WASHINGTON -- Hillary Clinton, caught at the center of political storms this year over family values and career women, said yesterday she envisions for herself "a more comprehensive approach" to the role of first lady than that being exercised by Barbara Bush.
The wife of Democratic nominee Bill Clinton said in an interview yesterday that, should she and her husband take up residency at the White House next year, she'd like to shape policy related to children and family -- not just talk about such issues.
"I don't think there's any point in being in public service if you don't really believe that you want to make a difference to help people," Mrs. Clinton said yesterday before leaving for a trip to hurricane-torn Florida with her husband.
Since she stepped out on the campaign trail last year with her trademark headband, power suits and four-star resume, Mrs. Clinton has emerged as a controversial figure, drawing scorn from Republicans who've portrayed her as a "radical feminist" seeking a "co-presidency" with her husband but drawing high praise from admirers who see the successful lawyer, wife and mother as a role model and portrait of the contemporary woman.
Although she and the Arkansas governor have denied ever speaking of a "co-presidency," Mrs. Clinton spoke early in the campaign of reasons "we," or "Bill and I," were running for office.
She no longer uses those pronouns, and the campaign no longer hints that she might serve in a Cabinet position. But Mrs. Clinton leaves little doubt that she would take an extremely active role in the administration as she has in the campaign.
Today, among her staff of about 18, she has her own issues director and political consultant -- highly unusual for a first lady, and more so for the spouse of a candidate -- and when she's on the road, aides call from Little Rock, Ark., to equip her with the latest Commerce Department figures on household income for her speeches and interviews.
The lawyer and longtime children's advocate said yesterday that, as a first lady, she would be "a voice for children," but in a more active way than Mrs. Bush has championed issues of personal concern, such as literacy and infants with AIDS.
"I think we need a more comprehensive approach. I think you have to match your voice with your actions," said Mrs. Clinton, currently on leave from the Little Rock law firm where she's a partner.
"It's not enough just to say, 'My gosh, we have these terrible problems.' We need changes that will solve these problems. At the end of Bill's first year and first term, I want to be able to say I didn't just raise public awareness, we now have policies in effect in our country that are solving the problems of children and families."
If these aren't words the country is used to hearing from spouses of presidential candidates, Mrs. Clinton believes that, with this campaign, the country is going through "a historic transition" in its perception of political spouses and their roles.
"This transition has occurred at every level in our society except the presidential level," she says. "When Bill was first elected governor, it was unusual for a governor's spouse to work or have outside interests. Now it's a matter of course."
"But because we've never had people of Bill and Al Gore's age actually in position to be president, it's now occurring naturally at the presidential level."
In a short interview in her hotel suite before leaving Washington, Mrs. Clinton appeared at times more defensive and brittle than earlier in the campaign, initially dismissing questions about negative reactions to her with, "Oh, who cares?" or "I don't know what you're talking about."
On the question of her husband's draft record that has come back to dog the Clinton campaign, she recites the campaign's line: "I have nothing to say about it." When pressed, she says, "You can ask me a million times. I'm not going to say anything other than what's been said because, as far as we're concerned, we've said all that needs to be said."
As the campaign heads for its traditional Labor Day opening, Mrs. Clinton denies that there's been any attempt to keep her in the shadows since her offending remark earlier this year about how she could have "stayed home and baked cookies and had teas."
L "I'm doing the same thing I've always been doing," she says.
In fact, say her schedulers, since the Democratic convention -- when she appeared often with the Clintons' 12-year-old daughter, Chelsea, trotted out baskets of chocolate chip cookies and seemed to have softened -- she has crisscrossed the Midwest twice and rarely has been off the campaign trail.
She was perhaps most visible, in name if not in person, at the Republican convention last month when speaker after speaker portrayed the former chairwoman of the Children's Defense Fund as a liberal extremist and threat to the American family.
Ironically, the bashing has resulted in a backlash of support for her, she says, citing "Hillary fan clubs" that are forming in Maryland and Virginia and cheers she gets along the Clinton-Gore bus trips.