The Hillary Watch

ELLEN GOODMAN

February 26, 1993|By ELLEN GOODMAN

Boston. -- It was a miserable, gray, icy, winter morning in a city suffering from three major epidemics: The February blahs, the flu, and another rash of no-school days. Indeed, the Boston that greeted the head of the Task Force on Health Care Reform was a coldbed of Seasonal Affect Disorder.

But Hillary Rodham Clinton came here on her appointed rounds for one of a series of trips billed as ''pulse-taking'' sessions. She is out taking the pulse of the public and clearly, the public is taking the pulse of this new sort of first lady.

Here and everywhere that she travels, there seems to be a mutual checkup, and an ongoing, public discussion about what makes her tick. Hillary-analyzing threatens to become a chronic condition.

It's over a month since the Little Rock lawyer moved to the White House. Seven months since the candidate's partner was locked in a chocolate-chip cookie bake-off with Barbara Bush. A year since Bill Clinton's wife was introduced to the American public as a woman who was ''not Tammy Wynette.''

The dissection of Hillary's character and motives remains something of a full-time specialty, particularly among those who write character prescriptions for a living. Even in the medical mecca of Massachusetts, Hillary Clinton -- her name, her job, her hair -- can produce more free association than a Rorschach blot.

I am not surprised by the intensity of the interest in the first lady who has now been on more magazine covers than Cheryl Tiegs %% in a good year. Hillary belongs to a generation of women whose changing lives have been under constant examination and self-examination for over 20 years.

The roles that most women her age are struggling to bridge in their everyday lives -- balancing work and home, juggling children and jobs, success and acceptance -- are now being played out against the most rarefied and public backdrop of the White House.

We are witnessing the high profile of the first full-fledged professional woman to serve as first lady and the first first lady to take such an open part in public policy- making.

The newspapers and television bring us daily portraits of Hillary the hostess, Hillary the mother, Hillary the health honcho. We see Hillary setting a table, and Hillary setting an agenda. It's as if the long dormant and much debated superwoman had finally broken through the glass ceiling.

But what bothers me is the way the talk about this woman so often seems to turn into a hunt for the seven early warning signs of power-grabbing.

Remember when she became head of the health-care panel? One magazine warned: ''She risks being accused of using her marriage as a route to advancement.'' Another woman sleeping her way to the top.

Remember when she set up shop in the west wing of the White House? Her move was universally described as a power trip.

Remember when she took her briefcase to Congress? The newspaper headlines hung on one word: clout.

After her very first ''pulse-taking'' trip, the Sunday morning pundits hinted darkly about a Hillary run amok because she has no ''accountability.'' And even now those who administer weekly political potency tests assert that as the first lady gets more power, the vice president has less.

The fixation on female uppityness is common enough to rank as a cultural disease. Women who struggle long hours at low wages may be praised as virtuous or self-sacrificing. Somewhere on the way to the top they are often mysteriously rediagnosed as power-hungry and self-aggrandizing.

But this case deserves a second opinion. Hillary Rodham Clinton moved from primary family wage earner to full-time -- truly full time -- volunteer. The task she has taken on is not some beautification program sure to yield praise and popular support for her effort.

Indeed at the end of a grueling day in Boston, after listening to hours of health-care horror stories, the clearly weary head of the task force said, ''We are not going to be able to propose to you . . . a system that has everything in it you want.''

The woman has volunteered to walk into the propeller of health-care reform. Does that sound like a savvy career move? Or does it sound, possibly, remotely, like a public service?

Yes, I know. Diagnosticians, even amateurs, are always searching for what's wrong. But when the first lady takes on a task that may be, literally, thankless, it's pretty strange to continually scrutinize her for symptoms of power-hunger. This habit might even be called unhealthy.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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