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From the archives:: Time for a Feminist as First Lady?

Two blue Buicks roll tentatively along asphalt roads hedged by summer greenery as high and dense as the walls of a maze. Somewhere behind these thickets is an airport and a chartered jet to a fund-raiser in Kentucky. Departure time is close; the two-car motorcade is not.

In the second car, Hillary Clinton is speaking in thoughtful paragraphs about civic duty, the daunting scale of mass media, Ronald Reagan’s squandering of his political capital ... and just where is this airport?

”... the chance to be involved in advocacy work to change government policies or to be an active volunteer in a political campaign — I view that as citizenship ...” She scans the road. “This is not right, this is not right... . Just turn — yeah, pull up there next to him again... . Let’s lead them.”

She settles back: "... It used to be that there was a common political culture because you had three networks which” — she eyes the lead car — “which, um, created a ... are you sure? ... we haven’t even SEEN the airport, we haven’t seen a runway, we haven’t seen anything... . Just pull up there and let me talk to him a minute.”

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She calls to the other driver: “Look. Go all the way back to where you were when you made your wrong turn, you go past where you made the wrong turn, you’ve got to go on that road all the way back and around — the airport’s over there... . “

Suffice it to say that Hillary Rodham Clinton got to the airport.

Now — can she help get Bill Clinton to the White House?

Her name appears on no ballot, but in the political year of the woman, she has become the woman. She rated a cartoon in The New Yorker. Her first-name recognition is closing in on Cher’s.

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As Arkansas First Lady, she brings home a paycheck more than three times the size of her husband’s. (He earns less, as governor, than a successful Park Avenue dog walker.) At 44, she is a corporate lawyer, a mother, a feminist and a force in education, children’s and women’s issues. She’s an activist with strong ideas and the will to carry them out.

She can be charming and persuasive, but to some of those who have worked for her, she can be exacting, even belittling. She is an archetypal ‘90s woman — but she followed the man she loved to Arkansas rather than following her potential in Washington. Like many women of her generation, Hillary Clinton’s life is one of contrasts and conflicts.

In many quarters in America — where she hears with tiresome predictability that she should be the candidate — she dazzles. So dense is her resume that, like Shakespeare, she is credited with things she didn’t do — senior class president, diving champ, GE College Bowl whiz. She can speak for 30 minutes, seamlessly, without notes, in part because it’s hard for her to read notes even with soft contact lenses, and in part because it comes easily.

But in some other wedges of the nation’s demographic pie — the clock-punching, Texas two-stepping working class, and in portions of the George Bush generation — she has come across to some as a bossy, humorless Valkyrie with a briefcase, the arrogant advance scout of an unknown, unnerving shift of generation and class.

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Actress Mary Steenburgen is an Arkansas friend.

“To some it’s a threat and it’s new, but I tell you — my daddy was a freight train conductor, not very well educated, a traditional Arkansas man ... he couldn’t talk at all to you about feminism. But if you said, how do you feel about Hillary Clinton? ... he was madly in love with Hillary Clinton. If he wasn’t threatened, why should modern men and women be?”

Hillary Clinton’s campaign to get her husband of 16 years elected has taken an unacknowledged mid-course change in emphasis, to put forward the kinder, gentler Hillary Clinton, to round off some of the sharper edges, to convince voters that she is not an ambitious, hectoring manipulator but one more working mom juggling through hectic days — a new American traditionalist, as down-home likable as she is intellectually admirable.

“I think people have gone a little overboard on portraying Hillary Clinton as an ax-wielding control freak,” said Carl Sferrazza Anthony, who wrote two books about first ladies. Hillary Clinton “has managed to strike a fairly remarkable balance in the three spheres of her life: wife, mother and individual.”

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A few incidents brought her to the simultaneous attention of the public, GOP strategists and late-night comedians:

  • The “60 Minutes” interview on accusations of Bill Clinton’s infidelity. Determined not to appear like a victim, Hillary Clinton said coolly that loving her husband through the trouble spots in their marriage did not mean she was “sitting here like some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette.” Tammy Wynette and numberless country music fans were incensed.
  • Victory night in Illinois’ March primary. She spoke ringingly, front and center, looking maybe too much like the candidate. A staffer blamed the networks for cutting in too early on what were just remarks to her hometown crowd. In New York in April, she was well out of the camera frame as her husband claimed victory.
  • Cookies. Denying Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr.'s charge that her law firm unfairly profited from state business, she said: “This is the sort of thing that happens to women who have their own careers. ... I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do is fulfill my profession... .” Homemakers protested that she had denigrated their lifestyle.
  • Her allegations of a media double standard in not reporting on President Bush’s rumored affairs. She apologized to Barbara Bush.

But these moments were less causes than symptoms of the change and national ambivalence that Hillary Clinton represents.
An Arkansas political columnist once melded their names into “Billary Clinton” with good reason. They are complementary, a political and marital team; if they were a law firm, she would be the litigator, he the mediator.

In 1968, Wellesley political science professor Alan Schechter sat down and wrote an almost embarrassingly glowing letter to Yale and Harvard law schools, commending Hillary Rodham as “the most able student” in his years at Wellesley. She has “an unusual capacity to make a strong contribution to American society. ... A liberal pragmatic reformer... .”

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Linda Bloodworth Thomason, an Arkansan, creator of TV’s “Designing Women,” one of Bill Clinton’s national fund-raising chairwomen and the producer of the film that introduces him at this week’s convention, says that at Yale, Hillary Rodham “was the prize, and Bill just had to have her.”

“Bill was the sort of guy you could picture being elected President. Hillary you could picture knowing what to do with it if you got it,” says Donald Pogue, a Yale roommate of Bill Clinton’s.

Bill Clinton relies on his wife’s political astuteness — “Run it past Hillary,” he often tells staffers with new ideas. In Arkansas, where “Hillary for Governor” bumper stickers enjoyed a brief vogue, he called her “one of the best arguments for reelecting me” and has promised voters “buy one, get one free.” He placed her at the head of sweeping efforts to reform Arkansas schools. At the U.S. Conference of Mayors last month, he introduced her as “at least half of our campaign.”

Why that makes some people uneasy is embedded in a deeper matrix. Just as Ross Perot isn’t only about an election but about national Angst, so the squirming over Hillary Clinton isn’t so much about a First Lady as about ambivalence over women, power, work and marriage.

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A U.S. News & World Report poll in April found that 30% think she helps the campaign, 38% say she hinders it. But 66% want her to keep working if Bill Clinton is elected, more than want her to be a traditional First Lady. (Recently she said she might not work because of the potential for conflicts of interest.)

“We can’t look at Hillary Clinton any more through a Mamie Eisenhower lens,” Bloodworth Thomason says. “She’s not so much a different kind of woman but would be a different kind of First Lady in that she has a life of her own. And we should not ask her to make that life end because she’s First Lady.”

Hillary Clinton can unroll the two-edged adjectives used about women — “a man is assertive, a woman is pushy; a man is proud, a woman is arrogant.” The only one she could come up with for herself: “committed. ... Because I care about a lot of things that are important to me.”

Women run corporations, movie studios, heavy equipment, and for U.S. Senate. Hillary Clinton predicts a woman President by 2012. But the First Lady’s role is so unevolved that it is still being cast as a choice between the two extremes in “Gone With the Wind”: Scarlett O’Hara and Melanie Wilkes.

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“This whole First Lady issue is really a lightning rod for something that goes far deeper,” says Anthony, the author. "... And that is the hypocrisy we still have about the status of women. It is a jealousy. People of my mother’s generation, someone like my mother, college-educated, who gave up her potential career for marriage and five children, she doesn’t seem to regret her choice, but she does seem to resent others who made other choices.”

Hillary Clinton would have been less a lightning rod if she’d run for office herself, instead of for First Lady in “the idealized version of the American family — even if most of us don’t live in families like that anymore,” says Ruth Mandel, director of the Center for the American Woman and Politics at Rutgers University.

David Mixner, a prominent Los Angeles gay activist and Hillary Clinton’s friend, says: “The easy thing would have been if she fit into a typical First Lady profile: no job, no career, not too bright, not too strong, this nice supporting, loving role” that Americans cherish because “we value the closet. People would rather not deal with change.”

And sociology aside, some people just plain may not like her.

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None of this has gone unnoticed by Republicans. In 1980, Bill Clinton lost his bid for a second term to a Republican whose wife pointedly identified herself as “Mrs. Frank White.” The chastened Clintons made a comeback two years later, after Hillary Rodham had a baby and added “Clinton” to her name.

Now there is every indication that the GOP would be happy to use her for mortar practice again. Former President Richard M. Nixon has already weighed in: “If the wife comes through as too strong or too intelligent, it makes the husband look like a wimp.”

GOP media wizard Roger Ailes: “Hillary in an apron is like Michael Dukakis in a tank.”

Citizens Against Clinton blasted her as “a radical feminist who has little use for religious values or even the traditional family unit” and “total contempt for traditional American women.”

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Hillary Clinton is a Methodist, believes in its social activism, and has put in 20 years with the Children’s Defense Fund. “She genuinely thinks that politics and vocation can be instruments for helping people,” says Don Jones, her pastor when she was a teen-ager and currently professor of ethics at Drew University.

She says she espouses a big-tent feminism that any responsible choice a woman makes is legitimate. If the GOP tries to turn “feminist” into the nitroglycerin that “liberal” became in 1988, “we all ought to ... get a great big piece of poster board and write out the dictionary definition of feminist, which at least the last time I looked was something along the lines of ‘someone who believes in equal political, social and economic rights for women.’ I don’t think you’re going to find many Americans who don’t subscribe to that.”

All this presupposes that a spouse makes a difference. “I don’t think people make decisions about their presidential choices on the basis of who the vice president is or who the spouse is,” she says.

But in this year when all the rules are upended, voters — and strategists on both sides — may think otherwise.

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A college grad who opted to stay home with her kids wrote that she wasn’t offended by the cookie remark; she’d rather see a spouse “gainfully employed than sitting around a mansion or White House, taking up space like an ornamental vase!” Her vote is “as much to see you in the White House as him ... a terrific ‘First Woman.’ ”

Veteran Republican strategist Stu Spencer says a whiff of “co-presidency” has a larger reach than “the cookie thing — more global. It affects all women, all men.” In truth, “there’s been a lot of co-presidencies. I think Barbara Bush has a lot to say to George when she gets upstairs.”

That style of peekaboo input may still be more tolerable than the Clintons’ teamwork, but “we’re going through a real generational sea change,” says Spencer. “She represents a new generation of women; Barbara Bush represents an older generation of women.

“It’s there, and it could show up in this election.”

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Susan Estrich is a USC law professor who managed Dukakis’ 1988 campaign. “I think the problem isn’t that she isn’t liked by some voters, but that she’s more polarizing than [the campaign] would like her to be. I think she is admired and respected by a lot of people. It’s just that she carries a negative as well.”

To retrench now, to stress-as popular and women’s magazines have been invited to do of late — Hillary Clinton in situ, teaching Sunday school, at home with her daughter — “that’s a damage-repair operation,” Estrich believes.

In January, Bill Clinton said he “wouldn’t rule ... out” a Cabinet post for his wife. “She’d be the best I could find.” In June, a campaign strategist said that was really more a gesture of his esteem for her.

In June, at a $500-a-head fund-raiser for Pennsylvania Senate candidate Lynn Yeakel, in an 18th-floor apartment on Central Park West, Hillary Clinton spoke feelingly of the hard campaigns behind them and the harder ones to come.

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“Now here’s something all of you can do for me” — vote for her recipe in a women’s magazine’s bipartisan bake-off: her chocolate chip cookies vs. Barbara Bush’s.

“Many of you probably thought this was a silly idea. I’ve got to tell you — it’s very important. ... Every little symbolic effort, every little bit helps!”

At one side of the room stood two of Yeakel’s college friends, Republicans who had come to help their old friend. They found themselves impressed if not converted by Hillary Clinton, and trying to figure out why she rubs some folks the wrong way.

“I think it’s education; I don’t think it’s class,” said Jane Porter at last. “She doesn’t come across as snooty or silver spoon. It’s education and what she chose to do with her life compared to what they did — her age combined with her education is threatening.”

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In fact, in Wynette’s rejoinder to the “60 Minutes” remark, she said: “I can assure you, in spite of your education, you will find me to be just as bright as yourself.”

Class chasms showed in the cookie remark, which incensed people because they thought she was disdaining housewives. Hillary Clinton says she was trying to deprecate ceremonial duties of politicians’ wives, a more rarefied lifestyle.

Built into voter unease, Carl Anthony reckons, “may be the fact that she’s not a laundrywoman, she’s a lawyer. ... I think that puts her in a very different class from the average American working mother. Perhaps it’s a — I don’t want to say a class thing, but it’s just people feeling they can’t relate to this high-powered, high-priced attorney.”

Even that isn’t new, he added. Mamie Eisenhower, the Army wife, would refer sneeringly to Jacqueline Kennedy as “the college girl.”

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Hillary Clinton’s task, in Estrich’s assessment, is “to neutralize some of the negatives with people who felt you were looking down on them,” and do it credibly.

At a Ladies’ Home Journal luncheon in the Art Deco ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria in June, among such luminaries as Linda Ellerbee and Senate candidate Elizabeth Holtzman, Hillary Clinton strove to reach across that gap:

“Those of us in this room, by dint of hard work, by genes, by upbringing, by luck, by whatever combination — we have a much better than average living, we have a much better than average education ... and it’s sometimes hard for us to even imagine what life is like for most of the 17 million readers of this magazine or any magazine. [For them] the choices are not so clear nor obvious.”

But her efforts to bridge the gap may fall short precisely because she is such a perfectionist — hard on herself, hard on others.

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A person who worked for the Clintons for several years says this is where the problem lies:

“She doesn’t come from a rich family, she wasn’t really snobby that way, [but] she expects so much out of people — she’d yell at a waitress, somebody driving her around [in] taxicabs ... there’s no room for mistakes or anything in her mind. She does look down at people, she feels like she’s so brilliant, everyone should have as much sense as she does ... she’s always right, never been wrong about anything, never admits she’s wrong or says she’s sorry... .

“She’s a wonderful lawyer, a brilliant person; she really is. [To] the people who work with her in that situation, she’s a different person. She doesn’t belittle those people ... it’s people she feels are below her, her employees, she treats that way.”

The campaign is aggressively connecting the dots between Hillary Clinton and Barbara Bush, embracing the old feminist credo that differences between women of any age and station are really not so vast.

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Hillary Clinton did that herself in the speech she gave at her Wellesley alma mater in June — one speech she did write down, and wrote with input from friends. A passage resonated like one Barbara Bush delivered there two years earlier:

  • Barbara Bush: “At the end of your life, you will never regret not having passed one more test, not winning one more verdict or not closing one more deal. You will regret time not spent with a husband, a child, a friend or a parent.”
  • Hillary Clinton: “For me the elements of that balance are family, work and service ... when all is said and done, it is the people in your life, the friendships you form and the commitments you make that give shape to your life.”

Hillary Rodham had all the choices in the world, her friends say, when, after stellar performances on the impeachment inquiry staff of the House Judiciary Committee investigating Watergate, at Wellesley, at Yale, she moved to Arkansas to join Bill Clinton.

“I think I knew at some level that I would be very cowardly and foolish to walk away from that relationship,” she says now.

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Betsey Wright, a longtime Clinton friend and now a ranking campaign adviser, says she was at first “disappointed” by the marriage because of her hopes forHillary Clinton as the first woman President. But today she understands. “I projected my hopes on her ... she followed her heart. She and Bill are better people because she did come to Arkansas and did marry him.”

“Is that as old-fashioned as they come?” laughed one close friend meaningfully. “That doesn’t fit your success-oriented career-minded person.”

This article was published as a Column One in The Times on July 14, 1992.


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