Hip, hip, Hillary! She has already conquered the Hill

MIKE LITTWIN

October 01, 1993|By MIKE LITTWIN

The biggest problem people have these days with Hillary Rodham Clinton is trying to remember what they didn't like about her.

I mean, now that she's a star.

Suddenly, congressmen are seen falling all over themselves telling her how much they admire her. She's so popular on the Hill you'd have thought she was handing out PAC money. One senator actually compared Hillary to Abe Lincoln. He must have been thinking about her hat.

Yeah, now I remember. We hated her hat.

But we don't hate Hillary. Not any more. Not unless you've ever used the term femi-nazi, in which case you're probably too busy playing with your Rush Limbaugh decoder ring to have noticed the sea change.

Hillary is my comeback player of the year. The only way she could be bigger is if she were touring with Tom Jones.

People say she's smart and she's tough, and all of a sudden it sounds like a compliment. We're even starting to get used to the three-name thing.

If you want proof, check the polls. In June, she had a 50 percent approval rating, which is, in first lady terms, disastrous. Let's just say if she had been a TV show, she'd be Chevy Chase. Last week, she was up to 62 and climbing. The only person I know who gets those kinds of numbers is Colin Powell. Some day they may run against each other.

Yes, Hillary is popular. That was not always the way to bet.

We like our first ladies seen and heard, but not necessarily listened to. We loved Barbara Bush. Some people -- go figure -- even liked Nancy Reagan. Hillary was different.

As soon as the election was over, she dropped the phoney-baloney, wifey-wife, adoring-smile look adopted late in the campaign, added a third name and took on only the biggest and most complex issue facing America. It was more than a lot of people could handle, but she didn't seem to care, or even notice.

So, instead of giving dinner parties (she said she wasn't going to stay home and bake cookies, remember?), Hillary retreated to the mountains, like Mao or maybe Moses, and came back with a health-care plan that's got everybody abuzz.

The plan is interesting, of course, and hubby Bill's speech to the nation was electrifying. But it's Hillary who goes to Congress like she's in charge and just takes over.

She debates, she schmoozes, she flatters, she banters, she rattles off details like no one since, well, her husband. But she's also warm. She says: "I am here as a mother, a wife, a sister, a woman." And all we want is more.

Yeah, so some of the congressmen would get a little patronizing (one said she was so smart she should be on "Jeopardy!"), but you don't expect the old boys there to catch on immediately. What they understand was that they were being charmed, and that they loved it.

It's easy to forget now what kind of gamble this was back on Jan. 25 when Mr. Clinton gave Mrs. Clinton the job. And how great were the stakes.

First of all, you had to factor in Clinton's if-at-first-you-don't-succeed record on appointments. Even as late as a few weeks ago, he appointed as head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff someone whose father was a Nazi.

All that rested with this appointment was the future of his presidency.

Then there was the nepotism issue. It's one thing to have the president's ear and quite another to share your pillow with it.

But the biggest problem was probably gender. They called her Madame Co-President. First ladies are supposed to fight the good fight against drugs or illiteracy and not take on issues that require a place in the rough-and-tumble of national politics. Hillary Rodham Clinton had other ideas.

The Hillary Haters, who had a large following from the beginning, were legion. You heard them: She was rigid. She was secretive. She was a radical feminist intent on destroying all that is good in America.

But who wants to say that now? There are still jokes, like the one about letting Bill run the country once a week. But they're kinder, gentler jokes.

This doesn't mean the health-care package will fly through Congress. It won't. There will be a long, hard fight, and the Clintons are going to lose many of the battles. But Hillary has already won the big one.

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