had preceded her. On the day after the inauguration, Bill Clinton invited the public to come to the White House to shake hands. Standing by her husband in the receiving line,Hillary noticed that hundreds of ticket-holders were never going to make it through the gates. Keeping her smile, she turned to the President. “We just screwed all those people,” she said under her breath to him-and, inadvertently, to a nearby microphone-before ordering an aide to work on the problem.
That expression alone, so distinctly un-First Ladylike, would have been enough to mark Clinton as different. But then came word of her office. For decades, First Ladies had maintained offices in the White House East Wing, so much so that East Wing had become synonymous in Washington with women’s work. But Clinton joined the President’s other senior advisers in taking an office in the West Wing-a small, sunny room overlooking the South Lawn, decorated with pictures of her husband and daughter, Chelsea, and crowded with books and papers piled on a small table. In status-obsessed Washington, where proximity to the boss translates directly into a perception of power, Clinton’s new digs became headline news.
Others may debate the propriety of her role in her husband’s Administration, but for her part, Clinton takes it as a given. “We go back a long way,” she says matter-of-factly. “We’ve talked about matters and values for a very long time, so I have maybe more of a context than some people who have only known him for a year or two would have or could have. We know how each other thinks, and can sometimes shortcut discussions because of that.”
Her influence is bolstered throughout the Administration by her network of friends, who have been appointed to the Cabinet and to senior posts in dozens of agencies. Her White House office is flanked on one side by Bernard Nussbaum’s and on the other by Carol H. Rasco’s. Nussbaum, White House counsel, supervised the young Hillary Rodham two decades ago when they worked on the House Judiciary Committee’s Watergate impeachment inquiry. Rasco, the President’s domestic policy adviser, was a top gubernatorial aide in Arkansas and speaks with the First Lady daily.
Trying to determine precisely where her influence and power begin and end, however, often frustrates even White House insiders. In the matter of her sweeping network, it’s important to note that many “Friends of Hillary” are also “Friends of Bill.” In Little Rock, for example, Webb Hubbell, the designated No. 3 man at Justice, may have been Hillary’s law partner, but he was also Bill’s golfing companion.
Some observers see her as a liberal fifth columnist pushing a separate agenda and ideology. Indeed, Hillary and her aides serve as the Administration’s point of contact with many activist groups, particularly women’s organizations, which contributes to the widespread, but misleading, image that he, the former governor of a conservative state, is a “moderate” while she, the former chair of the activist Children’s Defense Fund, is a “liberal.” That impression is also fostered by the fact that the President frequently employs his wife to deliver messages he would prefer to duck. During the campaign, for example, Hillary often served as the enforcer of his pledge to assemble a team that would “look like America"-allowing Clinton to avoid personally antagonizing those aides forced to rework their hiring plans. The First Lady has played a similar role since the inauguration, weighing in, for example, on the search for a woman attorney general and interviewing several potential candidates.
“I wish she were more ideological,” says one senior White House aide who falls in the Administration’s more liberal wing. “She’s not. She looks out for him. If she thinks the President’s going to take a loss on an issue, she’s overwhelmingly his political adviser; protecting him is her overwhelming goal.”
Hillary does not always win. During the campaign, for example, she sided with advisers who warned that endorsing the politically explosive Mexican free trade agreement would hand a potent issue to Ross Perot, potentially costing the Democrats a shot at winning key industrial states such as Michigan and Ohio. Bill Clinton endorsed the trade pact with some reservations and carried both states.
Whatever the limits, Hillary clearly has power. While some in the President’s inner circle feel that they can disagree with the First Lady, few do so lightly. Her toughness is legendary. Not surprisingly, many in the Clinton circle would comment on this aspect of the First Lady’s character, but none would willingly lend their names to the effort.
“She intimidates the hell out of people,” says a senior White House aide who has watched Clinton’s work on the health-care task force. “She dominates by silence, and when she wants you to shut up, you’d have to be incredibly thick not to get it.”
“A man can get his way by being pleasant and accommodating,” says another senior White House aide, a woman who sees Clinton as a role model. “A woman, if she does that, gets pushed around.” Hillary Rodham Clinton seldom gets pushed around.
Just as legendary is her willingness to remember an offense. In Arkansas, people joked that the best way to get something from Bill Clinton was to be his enemy — he would do almost anything to win you over. No one makes similar jokes about Hillary Clinton. “She keeps the lists,” says a third senior White House aide. “She remembers.”
“Hillary’s Alzheimer’s,” one senior adviser to her husband calls it, “forget everything else, but remember the grudge.”
The same toughness, tempered with idealism, has marked her style as she has prodded and poked the government bureaucracy into preparing with unprecedented speed a massive proposal to overhaul the nation’s health-care system. Her role has not been to actually propose policy options (she is not, she repeatedly says, an economist, a doctor or an actuary). Instead, she has provided the discipline to forge a package and the political intelligence to shape it into something the President can try to sell to the Congress and the American people.
The plan will be nothing if not ambitious. “I really hope,” the First Lady says, “that we’re not just solving an economic problem, although that is crucial, and we’re not even just restructuring the way we deliver health care. If we could do this right, so that we restore a sense of security on this issue to all Americans, then I think from that will flow a better understanding of one another, a greater recognition of our interdependence, a willingness to help each other, to share the burdens of living together.”
And then, with a wave of the hand and a quick laugh, she adds, “I know that sounds maybe hopelessly idealistic.”
By all reports, she is wedded to few specific points in the plan. It is the big picture, the overall success, that drives her. “She’s much more interested in getting 60% or 70% of what she wants than in holding out for 100% and losing it all,” says an aide. “Her role is to inject common sense into the process.”
She has also taken on the role of the plan’s chief sales agent. Once the plan is formally released in the next few weeks, Clinton expects to hit the road again, rallying supporters, debating opponents and testing public opinion. And nearly all her public appearances to date have been designed to highlight one aspect or another of the unfolding program. That was her task at the University of Nebraska, warning the standing-room-only crowd at the auditorium there of the dangers facing the nation’s economy if the health-care system is not radically changed and, not incidentally, wooing the state’s junior senator-Bob Kerrey, an influential Democrat on health-care issues-by devoting a day to his constituents.
The stakes could not be higher. If health-care reform succeeds, Democratic strategists dream of cementing the loyalty of an entire generation of middle-class and working-class voters, much as the advent of Social Security helped lock in Democratic voters from the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt to those of Lyndon B. Johnson. Should that happen, few will have the temerity to continue questioning Hillary’s role. If it fails, however, most Clinton advisers believe that it will bring not just the First Lady, but also the whole Administration, down with it.
She’s much more interested in getting 60% or 70% ... than in holding out for 100% and losing it all. Her role is to inject common sense into the process.
Aide to Hillary Clinton, discussing early negotiations on healthcare reform
Last summer, at the Republican convention, conservative Patrick J. Buchanan tried to create a campaign issue of the question, “What does Hillary believe?”
His unsubtle attack attracted a flurry of attention to a few articles Clinton had written early in her career, particularly one arguing for a broader legal recognition of the rights of children in cases where their futures were endangered by indifferent families. Beyond that, however, the media have made little attempt to seriously grapple with Buchanan’s question. Given her undisputed power within the Administration, what she stands for is worth examining more closely.
Her own answer might surprise people. “I view myself as very conservative,” she says, “which is why it’s always so amazing to me to be characterized by other people.” Yet what she call her conservatism is far different from the usual definition-it is neither the aggressively individualistic, pro-market, anti-government ideology of the Reagan years nor the patriarchal, theologically based, somewhat authoritarian ideology of the Religious Right.
As a 17-year-old, in 1964-the eldest in a family of three-Clinton was a “Goldwater Girl,” backing the favored candidate of her father, an Illinois small-business man. But as happened with many other college students during the turbulent late ‘60s, by the time she graduated five years later from Wellesley College, Clinton’s views had changed.
At her graduation, chosen to speak by her classmates, she lauded campus protests as “an attempt (by students) to find an identity” that would be consistent with the “original ideas” of America while freeing students from “the prevailing acquisitive and competitive corporate life.” Later, in law school at Yale, she began to research the legal rights of children. She was an idealistic and dedicated — some friends say humorless — social activist, journeying to Texas to help register Latino voters, working for George McGovern’s presidential campaign, and beginning an affiliation with the Children’s Defense Fund that continued until this past January.
Not that she ever strayed far from the mainstream. While in college, for example, she worked for Eugene McCarthy’s anti-war presidential bid and also for the candidacy of moderate Republican Nelson A. Rockefeller. “The most radical thing I did in the ‘60s was to become a Democrat,” she has joked to friends. Looking back, Clinton still lays claim to her activist credentials, but she says she has mellowed. “I think I have understood much more about my own limits and the limits of human endeavor,” she says. “I’m more patient. But I work hard not to become so patient that it slips into complacency in the face of injustice or unfairness. I think my commitment to that is as strong as it’s ever been, but my understanding of the difficulties that confront the human experience are probably much deeper then they (were) when I was younger.”
Now Clinton talks about the need for a complex, rather than a purely ideological view of the issues. And it is that complexity that allows her to call herself conservative.
During the 1970s and 1980s, for instance, liberal thought often de-emphasized the importance of families and absolved individuals of responsibility for their actions under the banner of “not blaming the victim.” That position removed most liberals from the debate about the way broken families and a distorted culture can foster, say, urban violence. Clinton rejects that approach.
“I believe strongly in individual responsibility and in taking responsibility for your actions,” she says. “I believe in the necessity for individuals to be part of a community that is based on family, that’s the best way to transmit values and to transmit a culture as well as to stave off anarchy and disorder.”
Her thinking stems from a set of deeply held religious beliefs — another thing that many liberals in the past two decades, imbued with an overwhelming secularism, have shied away from. Clinton credits her Methodist faith with helping mold her social conscience, opening her eyes to the problems of others. Mostly, she keeps her faith a private matter. But occasionally it comes into the open.
In spare moments, for example, she sometimes glances at a little book filled with uplifting scriptural passages that she carries in her purse. And on the Sunday morning before the New Hampshire primary last year, in the lobby of the small, slightly seedy hotel that was the Clinton headquarters, a couple of journalists stopped to chat with her before she got into a campaign van. A reporter asked about a curious golden pin that adorned her suit.
“Angel’s wings,” Clinton said, explaining that she brings them out on days when she feels a particular need for help.
“Faith is a wonderful gift of grace,” she says. “It gives you a sense of being rooted in meaning and love that goes far beyond your own life. It gives you a base of assurance as to what is really important and stands the test of time day after day, minute after minute, so that many of the pressures that come to bear from the outside world are not seen as that significant.”
Clinton may depart from liberal orthodoxy on such grounds, but her differences with Reaganite conservatives are even more profound. Central to Clinton’s thinking is her belief that promoting community and preserving families often requires the government to curb the power of other institutions in society, such as large corporations, or to restrain the sometimes destructive power of free markets.
Markets, she says, are a “wonderful institution for ordering economic choices, but not for instilling meaning into life or maintaining a culture. The market alone in today’s economies — not just the American economy — no matter how much we want to promote it as an essential answer for a lot of issues, which it is, is not the only (answer).”
In America, and, indeed, in the rest of the industrialized world, a struggle is on to find “a new kind of partnership between the public and the private sector or the market and the state,” she says.
“All of this,” she continues, “doesn’t fit neatly into any of the pre-existing political categories.” She shrugs slightly, protesting the difficulty of asking people, particularly in Washington, to accept a change from the simplistic arguments they are used to. “It is very difficult for people to deal with,” she says. “So they fall back on caricatures.”
Caricature comes with the role of First Lady, as we flock by the hundreds of thousands to view their ball gowns at the Smithsonian, make bestsellers of their autobiographies and debate endlessly whether they live up to unwritten and ever-changing rules, we also generally succeed in turning them into one-dimensional figures.
In the tales we tell schoolchildren, First Ladies of the past have come to stand for very few qualities indeed: Martha Washington represents dignity and the “motherhood” of her country; Mary Todd Lincoln, tragedy; Eleanor Roosevelt, good-scout commitment; Jackie Kennedy, glamour.
When friends tell the Hillary Rodham Clinton tale, the word they most often choose is normal. “She’s right down the middle of the road, Midwestern, middle-class, conventional,” insists Sara Ermine, in whose house Clinton lived when she moved to Washington after graduating from law school and who, two years later, helped Clinton pack and drove her to Arkansas to join the man she would marry.
Normal, however, is not the word that Clinton’s supporters or her detractors want to hear. To Angie King and the Nebraska preacher, she is the superlative angel or demon. And inside the Beltway, and on the mass media grapevine, a caricature has been fostered, one that is potent (and politically dangerous) because it plays on all the fears that many Americans, particularly men, have about powerful women and changing social roles. A senior White House aide encountered the caricature recently at a party. “What’s it like working with Hillary?” a female friend asked the aide, adding that the First Lady sounds like “a real bitch.”
The aide protested, as others routinely do, telling stories of Clinton’s kindnesses to friends and her staff. Nonetheless, for comedians, Hillary stories have replaced the Dan Quayle jokes, and, almost invariably, her toughness and aggressiveness translate into the hoarily sexist humor figure of a woman who “wears the pants in the family.” Even Bill Clinton political adviser James Carville has gotten into the act, joking in after-dinner speeches that the Leader of the Free World has settled smoothly into Washington and the priority now is to “figure out what to do with her husband.”
Much of the tale-telling about Hillary, of course, has to do with the state of the Clinton marriage-a topic that has been the subject of more rumor and innuendo in Washington than any White House matter since Lt. Col. Oliver L. North stopped feeding Iran-Contra documents into his office shredder.
Their friends have long maintained, as one would expect them to, that despite the rumors and cocktail-party chatter and their acknowledged difficulties in the past, the Clintons now have an affectionate marriage. The available public evidence suggests that the friends’ accounts are closer to the truth than those of the gossips.
On the campaign trail-and now in the White House-the Clintons could be glimpsed sitting together, holding hands or sharing an intimate moment of conversation. Watching Hillary take a phone call from her husband can be enlightening as well. Standing for a moment with the phone at her ear, she waits, and when she speaks, her voice noticeably softens into a playful, bantering tone. Chelsea, she says, just returned from an overnight camping trip and was happily sunburned and full of stories to tell. The warm tone seems genuine. “I love you, too,” she signs off.
Still, the negative image dies hard. It’s not only at work that Hillary hangs tough. “She can,” says one Clinton confidant, “ride his butt pretty well.” For many Washington observers, particularly men, that is enough to color in the caricature.
“Some sort of Lady Macbeth” is the way several exasperated White House aides describe the perception that has run through Washington most of the spring. And it gets worse. Wildfire rumors have declared repeatedly that the First Lady threw an ashtray or a lamp at the President (she didn’t), that the couple sleep in separate beds (they don’t) and that a major national magazine plans to publish a story labeling her a lesbian (it doesn’t).
Polls, including those taken privately for the White House, indicate that the stories find a receptive audience among a signficant share of the public. Consistently, for example, pollsters find they receive more positive responses to questions about the First Lady if they ask about “Hillary Clinton” than if they ask about “Hillary Rodham Clinton.”
“I’m sure it does have some impact (on the public),” Clinton concedes when asked about tales such as the ashtray story. “Hopefully not much, because it’s a lie.
“But I learned a long time ago that I couldn’t control anybody else, let alone somebody I don’t even know, that I have no personal relationship with. I just can’t worry about that kind of stuff.”
In part, the image persists as a perverse result of Clinton’s insistence on maintaining her privacy even as she enthusiastically boosts her husband’s most public of careers. Where hard information is hard to get, the grapevine will always fill in the gaps with guesses. But partly, too, Clinton has complicated her situation by antagonizing many of the self-appointed social, political, image-making arbiters of Washington.
In a show of what the less-mellow Hillary must have been like, there is steely idealist zeal-and no irony-in her critique of the manipulations of others in the capital’s political community. “It’s such an incestuous set of relations here,” she says, “people who make their living off the government, off of feeding at the government trough, (or) off of opposing the government by bringing in millions of dollars from frightened citizens out in the countryside so that the government can be stopped from doing something.
“I get very frustrated when I feel that every part of it, whether we’re talking about members of government or journalists or lawyers and lobbyists, contractors, whoever it is, see this as a game,” she says. “Real people’s lives are at stake in a lot of these decisions.”
She has little hesitation, as well, about making clear her disdain for much of the media.
“What bothers me are people who I view as serious journalists, who, because of the nature of journalism today or because of their own personal feeling, jump to conclusions or allow themselves to be used, or print things that they doubt are true because somebody else will go with it first.”
Seldom does she give a speech without making at least a passing reference to the “inaccurate, misleading” reporting she encounters. Journalism, she argues, has been corrupted by an excessive competition for the trivial or titillating that has driven out discussion of the serious issues of the day.
“I figure that if we ever want to get Bosnia off the front page, all I have to do is either put on a headband or change my hair,” she joked recently to an audience at the University of Texas.
A tinge of disingenuousness hangs over such statements. Clinton, like other successful political figures, adeptly uses the press to transmit the messages she believes are important. Last year, for example, when Bill Clinton’s advisers worried that her image with the public was too tough, they spent weeks arranging to have Hillary appear during the Democratic convention on the cover of People magazine along with an article that prominently featured Chelsea, who generally has been off-limits to the press.
Still, the intensity of the interest in her continues to bemuse Hillary. “The thing that is, I guess, hard for me to fully appreciate is how values and views that I’ve held all my life and have spoken about all my life are now viewed as news because of the particular position that I’m in,” she says.
It is, she adds, “bewildering.”
The prospect of that scrutiny was one reason why, during the latter stages of last year’s campaign, Clinton seemed at times to dread the idea of living in the White House. Months into the experience, she remains somewhat uncomfortable.
“You’re confined. I don’t know any other word to use,” she says with a resigned shrug.
Friends who have stayed overnight say both Clintons have become accomplished amateur tour guides, taking guests exploring in the byways of the old house. Both voracious readers, they have begun to dig into the history of the White House and its occupants.
Living in a museum, however, has disadvantages. The Clintons had the White House staff move a small white wicker table into an upstairs kitchen so that they could eat family meals together (the Bushes often dined formally while the Reagans ate dinner in front of the television set). They have also removed a Secret Service command post from their living area so that they no longer have outsiders ever present in their private quarters.
Nonetheless, living in the White House “is much more confining” than living in the Arkansas governor’s mansion or life on the campaign trail, Clinton says. Even Socks, the family cat, must wear a leash in case he wanders off through the tall iron fence and gets lost.
During the campaign, Hillary says, she could “stop at the Dunkin’ Donuts. You got a chance to sit down across the counter and talk to some single parent who was working the midnight-to-8 shift-or 11-to-7, I guess it is. There wouldn’t be anything between you and her. You had a sense of being anchored in your life as well as other people’s lives.”
As First Lady, by contrast, “you can’t walk outside the house you live in and take a walk without it being a major production.”
Nancy Snyderman, a doctor and television personality who has known both Clintons since the time she lived in Little Rock more than a decade ago, recalls a 1991 mother-daughter weekend in San Francisco, where Snyderman now lives. Hillary and Chelsea Clinton had come to visit, along with Arkansas-born actress Mary Steenburgen, and another friend and her daughter, from Little Rock.
A passing tourist recognized Steenburgen, called out her name, then recognized Snyderman and called to her as well. Clinton turned to her third friend and smiled. “Isn’t it great to be out of town where nobody knows who you are?” she said.
Today, the rare occasions of anonymity are deeply treasured. Not long ago, Diane Blair, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas and a longtimeClinton friend, came to visit at the White House. Attracted by the blue skies and flowers of an early spring day, the two women slipped out the side gate of the White House and walked for miles unrecognized through the city streets with a couple of Secret Service agents following discreetly behind. “It was a liberating experience,” Blair says.
She’s not a person who is going to open up her psyche to millions of people. She’s not a person who has that tremendous need to be liked.
Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, TV writer and friend of Hillary Clinton
The Clintons have tried especially hard to keep their equilibrium when it comes to Chelsea. Aside from allowing the occasional media picture, they are very protective. Unlike many other 13-year-old girls, Chelsea is not allowed to pierce her ears. Still too young, her parents believe. Hillary enforces an 11:30 weekend curfew and directs her schedulers to leave several afternoon hours a week free to watch Chelsea’s school soccer games at Sidwell Friends School. Chelsea “misses her (old) friends a lot,” her mother allows, “and misses her school a lot, misses her grandfather” but is “doing well and making friends.”
The constant stream of relatives and longtime friends the Clintons have passing through the White House also helps add an air of normality. In recent weeks,Hillary’s mother, Dorothy Rodham, has been a frequent guest as have her two brothers, Hugh and Tony, both of whom live in Florida. So, too, have friends dating back to high school. And among them, the First Lady relaxes enough to exercise her considerable sense of humor. That humor, except for the occasional full-throated laugh-a loud, raucous explosion that transforms her face in a wide-open shout-is a side of Hillary that the public seldom sees.
Recently, for example, she entertained classmates from her suburban high school outside of Chicago with stories of old dates, complete with imitations of high school boyfriends. Over the years, Clinton has developed an extensive repertoire of subjects-a pompous academic, a posturing politician, her hot-tempered friend and adviser Susan Thomases. Traveling to and from speeches on health-care reform, she has used her government-issued airplane as a traveling living room in which to charm members of Congress by regaling them with funny stories mixed in with sober discussions of the importance of this or that aspect of the national health system.
“I think I have some authority on the question of who is funny,” says Clinton’s friend Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, the television writer and producer whose shows have included several of TV’s most successful comedies. “Hillary is funny.”
The fact that little of that humor ever appears in public, however, is just one example of Clinton’s intense desire for privacy. Asked to repeat a story that several friends have mentioned as being one of her funniest — an imitation of a long-ago legal client traumatized by finding a rodent in a can of food — Clinton politely demurs.
“I think any of my friends would tell you I love to laugh,” she says. “I just can’t do it on command. It’s not part of my nature. I’m rebellious in that way. I’m not able to perform.”
Of course, much of what Clinton must do, day after day, is perform-her every public word and deed, and many of her private acts as well, take place on one of the world’s grandest stages, watched by an attentive, but fickle, audience.
“It’s the most intense fishbowl there is, even more than Hollywood,” says Carl Sferrazza Anthony, a historian of the First Lady’s role. “We expect the President and his wife to be moral exemplars, to be symbols of the proper roles of men and women.”
Throughout her life, Clinton has insisted on performing on her own terms. She will bend somewhat to advice — shed a headband here, talk about state dinners and food there — but makes few large concessions.
Political consultants may fret about how her image makes some Americans nervous. She dismisses such fears as misguided and unimportant. Journalists may push her to talk more about herself. She holds back and steers conversations to the subjects she believes are important-values, ideas.
“She’s not a person who is going to open up her psyche to millions of people,” Bloodworth-Thomason says. “She’s not a person who has that tremendous need to be liked.”
In the end, Clinton seems to say, the public may not fully understand her, but people will just have to learn to see beyond their expectations or their fears and take her the way she is.
“No matter who you are and what you’re doing, people are going to nit-pick around the edges,” she says. “I can only be who I am.”
This article was published in The Times on May 23, 1993.
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