Walking in Eleanor Roosevelt's footsteps

July 05, 1995|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Moments before Hillary Rodham Clinton walked into a congressional hearing room to be grilled on health care reform in the fall of her first year in the White House, an aide whispered in her ear:

"This is Eleanor Roosevelt time."

And so it is again. As she moves about in the very public, not very policy oriented, role she has carved out for herself in the wake of the health care debacle, Mrs. Clinton is looking more and more Rooseveltian.

She has made a number of foreign trips, as her predecessor did. She has moved from inside policy-maker to outside "advocate," as Mrs. Roosevelt did after encountering public scorn for her more direct involvement in government.

And in her latest move, Mrs. Clinton has lifted a page out of the former first lady's life with her announcement last week that she will write a syndicated newspaper column.

"Obviously, she's absorbed Eleanor quite fully," says Doris Kearns Goodwin, a historian and author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the Roosevelts, "No Ordinary Time," who has talked with Mrs. Clinton on several occasions about the trailblazing first lady.

Mrs. Clinton said that her column -- to be written weekly, as compared with Mrs. Roosevelt's dazzling six times a week -- will provide "an opportunity for me to communicate more directly with people about matters that I know are on their mind."

In a speech to the American News Women's Club last week, she said she hoped to share "some of what goes on here, some of the funny stories and some of the momentous events, some of the human stories, the kinds of stories about people who come here that nobody would know otherwise."

She said she would write about everything from visits of foreign dignitaries to what it's like having to start planning the White House Christmas festivities in July.

Mrs. Clinton's deputy press secretary, Neel Lattimore, said the first lady also would write frequently on issues important to her -- namely women, children and families.

Not since Mrs. Roosevelt -- whose "My Day" column was a popular feature in hundreds of newspapers for 27 years, continuing well beyond her husband's presidency -- has a first lady sought such a visible, and regular, platform for herself.

"It's a very, very shrewd move," says Paul Costello, former press secretary to Rosalynn Carter. "It's a great way for someone like Hillary Clinton to get her message out, to touch and reach out to constituencies in an unfettered way. Because of her potency and currency, there will be a lot of interest."

Ms. Goodwin, who has stayed at the White House as a guest of the Clintons, says she talked with Mrs. Clinton last fall about the benefits of writing a "My Day"-type column. "It gives you a direct voice to the people that is not filtered through someone else's interpretation," the author told the first lady.

What's more, Ms. Goodwin says, such a vehicle, if used to document what the first lady does, could help quash the constant ruminations about Mrs. Clinton's role: Is she withdrawing from the spotlight? Banished to flower-arranging and a more ceremonial role? Out of the loop?

"The best way to prove she's still doing a lot of activist things is to be able to describe them," Ms. Goodwin says.

Dulled criticism

Eleanor Roosevelt's column, the historian says, went a long way toward dulling criticism of her activism.

"It allowed the public to know the range of her commitments and convictions, whether she was climbing into a mine or meeting with black groups in the South," Ms. Goodwin says. "It allowed more people to know what she was all about -- and to see her indefatigableness. You got tired just reading what she was doing every day."

Indeed, by her husband's third term, more than three-quarters of the voters, even if they didn't agree with Mrs. Roosevelt's views, approved of her activist first ladyship.

Her column also was used to launch "trial balloons" for the administration, a way to float ideas and gauge public opinion, says Lewis Gould, a professor at the University of Texas who is a historian of first ladies. "If the reaction was bad," Mr. Gould says, "Roosevelt could say: 'That's my wife. That's Eleanor.' "

Mrs. Roosevelt wrote about the need for government-backed child day-care during the war before President Roosevelt committed to it, and was far ahead of the government on civil rights issues -- which was fine with the president.

When she differed from her husband, as when she championed the United Mine Workers' right to strike more than did Mr. Roosevelt, it allowed the administration to win constituencies on both sides of an issue.

"Sometimes it was very politically helpful," Ms. Goodwin says. "It helped solidify his support in particular areas, such as with women and blacks."

"Soft and gentle"

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