Hillary's guru: an indicator of the quality of American political debate

June 26, 1996|By JACK W. GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- The president's wife has become a subject of ridicule because of her relationship with a woman named Jean Houston, depicted in Bob Woodward's new book on the election campaign, ''The Choice.'' It probably says a great deal more about the mindless quality of political debate in this country today than it does about Hillary Clinton.

On the face of it, there was nothing sinister about a White House session described by Mr. Woodward in which Ms. Houston, a motivational expert, urged Mrs. Clinton to conduct imaginary conversations with Eleanor Roosevelt and Mahatma Gandhi as a way of thinking through her own views on the issues with which she was dealing. Similar techniques are employed in corporation brainstorming sessions conducted by people like Ms. Houston. But most Americans have never even heard of such procedures, let alone taken part in them.

So a huge audience of people is willing to accept the tabloid categorization of Ms. Houston as ''Hillary's guru'' and quick to laugh at the First Lady for taking part in a seance in the White House solarium. More to the point, it was easy to draw a facile analogy between Mrs. Clinton's relationship with Jean Houston and Nancy Reagan's reliance on an astrologer a decade ago.

In fact, there is no valid comparison. According to a book by Donald Regan, Mr. Reagan's former chief of staff, the advice Nancy Reagan received from that astrologer had a direct and sometimes determinative influence on the president's schedule. If the stars were not in the proper alignment, the schedule would be changed. There is no evidence that anything between Hillary Clinton and Jean Houston was ever translated into advice from the First Lady to her husband. Mrs. Clinton says she was seeking help in formulating her ideas for her book, ''It Takes a Village.''

Even if that explanation sounds like a convenient rationale, there hardly could be anything very sinister in a session in the solarium that also included members of the First Lady's staff and other outside advisers.

But the hard truth for the president and his re-election campaign is that the voters are willing to believe the worst about Hillary Clinton and have been all along. She has been too uppity, guilty of the ultimate hubris in trying to write a comprehensive plan for reform of the national health-care system and, worse yet, expecting Congress to approve it.

Trying to do right

Indeed, it was that experience and others like it that apparently led Hillary Clinton to seek advice from others outside the White House. The health-care defeat clearly left her baffled by the way Washington had reacted to her attempt to do what she considered ''the right thing.''

In itself, the ''guru'' episode isn't likely to have any marked effect on the presidential campaign. Hillary Clinton already is in the unenviable position of evoking higher negatives than positives in opinion polls, a first for first ladies. And voters recognize that the choice they will be making November 5 is between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole, not Hillary Rodham Clinton and Elizabeth Dole.

But the controversy is another in a series that, taken together, nourish questions about President Clinton and the way he does business. It comes to front pages already heavy with reports on another Whitewater-related trial in Arkansas, Republican accusations that White House advisers have committed perjury, the president's efforts to stave off a civil trial on the accusations made against him by Paula Corbin Jones and the discovery that someone in the White House may have been hunting for dirt in the FBI files of Republicans.

So far the voters apparently have not made a connection between these things and their choice in November. The latest opinion polls show Mr. Clinton leading by about 20 percentage points, a margin essentially unchanged over the last three months.

But it is never politically advantageous for a candidate -- or his spouse -- to be grist for the humor of Jay Leno and David Letterman.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 6/26/96

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