First lady takes message to friendlier pastures

April 11, 1994|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Sun Staff Correspondent

MUSKOGEE, Okla. -- As Hillary Rodham Clinton brought her health care message to Joe and Peg Stephens' alfalfa and soybean farm last week, the two dozen folks in denim and boots invited to the barnyard chat were so polite, so downright bashful, they needed more coaxing than pre-harvest crops.

But down the road a piece at Club Lunch, where Mrs. Clinton's visit had breakfast regulars chewing over health care reform with their biscuits and gravy, the debate was in full bloom.

"She has no comprehension about how small businesses work, how I'm going to have to eliminate one-third of my employees with her health care plan," said Robert Kelly, whose family has run a photography studio for 25 years. "She makes $100,000 on $1,000 and thinks that's the way it works. Well, in private business, that's pretty impossible to do."

As she tours the country trying to boost the health care reform plan she helped craft, Mrs. Clinton's appearances are carefully orchestrated to reap picture-perfect, feel-good photos and TV coverage. But the specter of the Whitewater affair and questions about the propriety of her whopping earnings in the cattle futures market in the late 1970s hover in the shadows.

Recent polls suggest that Mrs. Clinton has been stung by the controversies, with her popularity sagging and more people than ever before -- nearly half the country, according to a recent Princeton Survey Research poll -- believing that her policy-making role is too large. Some of the criticism has been so sharp and personal that an army of supporters, mostly Democratic women and Washington lobbyists, have united to form a quasi-Hillary defense team.

One night last week, the first lady found herself grist for the monologue mill on at least three late-night TV talk shows. And a sketch starring Hillary Rodham Clinton and her "Investment Newsletter" opened last weekend's "Saturday Night Live."

"When you start getting the jokes, you can quickly have your credibility destroyed," says former Rep. Tony Coelho, who is acting as an informal adviser to the White House. "Don't forget, it is this type of thing that destroyed Vice President [Dan] Quayle.

"It's a tough time right now."

Part of damage control for a first lady whose approval ratings ran about 15 points ahead of her husband's until recently includes getting out -- in a way, selling herself along with a new health care plan.

"She's being told she should be more public," says Mr. Coelho, acknowledging that the first lady has strongly resisted making herself and her financial records more accessible to the press and public.

The recent outings have generally been to friendly terrain and geared to local news media, which tend to be kind, often even fawning, to visiting officials. Indeed, in Friday's trip to northeastern Oklahoma, a heavily Democratic pocket about 80 miles from the Arkansas border -- and one of the few districts in the conservative state that supported Bill Clinton in 1992 -- Mrs. Clinton found safety and the kind of adulation she's been accustomed to.

Almost with reverence, lawyer Mark Grober, one of several dozen who lunched with Mrs. Clinton at Cowboys Bar-B-Q, scooped up a gnawed-over rib from the first lady's plate after she left. He planned to add the celebrity bone to his entry in the weekend's chili cook-off.

Earlier, in the tidy Stephens barn, Mrs. Clinton was applauded as she sat by a wood-burning stove surrounded by farm tools and bags of feed and fertilizer. Sporting a purple silk suit and gold jewelry, she told area farmers and their children that the president's health care plan would assure them affordable health care that they know they'll have year after year.

At this point, she said, dropping her g's like a friendly Arkansas neighbor, "There is not one of us sittin' in this barn that can say that."

Friendly coverage

Even though many in Muskogee are dubious about the Clinton health care plan, the local coverage of the visit was only a tad less flowery than that of the Azalea Festival happening at the same time. There was no hint of any of the first lady's troubles that have dominated her recent coverage in the national press.

One local TV station previewed the trip by saying, "Even the chirping birds and dogwoods are excited." Another network affiliate noted that the first lady had been "a big hit" with the Oklahomans because she ate with her hands. And local newspapers filled page after page with such headlines as "Up-close, personal meeting with first lady thrills crowd," "Families share concerns, excitement," and "Hillary's food of choice: ribs."

"There are reasons she's been trying to do it this way," says Ann Lewis, a liberal Democratic strategist who's been spearheading the drive to defend the first lady. "From the moment she appeared on the campaign, she was subject to withering criticism."

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