Hillary Clinton is more likely to shape policy than to play traditional hostess

REDEFINING THE ROLE OF FIRST LADY

November 15, 1992|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Staff Writer

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- As the first professional, independen woman to become first lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton will have the nation's eyes on her as she breaks the mold of the traditional White House wife and hostess.

But the most important role she will play in Washington will be seen by almost no one.

Although Clinton campaign officials never envisioned a "co-presidency," as political opponents asserted they had, they never denied that Mrs. Clinton, 45, has been a key -- perhaps the key -- strategist and adviser to her husband.

And nothing is expected to change.

"I think she'll play a pretty powerful role as [Bill Clinton's] adviser," said Ernest Dumas, an Arkansas columnist who has known the couple for decades. "I think she'll be his most important adviser. She'll be a part of decisions all over the board."

During the presidential campaign, Mrs. Clinton received a degree of attention and scrutiny unprecedented for a political spouse. In the early days, the public came to know her as Mr. Clinton's No. 1 defender and shield against adultery charges as they validated their marriage on national television.

That turned out to be the easy part. Appearing to disparage homemakers, she touched off a fierce debate on the role of women, becoming such a lightning rod that she had to tone down her act and start talking up cookie recipes.

But back at campaign headquarters, behind the scenes, the Yale-trained lawyer was advising the candidate on personnel matters. It was she who convinced her husband to give campaign strategist James Carville top authority -- and is now credited with keeping the campaign on track.

She is also said to have had a hand in blocking the appointment of campaign chairman Mickey Kantor as transition chairman because she was uneasy with his management style.

"It all came back to Hillary," one friend said of campaign decisions.

As first lady of Arkansas for a dozen years -- a responsibility she juggled with a job at the prestigious Rose Law Firm, seats on boards and commissions, and motherhood -- her word often weighed heavier than anyone's, at times frustrating the governor's staff.

"They would hash something out in the governor's office, and at 5 o'clock they would all think things were set," Mr. Dumas said. "The next day, he'd say, 'I talked to Hillary, and she points out this and that. . . .' And things would turn around."

A strong advocate

A longtime children's advocate who spearheaded public school reforms in Arkansas in the mid-1980s and, until recently, served as chairwoman of the Children's Defense Fund, the Wellesley University graduate is considered the more direct and RTC possibly the tougher of the two Clintons.

During the governor's re-election campaign in 1982, he eagerly sought the endorsement of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, which had been leaning toward his opponent. Mr. Clinton brought his wife along to a meeting of the editorial board, and she, more than he, made the case.

"She was the tough one there," recalled Mr. Dumas, who was at the meeting. "Hillary was the one who did it."

The newspaper endorsed Bill Clinton.

There is little doubt that Mrs. Clinton will continue her advisory role. What is uncertain is how, as a career woman and activist, she will publicly embody the role of first lady.

Friends and aides say she will spend the next two months thinking about the job ahead, aware that she may have to walk a fine line between her own convictions and public expectations.

One of Mrs. Clinton's first moves will be to resign from her law firm, where she earns $160,000 per year, as well as from the boards on which she sits.

As first lady of Arkansas, Mrs. Clinton kept ceremonial duties to a minimum and devoted herself to policy.

Mrs. Clinton has said she will go beyond adopting pet issues, as her predecessors have done in the White House, and help shape policy, as she did in Arkansas after her husband appointed her to chair a commission on education standards.

"She does find herself at something of a historical and cultural watershed," said the longtime friend, "and it remains to be seen how she will further her interests once she's part of the first family. I think she'll feel her way a bit. I know she feels that it's a very important position."

And it is a position likely to be redefined in the next four years. Even the genteel title seems anachronistic for a woman who has kept her maiden name as a middle name.

"A lot of people will end up calling her 'Hillary,' " said her director of communications, Maggie Williams, when asked whether Mrs. Clinton was comfortable with being called "first lady."

Another aide laughs at the suggestion that Mrs. Clinton might meet with Barbara Bush to discuss dishes or decor -- as other incoming and outgoing first ladies have done -- when the Clintons go to Washington this week.

Reforming her image

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