WASHINGTON -- In a break with tradition that signifies her unprecedented involvement in policy matters in the new administration, first lady Hillary Clinton's office will be near the Oval Office in the West Wing of the White House, her press secretary confirmed yesterday.
The location of Mrs. Clinton's office in the small wing, which houses only the offices of the president and his most senior officials, makes more formal -- and more public -- the powerful role the first lady will play as a policy-maker and adviser over the next four years.
It is also a tremendous symbolic gesture, one that makes plain to the public that Mrs. Clinton will be as influential -- if not more influential -- as the vice president, the chief of staff, the national security adviser, the domestic policy adviser, the political director and other senior officials whose offices are in that part of the White House.
"This is what the president wanted," Lisa Caputo, Mrs. Clinton's press secretary, said in explaining the location of the first lady's office.
Traditionally, the offices of the first lady have been in the East Wing, which is separated from the West Wing by the executive mansion.
Mrs. Clinton's social staff will remain in the East Wing, separate from her main office (although she also will have working space in the East Wing) and also separate from the bulk of her operation, which will be in the Old Executive Office Building next to the West Wing.
The West Wing is such exclusive territory that no vice president had an office there until 1977. When President Jimmy Carter brought Vice President Walter F. Mondale into the West Wing from the Old Executive Office Building, where previous vice presidents' offices had been, it was viewed as a major statement and breakthrough.
"Carter made this decision. He thought it would symbolically tell everybody what he wanted that office to become -- that it was elevated in importance," said Richard Moe, former chief of staff to Mr. Mondale. "It put Mondale in the traffic pattern, and if you're in the traffic pattern in the White House, it facilitates access and being involved in all kinds of ways. It made a big difference."
Similarly, the latest move will put Mrs. Clinton squarely in the middle of the decision-making of this administration. Since she will clearly be instrumental in developing policy, "it does make sense to have her be where the action is taking place," said Paul Costello, former assistant press secretary to Rosalynn Carter. "If you're in the East Wing, you may as well be in Detroit. It's not the hub. It's not the center. It's not the pulse."
Mrs. Clinton will be "closely involved" in drafting health-care reforms that are at the top of the Clinton agenda for the first 100 days, communications director George Stephanopoulos said yesterday.
Clinton aides said the first lady will oversee a task force that will draft the proposal, according to yesterday's Wall Street Journal.
Mrs. Carter, anticipating that the West Wing arrangement could engender the kind of public criticism her Cabinet meeting appearances did, told the new first lady, "You're going to be criticized whether you stay in the White House and pour tea or do what you want to do. So do what is natural for you and what you want to do," said Mrs. Carter's former press secretary, Mary Hoyt.