Can Hillary Find Happiness on the Clinton Team?


December 18, 1992|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Boston. -- For the past week, the blitz of news from the government-elect has pre-empted many of the regular episodes in the ongoing soap opera known as ''Hillary and The White House.'' High-level appointments and the total-immersion economics seminar have virtually blacked out the question all America has spent all year asking:

Can a Wife and Lawyer from a Small State in the South Find Personal Happiness and Professional Fulfillment married to the President of a Country Terminally Ambivalent about Her Role?

Indeed all we learned this week about the first lady-elect is that she is as happy wallowing in policy-wonk heaven as her husband. She may be the only lay person at the Little Rock conference who wasn't bemused when Bill got all mushy over an economic chart: ''That last graph was very moving.''

Hillary-watching-and-wondering may be in a hiatus because there are other names and issues to discuss. Or we may be getting a fix at last on the Clinton style and the way it works in

both management and marriage. Something called teamwork.

As the president-elect picks top-ranking officials, it has become clear that he is not just looking for the best and the brightest individuals. He wants a sum that is greater than its parts, diverse people who can work together.

At one early press conference, a baffled reporter tried to deconstruct the new power structure. ''Can you tell us who will be taking orders from whom?'' he asked.

Mr. Clinton answered that he was trying to create a different organization. Like his campaign, it would defy the traditional ways of operating because it would be ''less hierarchical and more teamwork oriented.'' Not exactly a quality circle, but not a rigid ladder either.

It turns out that the president-elect puts a priority on partnership. This was apparent last July in his choice and use of Al Gore. Where George Bush had chosen a son-figure as vice president, Bill Clinton chose a peer. Even an equal.

Everyone campaigning with these baby boomers remarked on the easy camaraderie between Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gore. Everybody applauded it. It's a safe bet that Mr. Clinton isn't about to waste Mr. Gore's talents or intelligence by limiting him to foreign funerals. It's also clear that Mr. Clinton isn't threatened by smarts.

Which brings us back to Hillary.

The job of vice president has a good deal in common with the not-quite-job of first lady. You don't sleep with the president, you do preside over the Senate. But what your tasks and your power depend on is your personal relationship with the man in the White House.

In this case, the model for the Bill and Al merger may well be the Bill and Hillary marriage. It's a working partnership. And if some Americans have a problem with this, Bill Clinton isn't among them.

Indeed much of the commentary in the Hillary soap opera has centered on what this accomplished lawyer wants, on the dangers of wifely power-hunger and power-grabbing. But maybe should be as focused on what Bill wants, which appears to be power-sharing with strong personalities.

Mr. Clinton was speaking for teamwork as well as for his family's primary wage earner, Hillary, when he said at the Democratic National Convention last summer that ''building up women does not diminish men.''

In the past weeks, he's dropped any number of hints about his wife's place on the first string. If Mr. Gore isn't going to be wasted on funerals, she won't be wasted on place cards.

Asked whether Hillary attended one important meeting, her husband answered crisply that she ''stayed the whole time. Talked a lot. Knew more than we did about some things.'' At the economic conference Monday he casually introduced, ''two other people who are on every team I play on now, my chief of staff designee, Mack McLarty, and my wife, Hillary.''

Does this mean that Hillary will get the title on the door, the Bigelow on the floor? I doubt it. And lots of women, for understandable reasons, will wince at the idea of a marital partner who does a big job without the paycheck or the official post. Too many wives have done that for too many generations.

But the official status of the First Spouse may seem less crucial as a substantial number of women enter the administration's inner circle. Hillary Clinton may not be seen as the emblem for Everywoman. She may look more like what she is -- one woman in a unique role, finding her own way through a tricky time. We will be able to focus less on what she's called than on what she does. Play on the team.

We are witnessing a transition in leadership and in leadership style. What's good for Al is good for Hillary and is likely to be good for the country. Maybe this soap opera just needs a new name: As The Clinton Team Turns.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.