The first lady assumes a more traditional role

September 26, 1994|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- When she marched through the corridors of Capitol Hill last winter, dazzling lawmakers with her eloquence and charming wit, Hillary Rodham Clinton appeared well on her way to transforming America's idea of a presidential spouse.

When she staked out an office in the West Wing of the White House and proceeded to craft policy, she even sparked talk of a "co-presidency."

But those images -- which inspired fear in some and pride in others -- have faded. Now, one sees Mrs. Clinton speaking about the arts, breast cancer, children with disabilities. Mrs. Clinton joking about her wardrobe to fashion designers. Mrs. Clinton christening a submarine and participating in a parade. Mrs. Clinton acting like a first lady.

Burned by her very public lead role in the administration's unsuccessful drive to overhaul the health care system -- vilified by political opponents and dropping in the polls -- Mrs. Clinton has retrenched from her overt policy-making role and assumed the more traditional duties of a presidential spouse.

"You'll see a lot more emphasis on attention to her role as hostess of the White House," says Democratic strategist Ann Lewis.

Recent personnel decisions, including the appointment of Abner Mikva as White House counsel, have proceeded without an interview with Mrs. Clinton and her personal stamp of approval, once thought to be requisite steps to employment in the Clinton administration.

Instead, Mrs. Clinton has spent the past month engaged in behind-the-scenes strategizing, a role she has played throughout her husband's career, and traveling around the country to raise money for Democratic candidates and planning state dinners to honor visiting presidents Boris N. Yeltsin of Russia and Nelson Mandela of South Africa.

"It does appear that the heady days of 1993 are gone, and the more traditional concepts of the first lady seem to be reasserting themselves," says Lewis Gould, who teaches a course on first ladies at the University of Texas. "It's clear there is deep-seated resistance to the first lady having a distinct, independent policy role that is out in the open and equal to the president."

A White House official said it was now obvious to the administration that it had not properly handled Mrs. Clinton's role in health care reform. Her spearheading of that mammoth enterprise was a "mixed blessing," particularly after she became ensnared in the Whitewater affair.

Critics of Mrs. Clinton's policy role, like former Nancy Reagan press secretary Sheila Tate, say her presence "thwarted the process" by making it difficult for administration officials or members of Congress to speak freely about the plan.

"They just sucked up to her and treated Hillary Clinton like the reigning queen," Ms. Tate says. "It makes it very difficult for them to argue with her conclusions or criticize her."

But Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland disagrees: "She raised the issue to the level where all Americans had an awareness of the issue. I felt she was used in a very effective way. What derailed health care was not Mrs. Clinton."

The Democratic senator says she found the first lady to be approachable and eager "to hear a candid commentary on the bill."

Ms. Mikulski acknowledges that last spring's revelations about Mrs. Clinton's six-figure earnings in commodities trading "did raise eyebrows" among lawmakers and heighten partisan sniping at her. But she believes that, while some Republicans tried to make Mrs. Clinton the issue, "it was all about health care."

'More realistic now'

Mrs. Clinton is said by friends to have assessed what went wrong and acknowledged mistakes.

"She is a lot more realistic now," Ms. Lewis says. "She has learned a lot about how difficult it is to move public policy. . . . She feels she really tried very hard to do something, but there are some things she could have done better -- she wishes she had."

Some close to Mrs. Clinton say she felt deflated by the crumbling of a project to which she devoted much of the past year and a half.

"She's disappointed," says Diane Blair, a close friend and professor at the University of Arkansas, "but certainly not to the point of despair."

But a White House aide says that, capping a year of difficulties, the collapse of health care reform has coincided with a collapse of Mrs. Clinton's spirits.

Indeed, it hasn't been the best of times for her. After the deaths of her father and of her friend and colleague Vincent W. Foster Jr., the deputy White House counsel, in 1993, she was hit last December with new allegations about her husband's sexual dalliances.

Earlier this year, reports of her lucrative investments in cattle futures cast doubt on her ethics. A former Arkansas state employee filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against Mr. Clinton. Documents released during congressional hearings described the first lady as "paralyzed" by Whitewater.

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