A 'Gender Rorschach Test'

October 06, 1994|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- Along with her husband's popularity and all those 1,000-page health-care bills, the old Hillary Rodham Clinton has slowly slipped from sight, leaving behind a diminished public personality and a few fading memories of what might have been.

Less than two years after her husband's election, she has managed to make herself the first truly unpopular First Lady since Eleanor Roosevelt. As a political liability to her spouse she has eclipsed the sainted Eleanor, and has easily outdone Nancy Reagan as an object of national derision.

It wasn't long ago that most criticism of Mrs. Clinton could be mockingly dismissed by her admirers as purely gender-based. Men with lingering patriarchal tendencies were said to be ''threatened'' by the First Lady's strength, intellect and professional stature. Secretly, it was implied, such dull men and their bovine housewife-allies probably didn't even believe women should be allowed to be lawyers.

That note of mockery isn't heard too much any more, because most of those who sounded it are running for cover. Mrs. Clinton herself seldom instructs us these days on issues of political correctness. She now mostly cuts ribbons, and doesn't even get to do that very often. Few Democratic candidates for office are willing to risk appearing on the same stage with her this fall.

What's happened here? What is it about this personableintelligent and well educated woman that so many people find such a turn-off? It's interesting -- and for shell-shocked Democrats, politically prudent -- to seek answers.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, the First Lady demonstrates that for her part she hasn't a clue. She calls herself a ''transition figure'' -- meaning presumably that when the New Age really does dawn in America the irritation she now inspires will be replaced with admiration -- and blames her slippage in the polls on attacks by unscrupulous talk-show hosts.

She suggests she's become a kind of ''gender Rorschach test'' who brings latent hostility to women and other submerged neuroses to the psychological surface of society. She's sort of a lightning rod, in other words, for men's problems with their wives or their female bosses. In a rather elegant way, she sees herself as a victim.

In an era in which women are being elected to office in droves, for Mrs. Clinton to attribute her unpopularity, even indirectly, to her sex is chutzpah of the most magnificent sort. It's like a skinny uncoordinated kid on the playground saying that the only reason he isn't playing professional basketball is because he's poor and black.

Hillary Rodham Clinton rubs so much of America the wrong way because she appears to be another know-it-all young government lawyer, not because she's a woman. People object to her lawyerly evasions, not her intelligence. They're put off by the gap between her rhetoric and her conduct on questions of propriety, not by her independence.

In much of the country -- and certainly in Maryland -- politics has in recent years become remarkably feminized. With each election, state legislatures have more women, and women compete effectively for the top political jobs. This has not only made government more representative, but it has improved and enlivened politics -- the more so as women come in distinct philosophical flavors.

Mrs. Clinton is a smart, tough woman, though probably no brighter or tougher than Jacqueline Kennedy or Lady Bird Johnson, whose popularity never wavered. Her recent difficulties, like her husband's, have more to do with her politics than her personal qualities. While plenty of people share the Clintons' politics, at the moment it appears that a lot more don't.

In Maryland, thousands of people -- men, too -- who are underwhelmed by the First Lady are preparing to vote enthusiastically for Ellen Sauerbrey for governor. Mrs. Sauerbrey intelligent and independent, and expresses her opinions forthrightly. So why don't those insecure souls who don't care for Mrs. Clinton find Mrs. Sauerbrey ''threatening'' as well?

And why was it that in Texas there wasn't any outcry when a successful female Democrat called a successful female Republican a ''female impersonator?'' There sure wasn't much gender solidarity on display there.

You'd think that Edward Kennedy, after a lifetime of affronting women, might not be especially popular among Hillary admirers. You'd think they'd be pleased to see him lose. But here we have columnist Ellen Goodman saying wistfully that the only reason the senator appears to be on the brink of defeat this fall is that he isn't as ''pretty'' as his Republican opponent.

Her political analysis may be faulty but her obvious preference in the election is entirely rational. She likes Mr. Kennedy on the issues more than she dislikes his behavior toward women. The hard truth is that in politics, it's how you vote and not whether you ovulate that counts.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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