Bill and Hillary and Jack and Bobby

July 01, 1996|By Richard Reeves

NEW YORK -- There is no question in my mind that Hillary Clinton made a big mistake having imaginary conversations with Eleanor Roosevelt. Mrs. Clinton should be talking to Robert Kennedy.

Our first lady is quite different and far more powerful than Mrs. Roosevelt ever was. Mrs. Roosevelt had influence, most of it exercised outside the White House, where her position gave her access to the American people, and her policy passions, sometimes different from her husband's more mundane and acceptable priorities, gave her a voice in the American dialogue.

Mrs. Clinton has actual power, most of it exercised inside the building where she and her husband work.

A president, just like the rest of us only more so, needs a confidant, the one person whose loyalty and dedication is unquestioned because he or she has the same interest and goals. Those two need to know each other's strengths and weaknesses, talents and vulnerability. The relationship, at best, is symbiotic and synergistic. Where the symbiosis goes from there depends on how smart the partners are or how good their judgment and advice have proved to be over the years.

Marriage is the best defense against the world, because it is the most intense and mysterious of relationships -- and one of the hardest to get out of.

I am old enough to understand that you never know what actually goes on between two people alone. Sometimes they don't know themselves. But, practice making perfect, they can communicate in words, glances and grunts unintelligible to anyone else.

The political spouse

The political spouse, usually a wife, often exercises only one power, a kind of last word on personnel, saying of a prime minister, a general or a White House travel agent, ''I'm not sure you can trust that one . . . '' That, I would say, despite a lot of overheated journalism, was close to the extent of Nancy Reagan's power.

In the case of the Clintons it goes far beyond that -- as did the relationship between President John Kennedy and his brother Robert Kennedy, who was his brother's real political wife.

You can see the communication between the Clintons. One often seems mad and the other distracted or depressed. Marriage is like that; politics usually isn't. In this political marriage, it is hard to see where one of them ends and the other begins, as if they are one person -- right-braining and left-braining in private. Sometimes it's hard to tell which is the boss, a question never raised about Jack and Bobby.

The Clintons owe each other a great deal, perhaps everything. A cliche that came out of Little Rock was that without Hillary, Bill would have ended up the most popular professor at the University of Arkansas law school. And Hillary could never have reached this public prominence without the formidable political skills of her husband.

Actually, Mrs. Clinton is in over her head or out of her element, which is too bad for her and for us, too. She is smart and knowledgeable and a gifted speaker, but she is no politician in any sense of the word. If her husband has natural political instincts without strong convictions, she has convictions without instincts.

I do not like the co-presidency aspects of the Clinton administration. Mrs. Clinton's power, whatever it amounts to, is extra-Constitutional, without normal checks and balances -- unknown, unelected, unconfirmed, unquestioned, perhaps uncontrollable. Elected and appointed officials are subject to different laws and regulations than the rest of us, as checks on the use or abuse of power.

If Mrs. Clinton does have any legal liability in the Washington and cover-up phases of all these investigations, she will probably end up with her name at the top of a Supreme Court decision. She is, after all, not a government official. For better or worse, the First Lady is a private citizen.

It's all right for him

What she is going through right now, including a lot of press overreaction, must be quite painful. But it does not work all that badly for her husband.

The great question of why Bill Clinton's poll ratings seem steady in the swirl of bad news from Little Rock is not only because of the weakness of Bob Dole's campaign. It is also because Hillary Clinton is the one taking the heat. Perhaps that is why her friend Jean Houston, the suggester of conversations with Eleanor, says that Hillary must see herself as Joan of Arc.

Hillary is the martyr, deflecting dangerous bolts from her husband. The modern refrain is that Bill is a nice guy but oh, that Hillary. Once upon a time it was that Jack Kennedy is OK, but oh, that brother of his, that damned Bobby.

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Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 7/01/96

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