A Democrat's Guide to Rodham-Bashing

TRB

January 29, 1993|By TRB

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- I interviewed Hillary Rodham Clinton only once. I was part of a group of reporters who had scheduled a question-and-answer session with the governor of Arkansas at the 1988 Democratic convention. Both Clintons showed up. Several times, when we asked the governor a question, his wife would answer. She'd say something like, ''I think that's my area,'' and butt right in, before he said a word.

I'm sorry, I thought this was rude. Perhaps I was wrong. I now know from Time magazine that the Clintons are an ''enduring partnership between two equals,'' and that hostility to Hillary is a sign of male ''backlash'' -- that, as Hillary's husband said during the campaign, to attack her is to engage in ''an attack on women who are independent, strong-minded and who work for a living.''

But are there really no legitimate grounds for distress with the signs of creeping Rodhamism -- actually it's more like leaping Rodhamism -- now so evident in the White House? I think there are. Our new First Lady may prove to be a stunningly successfully executive. Right now, though, she triggers several sorts of justifiable doubt, even -- perhaps especially -- among Democrats. Here's my list:

* She's a false feminist. It's one thing for a woman to be independent, strong minded and work for a living. But, as Karen Lehrman has pointed out, Mrs. Clinton has not chosen to be independent. She has hitched herself firmly to her husband's career and used his success to promote herself. Nepotism is not feminism.

And there has been something arrogant about her determination to benefit from her association with her husband while also demanding all the benefits of independence. ''For goodness' sake, you can't be a lawyer if you don't represent banks,'' she famously said, confronted with the charge that she represented a savings-and-loan before a commissioner appointed by her spouse. There are, of course, many lawyers who don't represent banks. There are even many Americans who aren't lawyers at all. If Hillary really were ''independent'' -- if, say, she practiced family law as a solo practitioner -- she wouldn't be controversial.

* She can't be fired. Well before Hillary was formally put in charge of health-care reform, there were reports that she was micromanaging parts of the government as obscure as the Resolution Trust Corporation, the federal agency stuck with the property of failed S&Ls. (She let it be known she wants more of this property sold to low-income people.)

Faced with this unprecedented influence, Hillary's defenders say, so what? ''A spouse's ability to help is not a legal power, but a matter of suasion,'' writes Garry Wills in the New York Review of Books. Hillary gave this argument a feminist-sounding twist, noting that ''if you look at George Bush, he's advised by a coterie of men. . . . No one gives George Bush a hard time when he gets advice from James Baker.''

But if Mr. Bush didn't like the advice Mr. Baker was giving him, he could sack him. Hillary has a rather more secure tenure.

She also has something else. Mr. Wills writes that ''no husband has been browbeaten in [the presidency] to do what he did not want to do.'' But no husband has been through the campaign the Clintons have just been through, replete with the candidate's admission of marital ''wrongdoing.'' Hillary played her part dutifully. She also presumably knows what the wrongdoing entailed. All this gives her -- how to put it delicately -- unusual leverage for a presidential adviser.

Again, so what? There's no question of democratic accountability: The Clintons will be held accountable in 1996 for whatever they cook up between themselves. But there is a potential for mixed signals, even deadlock, that should disturb all those who wish the president well. There is also a question of honesty. Much of Mr. Clinton's campaign was spent giving the false impression that his wife would not play such a major policy-making role.

* She's a paleoliberal: Bill Clinton campaigned as a ''different kind of Democrat.'' Hillary Clinton, it's clear, is not a different kind of Democrat. Her support of teacher-competency tests despite the opposition of the teachers' unions seems less significant when you learn that the tests were not among the recommendations of the task force she chaired. (They were added later by her husband.)

Of course, I happen to agree more with Bill than Hillary. I admit I would be less upset at the prospect of policy disputes in the White House bedroom if Bill Clinton were married to, say, Elaine Kamarck of the Democratic Leadership Council. But again, the issue isn't just ideology. It's false advertising. The voters aren't getting what they were told they were getting.

* She rarely says anything interesting: One reason it's difficult to criticize Mrs. Clinton is that her views are largely unknown in any detail. She is frequently hailed as presidential timber for delivering speeches that would get a real candidate pilloried for contentlessness. Joe Klein of Newsweek reports that Hillary's actual positions are ''as nuanced as her husband's, and not nearly the left-wing idiocy caricatured by some commentators.'' If so, it would be encouraging to see some of these nuances. Pat Buchanan had it right: ''Speak for yourself, Hillary.''

TRB is a column of The New Republic, written by Mickey Kaus.

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