The first lady reinvents herself as shrinking violet

October 03, 1994|By MIKE LITTWIN

Hillary is not pregnant. Bill's the only one in the family, as Letterman would say, who's eating for two.

But the rumor's out there, being whispered about in some tabloid or another. And no wonder.

She's the new Hillary. Again. She's like Nixon, only without the jowls -- continuously being reinvented. There are more versions of Hillary than there are Hillary hairstyles.

Have you seen the latest Hillary? You have to look carefully. She's getting the same amount of TV time as Chevy Chase.

If you do see her, you may notice some profound changes.

This latest Hillary is no policy wonk. She's given up her job -- actually, it was more like an impeachment -- as Madame Co-Prez. Health care is dead on the operating table, and every time Hillary appears in public, it's just another reminder of a failed Clinton policy.

And so Hillary is working on being the first lady (not first woman, not first spouse).

She's giving teas. She's talking children's issues. She's launching ships. She's campaigning for her brother, who's running for the Senate in Florida. She's entertaining at White House dinner parties.

For the first time, people are whispering that big-time Yale University lawyer Hillary Rodham Clinton can make her greatest contribution to the country as a -- shudder -- hostess.

Which brings us to the softer, not-ready-for-Senate-hearings Hillary. As retreats go, it's roughly the equivalent of pulling New Coke off the shelves.

It's hard to say how long this incarnation of Hillary will last. But you can bet it will be in effect at least through the November elections.

No Democrat, except possibly a relative, wants to be seen within a thousand miles of any Clinton, including Bill Clinton, even though he is still technically president and leader of his party. Many Democrats would prefer to campaign with Bud Selig.

Hillary, meantime, is fighting a 40 percent negative standing in the polls. Even Nancy Reagan didn't draw negatives like that.

If you remember, back when Bill became president, he said that the Clintons, husband and wife, were a team. He said they'd be together through thick and thin (interestingly, with Bill, you can do both simultaneously).

And, as it's turned out, she can match him bad time for bad time.

If he had Paula Jones, she had Vince Foster.

If he had foreign policy waffling, she had commodity market spiraling.

Whitewater is more about Hillary than it is about Bill. And, if you listen to the talk-radio crazies, you know that people may be sick of Bill but they plain don't like Hillary.

Worse, she doesn't even have Jimmy Carter to bail her out. Can't Rosalynn do anything?

This was the gamble the Clintons took when Hillary became the point person on health care. It seemed easy enough in the beginning. She would bring together a lot of experts. And then she would bring together the experts with the political people. Then they would talk to real-life people. And then they would put together a package that a Democratic Congress and a thankful America could embrace.

It went OK for a while. She went to Congress, and it was like De Gaulle returning to Paris.

And then came the health-care package itself, which made the federal budget, or even Rush Limbaugh, look lean. And then came Thelma and Harry. And then, well, you know the rest. Health care is not just dead for now. It may be dead for a long while.

Friends of Hillary say she's depressed, but not in despair. (I know, maybe she should just go shopping.) They also say she's reading up on Eleanor Roosevelt, the activist, liberal first lady of yore.

In her time, Roosevelt was well-hated, too. She was seen as interfering. They told jokes about her. Comics would imitate FDR saying: "I hate war. Eleanor hates war. I hate Eleanor."

Like Hillary, Eleanor presumed to be as intelligent and as knowledgeable as the men who run the country.

But Eleanor Roosevelt had one thing going for her that Hillary Clinton can't yet match. Eleanor Roosevelt's husband was elected president four times. Right now, it would be considered an upset if Hillary Clinton's husband is elected twice.

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