Hillary Clinton makes her mark

August 29, 1994|By Robert E. Thompson

Washington -- ALTHOUGH the president occasionally is converted into a political pugilist, it seems clear that in the Clinton household, Bill is the compromiser and the pragmatist and Hillary, the scrapper and the ideologue.

If the president can find a way to win a legislative or foreign policy dispute by reaching accommodation with his opponents, he tends to do so. That is the course he has followed in the struggle for passage of health care reform and anti-crime legislation. That is the strategy he has pursued in regard to North Korea's development of nuclear weapons.

He is the human embodiment of Otto von Bismarck's dictum that "politics is the art of the possible."

If Hillary Clinton sees the need to battle her foes and even dispute her husband, she will do so. On health care reform, the first lady boldly asserted that Texas Sen. Phil Gramm's opposition is "political opportunism" and said she had been informed that in 1965, Sen. Bob Dole, then a member of the House, voted against Medicare.

She also revealed that Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell's health care plan, which has the president's support, is less acceptable to her than House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt's measure.

Mrs. Clinton worked long and hard to fashion a health plan that would provide universal coverage and she undoubtedly is frustrated by congressional efforts to emasculate it. Among other things, she has dedicated an electronic clock showing how many Americans lose health-care coverage each day that Congress debates the issue.

Her disagreement with the president's position demonstrates her independence of thought and spirit. It, like her criticism of her senatorial foes, also raises anew the question of whether Hillary Rodham Clinton is an asset or a liability to an embattled administration. Depending on an observer's political leanings, she could be considered both.

Presidents and first ladies often differ on issues, but they do so in private. The Franklin Roosevelts were sometimes at odds on ** policies during the Great Depression and World War II. Like Hillary Clinton, Eleanor Roosevelt was a more liberal activist than her husband.

Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter held conflicting views on abortion, and, as we now know, so did George and Barbara Bush.

In her book, "Hillary Rodham Clinton: A First Lady For Our Time," Donnie Radcliffe reported that prior to entering the White House, Mrs. Clinton received sage advice from Rosalynn Carter, an activist first lady who persuaded Congress to establish a President's Commission on Mental Health.

"You're going to be criticized," said Mrs. Carter. "So be criticized for what you think is best and right for the country."

That is what Hillary Clinton has done. Despite the controversy over her activities and her candor, she has stayed the course and fought for those things she believes in. She has won plaudits for her fortitude.

Mrs. Clinton's role model is the estimable Eleanor Roosevelt, who slashed the chains that bound first ladies to the tea table and the receiving line. She traveled the nation and the world, investigating the plight of the downtrodden in time of peace and that of armed services personnel in time of war.

Sometimes, she lent her support to people and projects that proved embarrassing to the president. Often, she provided her wheelchair-bound husband with information he might not otherwise have received.

Like Hillary Clinton, Mrs. Roosevelt took on a government job. jTC She was the unpaid deputy director of civil defense at the beginning of World War II. She expressed her views in speeches, press conferences and a syndicated column.

During the war, the Gallup Poll found that Mrs. Roosevelt was "probably the target of more adverse criticism and the object of more praise than any woman in American history." In his dual biography, "Eleanor and Franklin," Joseph P. Lash reported that "for every two persons who thought the first lady talked too much, Gallup's interviewers found three who approved her courage and ability to speak out." Mr. Lash added: "It was a rare respondent who was neutral about her."

To a reader who complained that she did not deal with serious political matters in her column, Mrs. Roosevelt replied: "I learned a long time ago that too much crusading for any cause is almost as bad as too little. People get weary of too much preaching."

That could be sound counsel for Hillary Clinton, whose situation is similar to that of Eleanor Roosevelt. She is a true believer in health care reform just as Mrs. Roosevelt was in civil rights, the United Nations and federal assistance to the needy.

One thing is certain: Long after many of the trials of the Clinton presidency are forgotten, history will record that Hillary Clinton, like Eleanor Roosevelt, added new dimensions to the post of first lady.

Robert E. Thompson writes for the Hearst Newspapers.

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