Hillary at Mid-term

January 15, 1995

For Hillary Rodham Clinton to describe herself as having been both "naive and dumb" in the way she handled the administration's failed health care reform plan is startling because such adjectives can hardly describe the most influential and possibly the smartest First Lady in the nation's history. As a result, one has to ask if she really means it and, more important, if it signals a change in the role she seeks to project to the country.

After the issue that was supposed to define her husband's presidency crashed last fall -- a forerunner to the devastating Democratic defeat in the November elections -- Mrs. Clinton took on some of the blame. But she also displayed her unhappiness with Republicans who first hinted at cooperation and then turned against her. And at no time, not then and not now, has she conceded that the failure of her health reform might have been at least as much the result of substance as of communication.

Stating that "it's pretty obvious this administration has trouble getting its message out," she lamented to a group of women journalists last week that if she were really the imperious person she is widely perceived to be, "I would not like her, either." Her friends, she said, view her in a warmer, more sympathetic light. All this suggests that Mrs. Clinton may be content with the lower, less confrontational profile the White House has carved out for her.

Because Mrs. Clinton is probably neither so cuddly nor so confrontational as caricatures would have it, the nation is left to wonder just what role she will play in the second half of Mr. Clinton's present term. This is not just a gossip item; no one in government has even a fraction of the influence she has on the policy formulations of her husband.

No doubt Mrs. Clinton still believes the overly elaborate health care reforms she proposed are the cure for what ails the U.S. medical system. But whether she sees her errors in making enemies of health insurers, doctors and pharmaceutical companies is a subject she has not addressed publicly, perhaps because it is too close to her real persona.

Mrs. Clinton's contributions as First Lady are much needed, even if voters and pollsters currently rebuff her. Bill Clinton said in the 1992 campaign that the nation "would get two for the price of one." And who would deny that Mrs. Clinton's part of this package provides consistency and purpose to a president known, fairly or not, for his vacillation, indecision and inability to know his own mind?

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