The rise and fall of women in the Clinton White House

April 11, 1996|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE de GRACE -- Every presidency has its casualties, but in the Clinton administration, which owes its very existence to the votes of women, a remarkable number of them seem to be female.

Whether Mrs. Clinton herself eventually turns out to be a casualty remains to be seen. But leaving the First Lady aside, and omitting also such self-described victims as Paula Jones and Gennifer Flowers, whose alleged contacts with the president were not exactly political, there remains a considerable list of skilled and intelligent women who have emerged from the administration's embrace seriously bruised.

Brief prominence

It includes such briefly prominent names as Zoe Baird, Kimba Wood, Lani Guinier, Dee Dee Myers, Joycelyn Elders and Susan Thomases -- all people picked up by the Clintons and later dropped.

The administration no doubt sees this collection of celebrity castoffs as it manages to see almost everything, as evidence of its own astonishing and unprecedented virtue. So what if some of its most prominent female appointees and unappointed potentates have come ignominiously crashing down from their lofty perches? The fact that the ladies were allowed up there in the first place demonstrates a clear commitment to gender equity.

This president, after all, named the first-ever female attorney general, surgeon general and press secretary. Obviously he has greater respect for women than Calvin Coolidge, Richard Nixon and other predecessors of that ilk. In the Clinton White House diversity isn't just a slogan -- it's a policy and a slogan.

On the other hand, the New Age inclusivity of the first-ever baby-boom administration only seems to go so far. In ''Madhouse,'' a book due out this spring and excerpted in Washingtonian magazine this month, Time reporter Jeffrey Birnbaum writes that the inner circle, where the major decisions are made, is referred to by women on the staff as ''the white boys' club.''

As an illustration, he describes at some length the elevation and subsequent shafting of Dee Dee Myers, President Clinton's first press secretary. Ms. Myers got the title, but she didn't get the salary, nor the big office, nor the access to the president that customarily go with that job. These benefits were provided instead to the various white males to whom she reported. And eventually, after a sniffly private session in the Oval Office with the leader of the free world himself, she was eased out.

Lawyer-crony

Now it isn't just in politics that that sort of thing happens, and there's no point distorting its importance. Besides, Dee Dee Myers had made some powerful enemies who weren't male. Even before the inauguration she'd had a nasty fight -- in Little Rock, over office space -- with Hillary Clinton's New York lawyer-crony Susan Thomases. After that, Mrs. Clinton seems to have turned hostile too.

Eventually, Ms. Thomases took her own tumble, a more devastating crash by far than that suffered by Ms. Myers.

At the peak of her game, which is to say when the Clintons first arrived in Washington, Ms. Thomases could probably have kicked in the door of the White House White Boys' Club with impunity, and sent most of its members packing. She had maximum clout, and she enjoyed exercising it.

A double friend

Not only was she a FOBAH -- a friend of Bill and Hillary -- of many years, she was highly respected as a lawyer and as a political professional. And as Ms. Myers found out, she had a mean side. At one White House function in 1993, when Ms. Thomases walked forward to take the microphone, the sound system suddenly emitted the shark-attack theme from ''Jaws.''

But now she's having legal trouble over her testimony to the Senate committee investigating the Clintons' role in the Whitewater matter, and she's having political trouble for encouraging the writing of a Whitewater book. The book, ''Blood Sport,'' was intended to exonerate the Clintons, but it seems to be having quite the opposite effect.

With Ms. Thomases wounded, the smaller sharks are moving in. Beltway comedians make jokes about her, she's mocked in the popular roman a clef political novel ''Primary Colors,'' and she's no longer a familiar figure in the White House corridors. On top of that she has multiple sclerosis and a broken leg. It's a poignant tale.

Meanwhile, some interesting new trends are taking shape. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll this week indicated that while Mr. Clinton's support among college-educated women remains strong, women who didn't attend college are quite a different story.

They're less interested in abortion rights and other so-called ''women's issues,'' they're much more unhappy with the direction they see the country going, and many of them are considering voting Republican this fall.

They sound a lot like those famous Angry White Men we used to hear so much about. And even if Mr. Clinton were to promise to appoint the first-ever all- female Cabinet, they probably wouldn't be especially impressed.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 4/11/96

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