Maybe Hillary's for real

Sandy Grady

April 27, 1992|By Sandy Grady

PERSONAL innuendoes. Rumors about lifestyle. Quotes that blaze tabloid headlines. Financial exposes. Negative poll numbers. Few newcomers had a rockier 90-day introduction to the American political scene.

Bill Clinton? Nah. We're talking here about Hillary Rodman Clinton, the candidate's wife, who stirs almost as much strong emotion, especially among women, as her husband.

Sure, we've had controversial first ladies: Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosalynn Carter, Nancy Reagan, all for wildly different reasons. But no other wannabe first lady has caught so much flak as Mrs. Clinton while still on the campaign trail. You hear sidewalk critics call her the Ice Queen, the Schoolmarm, the Lady Legal Eagle, the Fem Radical, the Yuppie Wife From Hell.

When she changes her hairstyle -- no more headband -- it's cataclysmic news. She's the first candidate's wife to hit the cover of U.S. News, whose April 27 issue ("The Hillary Factor") found that 38 percent of Americans think she helps her husband's campaign, 30 percent say she hurts.

Sure, Mrs. Clinton created some of this firestorm with her I'm-no-little-Tammy-Wynette defense of her husband on CBS's "60 Minutes," her comment that she's no cookie-and-tea housefrau, her allusion in a magazine interview to George Bush's alleged infidelity.

Still, the furor is puzzling. Isn't someone who's a Yale Law grad, activist lawyer, campaign partner, wife and mother supposedly a paragon of the New American Woman Who Has It All?

Is Hillary Clinton a threatening ogre who'd dominate the White House? Or is she getting a bum rap?

Until now I'd heard Hillary Clinton at political rallies, where her rat-a-tat monotone reminded me of every girl in high school who did her homework and got straight A's. For a closer look I went up to La Salle University, where Mrs. Clinton was to teach a class of political science students. For the first 15 minutes she sounded like an echo of her husband, rattling off programs and promises.

But when the students began asking questions, she was relaxed, patient, sharp on the educational stuff, and candid as any wife who knows a tape-recorded blunder can smash apart a $10 million campaign.

"What's the chance of your being your husband's running mate?" asked a student. "Zero. Anyway, a vice president has to live in a different house. That's not for me."

"Why do you want to be a first lady?"

"Sometimes I ask myself the same question," said Mrs. Clinton, smiling. She runs through a litany of idealism -- hearing a Martin Luther King Jr. speech as a child, the Vietnam War, assassination of two Kennedys, the "me first" '80s. "Are we safer, healthier, more prosperous, better educated? It sounds corny, but I worry about my 12-year-old daughter's future world. When the president had a 90 percent rating after the gulf war, Bill said, 'I don't care if he's invulnerable, the country's falling behind.'"

"Did you expect all this attention?" asked a young woman.

"Never. Arkansas is a small state. I never experienced anything like this. My hairstyle may be interesting, but is it going to save a starving child or homeless person? Hard to get 250 million people to know you."

Big ovation. Outside with a small clot of reporters, Mrs. Clinton was guarded, sidestepping minefields, once delivering a blunt "no comment."

I got the impression that, during their Arkansas interlude, the Clintons decided Hillary would be a more careful campaigner. Perhaps stung by comparisons to Barbara Bush and jokes like Roger Ailes' ("Hillary Clinton in an apron is like Michael Dukakis in a tank"), she would emphasize traditional values. I sensed a new, throttled-back Hillary with antennae out for traps.

"I've learned that a sound bite in the middle of a long conversation can be blown up," she said. "I've got to communicate what I mean better. Some of it's been my fault."

She can still blush, giggle and flare with irritation. Asked about potential Republican ads assaulting her, she said, "They'd better be careful. American women aren't going to be taken in by charges that I have a different agenda. Family and friends know Bill and I have a marriage rooted in love and respect . . . Look, I'm different from my mother's generation. But I work hard in my profession and personal life so women after me will have more choices."

Walking away, a young woman radio reporter chuckled, "Hillary the Yale grad . . . trying to play the housewife."

The cynicism, even anger, about Hillary Clinton baffles me. What's wrong with a woman being super-bright, articulate, terrific lawyer, glue of a once-shaky marriage, political partner, ambitious and idealistic for her husband to win and do well?

Whom do they want as First Wife, another Mamie Eisenhower?

I'm no all-out fan. But until outraged feminists or cookie-makers come up with a better case, I'd say Hillary Clinton is getting a bum rap.

Sandy Grady is Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

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