A Powerful Bind Role playing: Will the real Hillary Clinton please stand up? Will we let her?

January 16, 1996|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN STAFF

Hello, you've reached Hillary Rodham Clinton. I'm currently on a book promotion and Whitewater denial tour, but your call is important to me. Please select from the following menu items: If you think I am a congenital liar, press 1. If you think I am a saint,

press 2. If you think I am a sinner, also press 2. If you think I didn't really write my book, press 3. If you think I am that word so terrible you can only whisper it in the ear of a newswoman on national TV, press 4. If you think I'm Lady Macbeth, press 5. Or Evita Peron, press 6. Eleanor Roosevelt, press 7. If you'd like me to make you cookies and tea . . .

She's been parodied and pilloried, inspected and dissected. But after three years as first lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton seems less knowable than ever.

She's a lamp-throwing harridan. She's the target of a right-wing smear campaign. She's a powerful woman in a country that can't deal with powerful women. She's a behind-the-scenes manipulator -- "Off with their heads!" -- an unelected and thus unimpeachable co-president. She used her husband's office to advance her career. Or she sacrificed her career for her husband's.

"She is a complicated person," says Gloria Steinem, "as we all are."

All the facets of Hillary -- wife, lawyer, children's advocate, campaigner and, yes, first lady -- are being put to the test these days. Even as she launches a media-heavy tour to promote her book, "It Takes a Village and Other Lessons Children Teach Us" (Simon & Schuster, $20), she is smack in the middle of an escalating ruckus over her role in the Whitewater and travel office affairs.

And yet, like the eye of a storm, she has appeared remarkably serene in recent public appearances. She was composed and calmly articulate, every hair of her famously changeable coif lacquered in place, during a Barbara Walters interview that aired Friday night, just as steady and consistent in newspaper interviews that ran over the weekend.

And so, typically, the intense scrutiny of the past several days has left us less illuminated on the subject of Hillary, not more.

"It's easy for the far right, you just condemn her outright. And for the far left, it's no problem either because there's a fundamental defense of her," says media watcher Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. "It's the whole vast middle that is having trouble. I think Hillary Clinton is a Rorschach test. The perceptions of her are not stable. You're reading where you are at the moment."

Ms. Jamieson's recent book, "Beyond the Double Bind: Women and Leadership," includes a chapter on the first lady as the ink-blot test on which we project our unresolved conflicts about women in power.

In the 1992 campaign, for example, she caused a furor when she said she "could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas" as the governor's first lady but instead decided to pursue her law career. Misinterpreted in today's sound-bite culture as a slap against housewives, the statement, Ms. Jamieson says, was taken out of context -- a question about avoiding the appearance conflicts of interest when you're a politician's wife.

"The problem is something we haven't yet discussed well as a society," Ms. Jamieson says, "when the husband and wife are working in inter-connected domains and both have real power."

Or, as Ms. Steinem puts it: "Power and women are not suppose to go together in the same sentence, much less the same person."

Mrs. Clinton is the first to face this duality of roles -- the largely ceremonial one of the first lady and that of the professional woman with her own career interests and needs. She certainly won't be the last with women like Elizabeth Dole and Wendy Gramm waiting to take her place.

It's easy to imagine that sometime in the future, this will work itself out, that enough first ladies will have entered the White House with their own portfolios. But in the meantime, Mrs. Clinton is caught in the middle: As a first lady, her clothes and hairstyles are endlessly picked over, her activism accepted when "appropriately" first lady-like. As a professional and political figure, she is expected to meet the standards of elected office.

And, of course, she is not blameless in this: She has been known to shift her style and image to suit the needs of the time, making her seem elusive, a chameleon who changes so often that we're not sure which is the "real" Hillary.

There is the sharp-edged campaigner of 1992, who proclaimed that by electing her husband, you could buy one and get one free. Who, after he was elected, didn't set about to change the White House decor but rather, the entire health care system. After that debacle, we got something of a kinder, gentler Hillary, all pink-suited and softer-spoken. Even her hair went from yuppie bob to Betty Crocker flip, and she started appearing with Martha Stewart rather than on Capitol Hill and writing homey newspaper columns rather than legislation.

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