Issues to share spotlight with ceremonial duties


January 20, 1993|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Hillary Clinton has gone out of her way to let the country know she'll be redefining the role of first lady -- participating in policy discussions and decisions, acting as a key adviser to her husband and attending Cabinet meetings from time to time.

There's the other part of the job, too. And yesterday, with Kermit the Frog sitting on her shoulder at an inaugural "Salute to Children" at the Kennedy Center, the Yale-educated lawyer got a look at the future.

For Mrs. Clinton, who will not be earning a paycheck for the first time since she was 13, the position she assumes today will require a delicate balancing act of ceremonial duties (which seem to include interacting with puppets) and the policy work she intends to leave as her legacy.

After yesterday's Kermit interlude, she made a brief appearance at a second Kennedy Center event, a "Salute to Youth," and got back to issues, the arena where she seems most comfortable.

"I've just been so pleased to hear what I know is on the minds of so many young I know personally," she said. "That is their concern about their futures and what they can do to make those futures better in terms of better schools for everybody, cleaner environment for everybody, safer streets and neighborhoods for everybody and stronger families."

But aside from juggling the various first lady hats, Mrs. Clinton, 45, also will be walking a fine line in terms of public perception as she rewrites the job description of the presidential spouse.

A look at the staff she has assembled reflects her intention to concentrate on issues and policies rather than menus and decor. Most of her staff, such as chief of staff Margaret Williams and deputy chief of staff Melanne Verveer, is made up of women she worked with on the campaign and who have backgrounds in public policy and government.

The one stranger to Mrs. Clinton in the group is Ann Stock, a Bloomingdale's executive and fund-raiser who becomes social secretary.

As the first baby boom, professional woman poised to step into the anachronistically named role of first lady, Mrs. Clinton has been the object of intense fascination. Her very name has taken on a life of its own as a sort of loaded adjective describing ambitious, independent-minded career women.

(The mystique even reaches to Japan, where women's magazines are full of stories about the career woman who is about to become first lady.)

Even in the early days of the New Hampshire primary campaign, recalls Arkansas Democratic Sen. David Pryor, everyone wanted know all about the gutsy, outspoken woman who defended her husband on national television against charges of marital infidelity.

"People were curious, yes, about Bill Clinton," said Mr. Pryor, a close friend of both Clintons. "But there was an intensity about the curiosity that was focused on Hillary Clinton. They wanted to know all about her."

The new first lady's words and actions continue to be as closely scrutinized as her husband's, especially as the Clintons make it clear that her role will be like none the public has seen before.

Although the Clintons disavowed during the campaign the notion of a "co-presidency," there is little doubt that Mrs. Clinton will operate as a sort of deputy, if not "co-," president much as she did in Arkansas, where voters came to know the Clintons as "Billary."

Mr. Clinton said recently that given his choice, he would knock down the wall in the Oval Office and have his office adjoin his wife's.

He said he intended to invite her to Cabinet meetings, and there has been much speculation that her office, traditionally in the East Wing of the White House, will be moved, perhaps to the West Wing, which houses the offices of the president and his closest advisers.

Although first ladies in the past have been highly visible and active -- some, including Edith Wilson, Eleanor Roosevelt and Rosalynn Carter, have participated in their husbands' work; others, including Lady Bird Johnson, Betty Ford and Barbara Bush, have become advocates; and others, including Nancy Reagan, have quietly exerted influence on major decisions -- never has a first lady been so openly cast as a key, if not the key, adviser.

Many Clinton staffers know that to press their agenda or get something done, it always helps to "run it by Hillary," as the catch phrase goes.

"It's very obvious to everyone that Bill Clinton is fiercely proud of Hillary," says Diane Blair, a University of Arkansas professor and close friend. "He values her knowledge, her strategic sense. He trusts her. To a lot of people it's so refreshing to have all this be upfront instead of done surreptitiously."

According to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released yesterday, one-third of Americans think Mrs. Clinton exercises too much influence over her husband, and for that one-third, such influence is inappropriate, whether up front or behind closed doors.

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