Tough new breed stalks the corridors of old-boy power


August 01, 1993|By Susan Watters | Susan Watters,Contributing Writer

The nation's capital is making way for a tough new breed of working woman -- Bill Clinton's real women.

Strong and assertive, Mr. Clinton's women are independent, direct and determined to do things differently.

They have their own tastes and their own style; ever ready to take the hit, they're never shy about wielding power.

And while the president frets over his hair, flirts with the Hollywood crowd and has trouble taking the blame for his blunders, Clinton women are commandeering some of the sacred emblems of macho dominance.

Take the little black book, for example. Janet Reno, Mr. Clinton's single, 6-foot-3 1/4 -inch attorney general, has one. It's a log for making sure that when staff members promise to get something done, they don't forget to produce.

Clinton women aren't comfortable leaning on men. At her first White House state dinner, Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala balked when a White House military escort offered her his arm.

Eyeing the proffered elbow, Ms. Shalala looked away and marched on. Rushing to keep up, the young escort made two more tries before the Cabinet officer finally relented.

Clinton women immediately flush out the stuffier guests at a party, often provoking some awkward reactions.

At a luncheon in her honor, White House Social Secretary Ann Stock shared a bowl of French chocolate mousse with a pal, Hallmark lobbyist Rae Evans.

Looking up from the plate, she tweaked Letitia Baldrige, Ms. Stock's predecessor in the Kennedy White House, by saying, "I'm sure you think this is terrible."

Ms. Baldrige, who writes books about etiquette, responded less-than-decorously: "It's fine, so long as neither one of you has AIDS."

So much for capital manners.

"People are very upfront. There's no intrigue or triangling," says Christine Varney, 37, deputy assistant to the president for Cabinet affairs. "We don't dress the same, look the same or eat at the same restaurants. But we are all committed to a political agenda, and that's why we're here."

Ms. Varney, a lawyer with two boys, ages 6 and 3, often works from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., skips dinner, comes in on weekends and describes her job as "putting out fires."

Based in a White House office that is "smaller than some of my closets at home," she favors designer clothes from the likes of Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Chanel and Valentino.

For weekends working in the White House, she wears a big brown-and-black cashmere Valentino sweater, black leggings and cowboy boots.

"President Clinton has told me on more than one occasion that he likes my boots," Ms. Varney says.

Direct and directed

Mr. Clinton's real women are turning up in all the most powerful places -- as advisers on national security, economics and political strategies; heading up the IRS; at the Federal Reserve; and in law enforcement, education and health care.

Clinton women are direct and directed. They aren't shy, mysterious, subtle or elusive. They wear bright colors, but not on their nails. They work long hours, and have no trouble handling controversy.

They don't interrupt. They don't have to. The longer they wait to speak, the more chances they'll get to correct everyone else in the room.

And then consider pal Susan Thomases, a New York lawyer and friend of both Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton. White House guards had Ms. Thomases' picture posted inside the Northwest Gate with a notation to give her easy access to the second floor of the West Wing where Mrs. Clinton's office is located.

Describing Mr. Clinton's choice for attorney general, Miami Herald reporter Don Van Atta explains: "Janet Reno is a reporter's nightmare. She answers questions in one or two syllables, won't be drawn out and doesn't suffer fools gladly.

"She's not simple. She's smart and intelligent. She dresses just the way she is -- no flourishes."

Light-years removed

This gang is light-years removed from [former Reagan and Bush Cabinet member] Elizabeth Dole with her soft, curly hair, sugary voice, perfect makeup and Harvard law degree, and Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, with all her Junior League training, who nonetheless gets flustered when Justice Antonin Scalia gets testy.

Mr. Clinton's real women don't fluster. They also don't preen, coo or, for that matter, even nibble quiche.

"No one is going anywhere for lunch," says Mandy Grunwald, a political strategist in the Clinton campaign who has opened her own consulting firm. "Everyone is really focused on work. They eat at their desks or in the White House mess.

"I'm sure there are a lot of people wandering around Georgetown who can't understand how to entertain this administration, how to get people to leave the White House in time for a dinner party."

Clinton women don't get hung up with feminist name games.

"We get plenty of calls from women objecting to the first lady calling herself Mrs. Clinton," says Neel Lattimore, Mr. Clinton's assistant press secretary. "They want us to call her Ms."

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