Hillary Clinton admits being 'naive' on politics

January 10, 1995|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- Saying that she is eager to present herself in a more likable way, Hillary Rodham Clinton said yesterday that she had been "dumb and naive" about national politics and was to blame for the failure of the health care overhaul plan last year.

She said that she is sometimes shocked by the harsh way she comes across in news reports -- as a woman that she herself would not particularly want to know. And she asked a group of female writers invited to lunch at the White House, including Ann Landers, how she could better make the public see her in the sympathetic, more complicated way in which she sees herself.

"I am surprised at the way people seem to perceive me," she said, "and sometimes I read stories and hear things about me and I go, 'Ugh.' I wouldn't like her, either. It's so unlike what I think I am or what my friends think I am."

Mrs. Clinton added: "So I can only guess that people are getting perceptions about me from things I am saying or doing in ways that don't correspond with things I am trying to get across. I didn't get this whole image creation thing. I see what it can do, but I'm not sure I get it. I have let other people define me."

In interviews last year immediately after her health care plan collapsed in Congress, Mrs. Clinton tended to say that the failure had to do with her being a woman in a male-dominated political system that found her position of authority hard to accept.

Yesterday, speaking to a group of women who normally write about gossip, personal advice, style and the first lady's social functions, Mrs. Clinton put most of the fault on herself.

"I think I was naive and dumb, because my view was results speak for themselves," Mrs. Clinton told the group, which included Donnie Radcliffe, who specializes in covering first ladies for the Washington Post, and the gossip columnists Lois Romano of the Washington Post and Jeannie Williams of USA Today.

"I regret very much that the efforts on health care were badly misunderstood, taken out of context and used politically against the administration. I take responsibility for that, and I'm very sorry for that."

Mrs. Clinton said she had thought she could reach an accommodation with the Republicans in Congress and had not sought strong political counsel.

"I take responsibility for not understanding what was going on," she said. "There was a lack of politically savvy advice. No one had figured out the dynamics."

During the luncheon interview, in which Mrs. Clinton began by speaking off the record but later agreed to talk for publication, the first lady seemed bent on finding a way to counter her harsh run of publicity, which reached a peak in recent days when Newt Gingrich's mother, Kathleen, said her son, the speaker of the

House, had called Mrs. Clinton a "bitch" -- a remark Mrs. Gingrich repeated in an interview broadcast yesterday by the television program "American Journal."

It was not the first time Mrs. Clinton had undertaken an image make-over; in the 1992 campaign, after taking her out of public view for a time, her advisers undertook to make her seem softer and more traditionally feminine as part of what they called "the Manhattan Project" to reshape Mr. Clinton's candidacy.

And, as before, the most recent effort by Mrs. Clinton reflected the lingering confusion over the proper role for a first lady who is not content with retiring to the social wing of the White House.

Mrs. Clinton spoke in the relative comfort of an informal lunch with reporters who do not cover hard news. At the same time, she made it clear in the interview that she would continue to speak her mind. This week Newsweek published a lengthy article by Mrs. Clinton in which she challenged Mr. Gingrich and the Republicans on changing the welfare system.

At lunch she elaborated: "Everyone is down on people on welfare, but the neglect of children, absentee parents is not confined to welfare parents. What I resent about what Republicans are proposing is it's us against them, that everyone but the poor, the blacks and those on welfare has great family values."

And then she added: "If I'm going to be controversial, I might as well be controversial on the things I really say."

Mrs. Clinton said yesterday that she is no longer upset by personal attacks.

"At first you are sort of stunned," she said. "After a while, it gets easier."

She acknowledged that she was to blame for her unfavorable public image. But she said she is still bewildered by others' perceptions of her as a tough-minded litigator who often comes across as self-righteous. Friends of Mrs. Clinton often remark on her sense of humor and her warmth.

HTC Given her regret about the way she handled welfare and her own publicity, Mrs. Clinton was asked whether she would have done things differently.

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