Bring Back the Old Hillary

March 22, 1995|By MARIANNE MEANS

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- I miss Hillary Clinton. The original one, I mean. The one who was my favorite role model.

The first lady currently on display is a pale shadow of the energetic political pioneer who arrived here two years ago full of confidence that she could develop and direct public policy as well as any man.

The transformation is sad because a mind is a terrible thing to waste, as the familiar slogan warns. (Or, as ex-Vice President Dan Quayle's garbled version would have it, ''What a waste it is to lose one's mind.'')

The new, reinvented Hillary Clinton is not an improved model. She is in danger of wasting a good mind that could have maximized the rare opportunity given to all first ladies for meaningful public service.

Gone is the most inspiring, politically powerful woman to occupy the White House since Eleanor Roosevelt. In her place is a more traditional president's spouse, promoting noncontroversial worthy causes; stressing such womanly interests as decorating, fashions and children's well-being, and ducking public identification with the real business of governing. She hasn't yet started baking cookies, but an oven and an apron cannot be far away.

Working women like myself used to see Hillary Clinton as symbolic proof of the decline of traditional cultural prejudices against displays of female power outside the home. She was demonstrating that businesslike women could exercise influence at the highest levels without false modesty or social pretense.

But when her health-care reforms died and the Democrats lost control of Congress, the first lady lost her public cachet and her private courage. And working women everywhere lost, too.

She has moved from using her position to strive for substantive changes in the way the governmental system works to settling for public-relations gestures and photo opportunities. She is dumbing down.

The political gurus on whom the president relies demanded that his wife retreat from the public-policy battlefield, pretend she'd never had a successful professional career and behave like a non-threatening homebody. They complained that she had assumed too much responsibility without the accountability of being elected in her own right.

Strangely, nobody worries about this problem with Secretary of State Warren Christopher or any other appointed Cabinet officer or White House staffer.

The real problem was that conservative voters were nervous that she was not afraid to, excuse the expression, think like a man. So Hillary Clinton is doing what she said as a presidential candidate's wife she wouldn't do, standing up for her man like Loretta Lynn by sacrificing her own persona.

The softening and blurring of her image has been subtly and rapidly done. It is a measure of this that the Gridiron Club, a journalistic organization that has produced a musical show featuring political satire every March for more than 100 years, had unaccustomed difficulty finding an appropriate song to capture her role this year.

The woman who negotiated with Congress over the details of sweeping health-care reform now lunches with gossip columnists, enthuses about new drapery, snuggles up to her husband, romps with children and gives kindly interviews expressing dull thoughts.

Instead of fighting entrenched special interests that can fight back, she focuses on causes with which few can quarrel. Now she encourages women to have mammograms, calls attention to Persian Gulf War veterans' health problems and visits eager little schoolchildren.

When presidents have image problems at home, they go abroad. That's what the first lady is doing, too. She's off to Pakistan, India and other Asian countries. She just returned from an international poverty summit in Denmark, where she stirred up no dust by sticking to generalized themes like educating women.

And to discourage unwanted comparisons with Eleanor Roosevelt, Hillary Clinton even says now that the first lady she admires most is Dolley Madison, the exuberant wife of our fourth president who was known mostly for her love of parties.

The current first lady tries gamely to make this unlikely choice plausible, saying that Dolley ''had a lot of spunk'' when she rescued the portraits of George and Martha Washington before the British burned the White House during the War of 1812.

But Dolley Madison's chief contribution to the history of her era was undeniably social, pioneering a role as the new capital's dominant hostess and arbiter of fashion. She was not the president's political confidante, as her predecessor Abigail Adams had been to John Adams. ''You know I am not much of a politician.'' Dolley Madison assured her husband. ''I believe you would not desire your wife to be the active partisan.''

And this is the role model the new, reinvented Hillary desires to emulate? Oh, please. Bring back the old Hillary.

Marianne Means is a syndicated columnist.

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