First lady's high profile puts her on the hot seat

ON POLITICS

March 11, 1994|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- If Harry Truman were around today, he'd probably be advising first lady Hillary Clinton: "If you can't stand the heat, get back in the kitchen."

But at least since her famous 1992 campaign statement at a Chicago coffee shop, that "I suppose I could have stayed home, baked cookies and had teas" but decided "to fulfill my profession," Hillary Clinton has made it abundantly clear not only that she has never intended simply to play the role of homemaker, but also that she can take the heat.

It is true that she often has become waspish in the face of criticism of her husband or herself, and on occasion has demonstrated a very thin skin toward the news media. But like her husband, she has shown a grittiness and determination in every test of perseverance that has come her way, from the womanizing stories of Gennifer Flowers to her upfront role in constructing and selling the Clinton health care reform package, and the latest allegations of meddling in the Whitewater case.

In an initial period of what can only be described as adoration in Washington and particularly on Capitol Hill, she received rave reviews for her work on health care legislation. But now the first lady is paying the political price of being front-and-center in an administration taking heavy political hits from an opposition party frustrated by an inability to get the upper legislative hand.

In most previous administrations, the wife of the president was so far removed from the action that criticizing her would have been deemed not merely to be in bad taste but to be politically foolhardy. Although Eleanor Roosevelt took her share of ribbing, it was largely for her somewhat awkward appearance and high-pitched voice and for her activities quite apart from any official, substantive role within her husband's administration.

Other first ladies have been viewed essentially as decorative or the classic silent woman behind the man -- Bess Truman, Mamie Eisenhower, Jacqueline Kennedy, Pat Nixon, Betty Ford, Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush all come to mind. Bill Clinton decided at the outset of his White House tenure that he was going to make use of his wife's talents by giving her a major, high-visibility assignment. If she is not a formal member of the president's Cabinet, she is the closest thing to it in the public's mind.

In light of her role as the family member who handled the legal aspects of the Clintons' investment in the Whitewater real-estate development deal now under investigation by the Resolution Trust Corp., the federal agency coping with the savings-and-loan bailout mess, Hillary Clinton is going to face increasing pressure to testify about that role.

Republicans who hope to bring Bill Clinton down a peg or two before the 1994 congressional elections, and to make him more vulnerable before his expected bid for a second term in 1996, are not likely to be restrained by the fact that she is the first lady. Not only is she in the political kitchen, in Truman's terms, but she has been cooking on all burners.

Unlike other members of the White House team who may feel free to testify voluntarily to special Whitewater investigator Robert Fiske or to Congress because they have had no involvement with whatever real-estate and savings-and-loan deals were involved back in Arkansas, the first lady was intimately involved in both. She represented herself and her husband in the purchase of land with money borrowed from a savings-and-loan and later as a lawyer whose firm represented that savings-and-loan before a state securities board examining its financial condition.

It's not clear whether the president intended to include her in saying that if Congress decides to hold hearings of its own beyond the investigation of Robert Fiske, the special counsel appointed by Attorney General Janet Reno, "my inclination would be to obviously participate." Other first ladies, even if asked to testify before Congress, could have hidden behind their tea cups.

It will be harder for this one, in light of her decision to take a firm position on the firing line of her husband's administration.

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