The bloom's off Hillary . . .

March 09, 1994|By Georgie Anne Geyer

THE sheen is off the rose for first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. As the convoluted Whitewater affair develops into a potentially more sordid affair, it is Hillary, and only secondarily Bill, who is reaping the most bitter criticism.

To cite just a few of the mitts-off recent critiques, U.S. News VTC columnist Michael Barone asked, in a cutting column: "Is she a political liability?" The Wall Street Journal's Albert Hunt opined that the bunker mentality at the White House is "a reflection of Hillary Clinton." And the New York Times' Maureen Dowd published a comprehensive front-page story headlined: "Whitewater Inquiry Is Putting First Lady at Center of Embarrassing Ethical Issues."

All of this would have been unthinkable even months ago, when Mrs. Clinton was the heroine of much of the press -- the first first lady to be an emancipated woman, one of the 100 best lawyers in America, and a woman who grew more attractive as she aged.

What happened? Two areas of concern finally began to close around her. Those areas can be characterized by the words "accountability" and "hubris."

From the beginning, in her roles in the White House, Hillary Rodham Clinton had the enormous burden of having no accountability, neither through the election process nor through an appointed, salaried position. Some thought it was cute, or nouveau-power, or just plain gutsy, for her to take top positions alongside her husband without benefit of political clergy. In truth, it never was.

Indeed, it was inevitable that, given her talents and her ambition, her unaccountability would eventually become a yoke around her neck. Oddly, she seemed never to realize this.

First, she is utterly convinced that she is right, and that she and the activist leaders of her generation have a sacred duty to use any methods they choose to reform and even "save" America. Second, her group is typified by others who are also without accountability, most prominently the congressional staffers who make so much of our law and the "friends of the Clintons," who also came into the White House without benefit of political legitimization.

The Clintons, you see, did not come to the presidency to govern the country, but to tell people how to live. They and theirs were not "pols" but the legendary "best and brightest." And Hillary goes even further than her husband on the supposed morality behind this elaborate posturing.

Her "politics of meaning" article in the New York Times Magazine last year, bemoaning the lost America she and her generation seem to see, was the high-water point of this pretentiousness. In fact, many Americans choose to think they already have meaning in their lives!

From the outset, the Clintons seemed to be suffering from the quality that so often brought down the Greek gods: hubris, or an overweening pride that dances dangerously on the edge of moral arrogance.

Mrs. Clinton took over areas inappropriate to her position, which was unelected, unappointed and unaccountable. The first lady chose important appointees, particularly the deputies in the Justice Department. She pushed through a health plan, not even including the appropriate health-care officials in the loop. And all of the most politically radical would-be appointees, it turned out, came out of Hillary's office.

It was inevitable that, given these looming problems of her presence and of her persona, staffers and others would eventually defer to her on many decisions because she was the president's wife.

At the same time, resentment was bound to build.

Strangely enough, here was one of the most intelligent and accomplished of American women taking positions more in the style of a from-the-wings political courtesan than in the manner of a responsible public figure.

When, instead of the politics of meaning, there is what looks like sordid wheeling and dealing, a marriage held together through all the infidelities in great part by ambition, and a marked incapacity to deal with the world in practical political terms, the fall, when and if it comes, will be precipitous.

The original "best and brightest," of course, were the John F. Kennedy aides who so blithely, and with all the best of intentions, got the nation into the maelstrom of Vietnam. The White House would do well to ponder what happened to them.

Georgie Anne Geyer is a syndicated columnist.

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