Hillary Clinton: A Cautious Move into the Public Eye

April 11, 1993|By SUSAN BAER

WASHINGTON. — Washington.-- Like the health care reform plan she is spearheading, the image of First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton is still very much a work in progress.

As she maps out a health care blueprint behind closed doors, Mrs. Clinton, out of commission lately because of the illness and death of her father, is also carefully, shrewdly charting her way in the public eye.

Mindful of her place in what is unquestionably the hottest seat in Washington and the price of a misspoken word, her moves are more cautious and calculated -- and covert -- than the president's.

The first lady's press office, for instance, keeps most of her schedule of meetings with members of Congress and health care officials a secret, and won't even divulge information on how many interview requests she receives or which radio stations participated in a conference call held weeks ago.

"It's tricky," concedes one media adviser to the administration. "A lot of what she's doing is trailblazing -- like being the first one to walk across the snow. You have to be very deliberative."

Ultimately, her image will be defined by the success or failure of the health care plan she now says will be completed by the end of May. But so far, her highly disciplined, if risky, strategy has worked well. As much as possible, her office has tried to mute the thorny themes of accountability, power and "co-presidency," hot-button issues that are finding their way, almost Quayle-like, into the nation's jokes and dinner party chatter, onto talk shows and newsmagazine covers.

Since moving into the White House, she has given only one interview to a member of the Washington press corps -- to an Associated Press reporter who'd covered the Clintons for years in Arkansas and had come to town with them -- a marked contrast to the flurry of introductory interviews previous first ladies have held with those assigned to cover them.

"You'll see Mrs. Clinton doing interviews when she feels there is something to be said," says her press secretary Lisa Caputo, a former Hill aide who joined the Clinton campaign after working with media gurus James Carville and Paul Begala on the 1991 Pennsylvania Senate race.

In the meantime, some Washington reporters who follow Mrs. Clinton around the country on her various field trips as health care ambassador have put in requests with Ms. Caputo merely to be introduced to the first lady.

Aside from the hour-long AP interview, Mrs. Clinton's only other in-depth interview -- a blatantly strategic move to counter her more controversial policy role -- was with New York Times food writer Marian Burros in a discussion they both agreed would examine the hostess duties of the first lady.

"I caught more grief from my friends over that article," says Mr. Begala, a senior White House adviser who is intimately involved in shaping the administration's public image.

For the most part, Mrs. Clinton has limited her contact with the national press to photo opportunities and, occasionally, brief, vague remarks made after meetings on Capitol Hill. She learned from the presidential campaign, where spontaneous remarks resulted in spontaneous combustion, to say nary an unplanned word.

But while dodging the scrutiny of a tougher, more critical national press corps, she's held several conference calls and done quick interviews by satellite with reporters outside of Washington.

The day before her trip last month to Tampa for a health care

forum, for example, Mrs. Clinton held a 20-minute conference call with eight Florida radio stations and two newspapers, as well as several one-on-one interviews with local TV anchors.

One newspaper reporter who participated in the conference call was given about two hours notice of the interview. "That's very little time to prepare," the reporter said. "It seems kind of clever of them."

Although there were no ground rules, Mrs. Clinton refused to answer any question not directly related to health care.

As for the satellite interviews, the White House offered local TV stations "Hillary Clinton for 5 minutes for $150."

"There's not a lot of substance to these things," says Dan Bradley, news director of Tampa's WFLA-TV, who paid the satellite fee for the 5-minute window. "But it gives you an interview with the first lady."

The White House doesn't apologize for going this local route and bypassing the Washington press corps.

"That's not something I need to defend," said an administration official who's worked closely with Mrs. Clinton. "The reasons for that are pretty clear. You guys tend to cover news through a political lens, in terms of who's winning and who's losing . . ."

Some close to Mrs. Clinton say she is still smarting from what she considered rough treatment by the national media during the campaign, and, in fact, still is "contemptuous" of the press when it focuses on areas she deems unimportant.

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