Giving Hillary a job ends speculation on her role ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

January 28, 1993|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- With the election and inauguration safely behind him, President Clinton has moved quickly to fulfill one early campaign promise that he seemed to have pulled back in the rockier days of his campaign.

He is, after all, giving the American people "two for the price of one" by handing his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, a highly visible, substantive assignment in his administration. As head of his Task Force on Health Care Reform, she will be in charge of shaping the one element in his domestic agenda he said during the campaign was the prime prerequisite to reducing the federal deficit.

The assignment is in keeping with the Clintons' partnership maintained throughout his tenure as governor of Arkansas. In addition to continuing her own interest in child care and welfare issues, she played a leading, visible role in the impressive education reforms her husband brought about in Little Rock.

By making the appointment now, Clinton has dealt with the role of the professional woman as first lady in an open and forthright manner, clearing the way for his wife to involve herself constructively without constant speculation about whether she is or isn't a powerful force in the Clinton administration.

That speculation was considered by the Clinton campaign strategists to be detrimental to the cause when Clinton early in the game was telling voters that his attitude toward his wife's role was, "Buy one, get one free."

That concept did not sit well with many voters who preferred first ladies to be in the Bess Truman and Pat Nixon mold -- seldom seen or heard -- or in that of Nancy Reagan -- seemingly more interested in fashions and in "Ronnie's" image than in policy.

So Clinton stopped making the bargain-basement argument for the Bill and Hillary team, especially after an incident in a Chicago coffee shop at the close of the Illinois primary.

That was the occasion on which Mrs. Clinton, asked by a reporter about the propriety of her law firm doing business with the Clinton administration in Arkansas, replied: "I suppose I could have stayed home, baked cookies and had teas. But what I decided was to fulfill my profession, which I entered before my husband was in public life."

There went the homemaker vote, or so Clinton strategists feared at the time. Mrs. Clinton adopted a lower profile after that and even joined in a lighthearted cookie-making contest, while underscoring her own role as mother and homemaker with her daughter, Chelsea, in tow.

But Mrs. Clinton didn't exactly go underground with her professional credentials. She spoke out on issues of greatest concern to her and was an effective surrogate speaker for her husband's agenda, and right after the election began sitting in on important transition meetings.

The president-elect signaled that she would be much more than a White House ornament by saying she would sit in on some Cabinet meetings.

Also, it was disclosed that she would have an office in the West Wing -- the business side of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. -- rather than in the East Wing, traditional center for the planning of the social side of the presidency.

The day after Clinton announced that his wife would head the health-care group, she was in New York nuzzling public school kids and accepting an award for her work with children. She clearly has the political savvy to understand that she can't stop wearing the traditional hat from time to time now that her husband has given her an additional one.

She had the new hat on the day she worked the phones for a reported six hours touching base with the key members of Congress with whom she will be consulting on the health-care reform package. You might picture Rosalyn Carter or Lady Bird Johnson doing that, but not Jackie Kennedy or Barbara Bush.

The new president's decision to hand his wife such a critical and high-profile assignment is not without peril. She could knock the wrong heads together and her husband could find himself with a major damage-control job on his hands with temperamental legislators.

But Mrs. Clinton already has demonstrated her professional skills in other tasks, and she is in a position to strike a strong blow for women in politics, on the heels of the Zoe Baird setback.

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