'Talented Navigator'

September 25, 1993

A year ago, Hillary Clinton was on the defensive, wary of being perceived as a liability to her husband's presidential aspirations. Was the country ready for a woman every bit as capable, accomplished and ambitious as her husband? Those were the same doubts she had put to rest as a governor's wife in Arkansas, but this was a much bigger stage with far higher stakes.

President Clinton addressed a joint session of Congress on health care reform last Wednesday and gave this tribute to his wife's leadership: "When I launched our nation on this journey to reform the health care system, I knew we needed a talented navigator, someone with a rigorous mind, a steady compass, a caring heart. Luckily for me, and for our nation, I didn't have to look very far."

The sustained applause that greeted those remarks must have been gratifying to a woman who last year was reviled by conservatives as "the Winnie Mandela of American politics" and a radical feminist who "has compared marriage as an institution to slavery and life on an Indian reservation."

No wonder she let loose a sharp retort to reporters who prodded her during the campaign about her professional commitments.

"I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas," she said, "but what I decided to do was fulfil my profession." It took concerted effort to overcome the negative reactions to a remark that seemed to disparage women who do not work outside the home.

The "radical feminist" taunts now sound faintly ridiculous. When Hillary Rodham Clinton testifies next week at the initial congressional hearings on the administration's health care reform proposals, she will bring with her the respect of even her toughest critics. She has waded into a policy morass and has come out with a reasonably coherent springboard for a serious policy debate. Seasoned politicians like Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kans., and Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., aren't easily impressed.

For most of this century, one segment or another in American life has been pushing for national health care reform. Several presidents have already failed. This time, however, most people predict some kind of reform will be enacted. If so, Hillary Rodham Clinton will deserve a good measure of credit, as will many other women who have played significant roles in the health care debate. For that, we can be grateful Mrs. Clinton -- and all American women -- can, if they choose, bake cookies and shape policy.

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