Hillary Clinton could fight own battles, but her hands are tied behind her back

January 15, 1996|By Mike Littwin

IT PLAYS OUT like a country-western song.

Somebody calls your wife a liar. You threaten to punch the guy in the mouth. Nobody calls in the cops because you're president of the United States, and besides, you didn't bring along boxing gloves in case some fool might want to fight.

You're Bill Clinton, and this is a good day.

You get to be Trumanesque. To those critics who say you're short on backbone, you get to show some spine. Some testosterone, too.

In the fight -- no punches thrown -- between you and the big-time, New York Times columnist, you're the clear winner. All the judges have you ahead on points.

It wasn't such a good day for the little woman, though.

OK, nobody has ever called Hillary Clinton the little woman. And that's where it gets confusing.

In the post-feminist '90s, she is the first lady, so to speak, for what's left of the feminist movement. She scares some men. She also scares some women. Maybe the kids, too.

Look to Hillary as an example of what might be called the strong-woman syndrome. For many, you're not allowed to be a strong woman unless you're Margaret Thatcher or maybe Lindsay Wagner.

But in a twist, William Safire, the offending columnist, says Ms. Clinton is not a victim of sexism. He argues that sexism protects her.

"How does any male geezer," Safire writes, "denounce a politician with a record of untruths, evasions, lawyerly deceptions and outright lies -- who happens to be not only a lady, but the First Lady?"

It's an intriguing question. But his premise is ultimately wrong-headed.

This is the same argument often used these days in matters of race -- that nobody criticizes black people for fear of being labeled a racist. Tell it to Clarence Thomas. Or Louis Farrakhan.

Tell it to Hillary. If you think people are soft on her, you're not reading the papers, and you're certainly not listening to talk radio, where she gets the same break a serial killer might expect.

And yet, it's true that when Clinton defends his woman, he's not defending her against the charges. He's defending her honor, as of old. Next he'll be dropping capes over puddles (certainly better than dropping his pants).

Safire, who ungentlemanly called Hillary a congenital liar, knows something of which he speaks. He came to prominence as a speech writer for Dick Nixon. White House lying should be his specialty.

He compares this dust-up with one he had with Ronald Reagan. When Safire wrote about Nancy Reagan's involvement in the dismissal of the White House chief of staff, the president complained that Safire had attacked "another man's wife."

There was a time when men fought duels over such trifles.

That was long ago. This is now. And where have we come to?

In times of crisis, we slip safely into traditional roles. During the '92 campaign, when Bill Clinton is accused of philandering, Hillary stands by her man. When she and Bill go on "60 Minutes" together, she gets to be publicly humiliated. He gets to be president. Some deal.

When she is attacked by Sen. Al "Mr. Ethics" D'Amato or by Safire, Bill gets to stand up and be strong. He gets to look like a hero. What does Hillary look like?

It has long been a tenet of the women's movement that men often step in to protect women when they're perfectly capable of protecting themselves.

But for Hillary, it's different. She can't just be herself.

She's the president's wife.

She isn't just married to a man; she's married to an entire administration.

If she's in trouble over Whitewater, it's because, at least in part, she led a life independent from her husband's. I don't know if she did anything wrong -- they haven't proven anything so far -- but no other first lady would have ever had a paper trail to leave behind. And no other first lady had to face the possible conflicts of interest that faced Hillary Clinton in Arkansas.

Any high-powered lawyer whose husband is the governor would inevitably face conflicts. Even a legal-aid lawyer would.

She couldn't win, unless she wanted to stay home with Chelsea and bake cookies. But even baking cookies got her in trouble, you'll recall.

She couldn't win. She still can't. She takes a shot from one side for being a policy wonk, and from the other for changing her hairstyle too often.

When she took on health-care reform, she was the president's wife big-footing her way where she didn't belong. Now, as the kinder, gentler Hillary, who's writing books on children, she's playing somebody else's role.

Soon, if the image makers have their way, she'll be writing a book with Socks the cat.

We're a long way yet from the day when a first lady, or a first woman president, could stand up and threaten to sock Bill Safire.

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