The Candidate's Wife


March 24, 1992|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON. — So this candidate's wife is being assessed all over again, as if she were a piece of property. Her value seems to go up and down with every rumor in the marketplace, taking her husband's business along for the ride.

Just last month, Hillary Clinton was Bill's greatest asset. She was the one who stripped the poison petals off Gennifer Flowers' story. This was no wronged wife, long suffering abuse. She was the latest model in political wives, an independent lawyer and political partner.

Now she's being talked about as a debit. With Paul Tsongas gone and the nomination at hand, what Democratic troubles may lurk in her legal files? Could her personal strengths be his political weaknesses? What woman's role will she be modeling this year anyway and what do we think of it?

Last week, Mrs. Clinton's stock slid down the politically correct graph lines. She landed in the middle of the great American mommy wars. When asked about the relationship between his state business and her law firm, she said in frustration, ''I suppose I could have stayed home, baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was fulfill my profession. . . .''


The sound bite went further afield than her careful second thought, ''You know, the work that I've done as a professional, as a public advocate has been aimed in part to assure that women can make the choice that they should make -- whether it's full-time career, full-time motherhood, some combination. . . .'' But she was right to add, ''I think that it is still difficult for people to understand right now that it is a generational change.''

Indeed, the signs of generational change are all over this election. George Bush came of age with the unifying ''Good War,'' World War II. Bill Clinton came of age with divisive bad war, Vietnam.

Barbara Bush left Smith College and married George when there was one right choice for women. Hillary Clinton finished law school and married Bill when was there was no single right choice. Perhaps no right choice.

Today's first lady was in essence ''grandmothered'' into her role. But the decisions any younger woman makes are instantly controversial.

Think of Hillary Clinton's own revolving appearances in the political profit and loss ledgers. When she held onto her maiden name in 1980, she was blamed for her husband's defeat. When she gave it up, she was criticized for self-defeat.

When she stuck up for her husband and marriage on ''60 Minutes,'' she had to prove that she was no Tammy Wynette. When she proved it, the Tammy Wynette fans wanted to know what's wrong with standing by your man.

At campaign rallies, when she speaks with a strong political voice, someone invariably asks, ''Why don't you run.'' If she were as quiet as Shelley Buchanan someone would undoubtedly ask if her husband was an impossible chauvinist.

The expectations for husbands are not much easier, nor is their balancing act. One moment, Bill Clinton deals with his wife as a partner able to stand on her own two feet. The next, he's angrily, even chivalrously defending her from Jerry Brown's accusing finger.

As Patricia O'Brien, whose new novel, ''The Candidate's Wife'' is prescient to the point of spookiness says, ''You can almost hear the gears creaking as we shift from the rules of one generation to another.''

But what are the new rules? Hillary Clinton is not the only one who can describe herself as ''confused.'' How do we deal with the two-career couple in a campaign? Or in the White House?

Is Marilyn Quayle the model -- a lawyer who turned, in professional frustration, to mystery writing? Could a husband do for a wife what Jack Kennedy did for his brother when he appointed Bobby attorney general?

At this moment, I am told there are a dozen or more reporters in Arkansas searching for improprieties in the working relationship of a lawyer wife and a governor husband. We may yet give Mrs. Clinton the treatment accorded to both Geraldine Ferraro's feminism and John Zaccaro's finances. It's not a comfortable thought.

As asset and debit, as lawyer and wife, Hillary Clinton is likely to set a standard this year for the new generation of political couples. Sometimes, I am sure, like every other woman, wife, mother, of her generation who ever stops balancing and juggling expectations for a minute, she must wonder: How on earth do you ever get it right?

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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