Hillary Clinton makes opening remarks as 'voice for children'

November 19, 1992|By Boston Globe

WASHINGTON -- It was President-elect Bill Clinton who mad the evening news with his meeting with President Bush, but it was Hillary Clinton who gave the first Washington speech.

In an indication of how Hillary Clinton plans to honor her vow to be "a voice for children" in the White House, the longtime children's advocate chose to make her first post-election public remarks at the Children's Defense Fund annual dinner last night.

In this politically self-conscious city, every move Mrs. Clinton makes is scrutinized for evidence of how she will balance being both presidential wife and career woman, and the speech last night set off an immediate flurry of speculation. Was Mrs. Clinton grabbing the limelight from the president-elect or waving goodbye to her years as a child advocate and lawyer?

Neither, child advocates say. At a time when growing numbers of children are poor, malnournished and homeless, the need for a highly qualified advocate such as Mrs. Clinton to lead the charge on children's issues from the White House is more critical than ever, they say.

"Kids have finally found their voice with Hillary Clinton," said Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., chairman of the Senate subcommitee on children. "In the new administration they will always be a top priority."

"There has been a lot of rhetoric over the last 12 years about children and families, but not much has happened," added Rep. Robert T. Matsui, D-Calif., future chairman of the House subcommittee on human services. "I think Hillary Clinton is now in a position to make this an issue of importance in Washington, and it will help tremendously."

Mrs. Clinton has been dogged for months by questions about her role in Washington. She has been painted as everything from the scheming wife-behind-the-scenes to a professional woman scornful of females who stay at home. And her husband's victory at the polls has only heightened concern about what kind of president's wife she will be.

But Mrs. Clinton's arrival in Washington happens to coincide with the departure of some key children's advocates -- providing her with an opportunity to gracefully take their place, without the need for an official title or role.

One of the champions of children's issues in the House of Representatives, Thomas J. Downey, lost his re-election bid this month. The bipartisan National Commission on Children -- the first national commission to study the problems of children and call for sweeping, comprehensive reforms -- is slated to expire this spring.

Hillary Clinton, say many children's advocates, is uniquely qualified to step into the void.

"There is an enormous amount of hope and enthusiasm about her coming to Washington," said Cheri Hayes, the National Commission's executive director. "She has a long-established history of involvement with these issues. She was a strong moving force in Arkansas behind many of the policies that the state put in place in terms of early education and school readiness."

Mrs. Clinton has put in some 20 years with the Children's Defense Fund, a child advocacy group, including serving on its board of directors. She has become a nationally known expert in children's law.

Even within the confines of the role of a traditional presidential wife, Mrs. Clinton easily will be able to champion a new approach to children's issues, advocates say. There is no need for her to have a Cabinet post to help draw together the disparate programs and differing interests that work to help children, they argue.

"A strong voice within the administration is invaluable," one high-ranking administration aide said. "Someone within the White House that can bring the appropriate people together would make a world of difference."

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