Hillary Clinton evolves into president's shield GOP's first-lady bashing might help Democrats

Campaign 1996


WASHINGTON -- Hillary Rodham Clinton returns to her hometown of Chicago for the Democratic National Convention this weekend by every available index the most controversial, unpopular first lady in modern U.S. history. No one in the White House argues that is a good thing. But as it turns out, they have come to think that it may not be such a bad thing, either.

Four years ago Mrs. Clinton, as a loyal wife and partner, was her husband's sword, slicing away at criticisms of his character. Slowly but surely over the course of his term, she has become something else: the president's shield, absorbing attacks on both of them, and freeing Mr. Clinton to seem more popular -- and more moderate -- by comparison.

After many months in which Mrs. Clinton has been at the center of controversies from Whitewater to the dismissal of the White House travel office staff, some of the president's advisers make it clear that they no longer mind that dichotomy much and, in fact, find it useful. They suggest their polling shows the public draws clear distinctions between the Clintons, personally and politically, that redound to the president's benefit.

Presidential aides will not speak about the topic publicly, but this is the calculus: Mrs. Clinton's lower public profile since the failure of the health care overhaul has made voters realize that Mr. Clinton alone is president, not his wife. At the same time, voters see in the Clintons' confessed marital complexities echoes of their own.

By rising vigorously to Mrs. Clinton's defense, the president can now look strong and chivalrous, in contrast to the chastened, halting profile he presented when Mrs. Clinton rose to defend him against Gennifer Flowers on "60 Minutes" in the 1992 campaign. To that degree, the White House was happy when Bob Dole suggested at the Republican Convention that Mrs. Clinton's book on child-rearing, "It Takes a Village," was some kind of socialistic tract.

In an interview last week with the Chicago Tribune, the president defended his wife against criticism of her view that "it takes a village" to raise a family, saying that Bob Dole himself relied on the people of his hometown after he was severely wounded in World War II.

"The village helped him," Mr. Clinton said.

Mrs. Clinton has been able to carve out a clear role as the administration's official, oratorical liberal -- as opposed to its surreptitiously influential one. She remains overwhelmingly popular among the core Democratic constituencies that Mr. Clinton wants to rally for the fall. Her whirlwind schedule in Chicago is to take her from a Democratic women's caucus with Tipper Gore, to a park dedication, to a panel on children with the Democratic Governors' Association to a fund-raiser for female candidates to a poor Hispanic neighborhood -- all tomorrow alone.

"In their efforts to demonize her, her critics not only don't hurt her or the president, but they hurt themselves," said George Stephanopoulos, the president's senior adviser. "They can inflict some damage, but they have not succeeded in erasing her positives, and in fact it makes them appear mean-spirited and small."

Mrs. Clinton was a frequent target at the Republican Convention, but the party is divided on the effectiveness of Hillary-bashing, with some arguing that swing voters need clear reasons to vote for Dole, not more to vote against Mr. Clinton. But even many who say they do not think personal attacks on Mrs. Clinton gain much, acknowledge that Republicans can make hay over her politics.

For weeks now, when asked about Mrs. Clinton as a potential political liability, White House aides have taken to responding in chorus that her favorable-to-unfavorable ratings are "better than Bob Dole's." In the most recent New York Times/CBS News Poll of registered voters, taken last weekend, 35 percent viewed Mrs. Clinton favorably and 37 percent saw her unfavorably, compared with 29 percent favorable and 32 percent unfavorable for Dole.

In that poll, Mr. Clinton had a favorable rating of 42 percent, an unfavorable one of 36 percent.

Pub Date: 8/25/96

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