Wife, mother, first lady and presidential adviser ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

December 21, 1992|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- President-elect Bill Clinton's casual comment in a Wall Street Journal interview the other day that, while he won't be appointing his wife, Hillary, to an official position, he hopes she'll be sitting in on Cabinet meetings, suggests a quantum leap in the role of the nation's first lady.

Other wives of presidents have taken on substantive issues during their White House residencies, but nearly always with special projects they have carved out for themselves in a particular area. For Barbara Bush it has been child literacy, for Nancy Reagan it was anti-drug education, for Lady Bird Johnson landscape beautification, and so on.

President Jimmy Carter's wife, Rosalynn, was known to be one of her husband's closest advisers and occasionally was seen at Cabinet meetings, but she had no substantial reputation before entering the White House as an expert on anything other than Jimmy Carter.

Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, is an accomplished lawyer who has specialized in the field of children's rights and is a former head of the Children's Defense Fund, among the most effective of special-interest groups.

Her range of knowledge, however, goes far beyond this one field, enabling her to deal with many other matters of public policy.

Clinton may not have been stretching the truth too much in saying in the interview that "she knows more about a lot of this stuff than most of us do."

That is not to say that undertaking a greater policy advisory role than previous first ladies holds no pitfalls for Hillary Clinton. Her husband was the one elected by the American people, and she will allow herself to become embroiled in any policy arguments within his administration at considerable peril to her popularity.

Barbara Bush, immensely popular during her years in the White House, was seen widely as a common-sense woman content to take care of the chores of running the household and leaving the political decisions to her husband. To insiders, she was known to have strong political views and instincts but always subordinated them to the traditional role of the (silent) woman behind the man.

But the role of women has been undergoing some radical changes with the advent of the two-member working family, often both of professional status. One of the appeals of the Clinton-Gore ticket this year was the presence of two energetic, strong-willed and strong-speaking women at the sides of their men.

When the Clinton campaign was badly shaken early this year by the allegations of womanizing, Hillary Clinton's visible support of her husband, and later her articulate enunciation of his views when laryngitis silenced him, minimized any sense that she was a defenseless victim. The candidate insisted from the start that he and his wife were a team, and they demonstrated it effectively in the campaign, in good times and bad.

For a time, Clinton used to tell voters that if they elected him they would be getting "two for the price of one," so impressive was his wife's record in public life.

When that notion became a bit too much politically, Clinton stopped saying it, but that indeed is the deal voters seem to have bought into.

Interestingly, a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll just out finds that 63 percent of voters surveyed believe Hillary Clinton has what it takes to be an adviser to her husband, to only 24 percent who disagree.

Some 70 percent of women polled feel this way, but so do 55 percent of men. The same poll shows that 46 percent of all those surveyed view her in a positive light now to only 19 percent against, reversing a negative consensus existing only last summer.

Maintaining that public approval will be a challenge for a woman who not only comes to the White House with high expectations about her smarts but also has a 12-year-old daughter to steer through the shoals of her early teen years in the nation's largest goldfish bowl.

The presence of other women in the Clinton Cabinet should ease the task somewhat, but Hillary Clinton will become first lady with about as high a profile as any to date, at least in terms of being a substantive player in her husband's administration.

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