Paying Attention to Families

SARA ENGRAM

January 24, 1993|By SARA ENGRAM

Amid the stirring images of Inauguration Day, the television cameras recorded a more human moment.

Following a tight schedule, the president-elect and his daughter, Chelsea, emerged from Blair House Wednesday morning on their way to greet President and Mrs. Bush at the White House. Chelsea hopped into the waiting limousine, but her father stood looking back to the doorway, calling, we assume, to his wife, Hillary.

A few tense comments were audible, something like, "Come on, we have to be there," "Chelsea's in the car," or "Somebody can find it and bring it to her." After a few awkward moments, Mrs. Clinton emerged briskly from Blair House, and she and her husband quickly got into the waiting limo and were whisked the short distance to their new home.

Anyone who thought all the little snags of life would vanish in the shadow of presidential power was no doubt surprised -- and, quite possibly, reassured -- to know that some things about family life never change.

Families. In all the hoopla about the passing of the torch to baby boomers with no memories of the Depression or World War II, it's easy to overlook what may be a more significant transition -- the inclusion of families in the great ceremonies of public life. For most of this nation's history families were virtually invisible at such occasions.

During Wednesday's broadcasts, C-SPAN showed the Kennedy inaugural in its entirety. One baby boomer who watched it was surprised to note that, in 1961, wives barely had a walk-on part.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Lady Bird Johnson were seated on the podium, but they didn't hold the Bible for the oaths or stand with their husbands. There were no kisses or fond embraces. Afterward, as the new president and vice-president turned to enter the Capitol, their wives were left to wander up with former President Eisenhower. No formal escorts were provided.

Wives were peripheral, and children were invisible.

This inauguration week was a family affair. Not only did Hillary Clinton and Tipper Gore hold the Bible for the oath-takings, but their children were standing there as well. Their inclusion in the swearing-in ceremony reinforced an overall emphasis of the week: Rather than the traditional pre-inaugural salute to the incoming First Lady, there was a gala celebration for children.

Much has been made of the shift to a new generation of leaders that President Clinton represents. But Hillary Clinton represents the bigger change.

It's amusing that we now have a president younger than Mick Jagger. It's truly significant that we now have a First Lady who has been a working mother and who will shoulder significant responsibilities in her husband's administration, even keeping an office in the West Wing of the White House.

Early reports indicate that Mrs. Clinton will oversee health care reform, perhaps the most complicated domestic issue facing the new president, and certainly one of the most important.

As the first lawyer-First Lady, Hillary Clinton will be carving out a role that will allow her to use her considerable talents while also fulfilling the symbolic duties that go with marriage to the president. That won't be easy, but those who know Hillary Clinton suggest that if anyone can negotiate that minefield, she can.

Every First Lady has influence over the president, and many of them have wielded considerable power behind the scenes. But President Clinton not only welcomes his wife's advice and seeks it out, but is not shy about the fact that he derives strength from a marriage that is a full partnership.

If other people are uncomfortable with Hillary Clinton, the president's attitude toward his wife conveys the message that he considers that their problem, not his.

It's not only wives who will be in the spotlight. As more women move into higher government positions, the nation will see husbands adjusting as well. (And sometimes squirming behind the scenes. After all, Zoe Baird's child care problems weren't hers alone. Her husband, a professor at Yale Law School, placed the ad that led to the couple's decision to hire undocumented foreign workers. With the less demanding job, he had more time to see to such matters.)

Child care hassles, juggling duties traditionally relegated to stay-at-home wives, these are issues two-worker families cope with every day -- usually without the financial resources of a Zoe Baird.

The spotlight on families is good for the country. Maybe at last the hassles that eat away at daily family life will get the attention they deserve.

Sara Engram is editorial-page director for The Evening Sun.

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