Eleanor Time

September 29, 1994|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Boston. -- What a heady time that was. Exactly a year ago, the headlines declared that Hillary had taken the Hill as if Congress were San Juan or Iwo Jima.

She came, saw and wowed the place, answering every question about the health-care plan she had shepherded to the Capitol door. The members were in various stages of awe. The media was in full gush. Under the spotlight, under pressure, she was a pro.

But lately Hillary Clinton's schedule is a list of First Lady Photo Ops. There was the day-care center in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, the christening of a submarine in Groton, Connecticut, the Children's Hospital in Boston.

On Monday when health-care reform was officially declared dead, she wasn't even asked for a eulogy. On Tuesday, she was busy escorting Mrs. Yeltsin.

These have to be hard times for the president's wife, the woman-in-her-own-right, the confident lawyer. Through the campaign and the early days of the administration when Hillary Rodham Clinton was the target of as much vitriol as I have ever seen, she took comfort in thinking about Eleanor Roosevelt's strength under fire. Indeed moments before she went into the congressional hearing room last year, an aide whispered to Hillary, ''This is Eleanor Roosevelt time.''

Hillary chose Eleanor as her role model, a foremother or forefirstlady, while she was clearing a new path for women in the White House. But whom will she look to now, at a moment of defeat, a time when the most secure of us would feel shaken and unsure about where to go next?

How about Eleanor Roosevelt?

I am told that the Clintons have a copy of Doris Kearns Goodwin's new book on their night table. I hope so. ''No Ordinary Time'' weaves together biography and policy, the private and the public, the Roosevelts' relationships and the course of World War II in a way as complex and layered as life itself.

But it challenges the view that most of us have of Eleanor the Icon who moved from the ugly duckling of her childhood to the strong woman in the White House. In real life, Eleanor Roosevelt faced continual crises and had to reinvent her role no less than three times while she was first lady.

When Franklin Roosevelt was elected in 1932, his wife was terrified that she would be locked into a ceremonial role, condemned to the one thing she couldn't bear: feeling useless. Again in 1940, when the prospects of war drew Franklin to foreign policy, Eleanor's working partnership in the New Deal was threatened, and she faced the same sense of loss.

Finally, when the war broke out, Eleanor -- not Hillary, but Eleanor -- took the first government job ever held by a first lady, at the Office of Civil Defense. When it blew up in her face, she had to reinvent her own role again.

Eleanor and Hillary are not joined at the head. The times are different, so are their psyches and their marriages. But Hillary shares with her predecessor the need for a sense of purpose in life.

The Clintons came into office with experience as working partners. They believed that they had the people behind health-care reform and all they needed was the policy. In the too-secret, too-expert, too-Beltway process of creating the policy, they lost the people.

They can blame it on gridlock, on Republicans, on the media. Fair enough. But it was also bungled. I would be surprised if Hillary didn't share a sense of failure. Where do you go after you've walked into a propeller?

When a wounded Eleanor resigned from the Office of Civil Defense, she was at her lowest moment. Gradually, she found her work again, and went from being an inside player to an outside agitator. As Ms. Goodwin puts it, ''She became a voice for people who didn't have access to the system.'' She brought that voice to FDR when it was welcome and when it wasn't. She helped this country to change.

Today, more of us feel voiceless, angry, alienated. If there's a role waiting to be filled, it's hearing and raising that outside voice, bringing it in.

If Hillary Clinton chooses, as hinted, to focus on children, it won't be photo ops for long. The well-being of American children is at the meeting of private anxieties and public policies. She has the power and the voice to make that case.

In this era, women are routinely called upon to rewrite the script of their lives. Hillary Rodham Clinton has done it before. She'll do it again.

When she was feeling low during the campaign, the current first lady would hold imaginary conversations with the former first lady. She would hear Eleanor Roosevelt saying, ''Get out and do it and don't make any excuses about it.''

It's still Eleanor Roosevelt time.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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