First lady is looking for fresh start tonight Convention speech is seen as chance to polish her image

Democratic Convention

Campaign 1996

August 27, 1996|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

CHICAGO -- A friend recently warned Hillary Rodham Clinton that the Republicans, in their effort to unseat her husband, would throw everything they could at the first couple -- everything but the kitchen sink.

"I saw it go by just a minute ago," the beleaguered first lady responded, waving her hand before her eyes.

Indeed, as Mrs. Clinton steps up to the podium tonight to help her husband launch his bid for a second term, she does so as one of the most controversial, unpopular and scorned first ladies in modern times.

Returning to her hometown, Mrs. Clinton has embarked on a high-profile week that is designed to provide her a fresh start. Highlighted by her speech tonight that is likely to upstage the keynote address, it is a chance for Mrs. Clinton to convince the American public that she is an earnest, caring advocate for children and families rather than a political operative responsible for much of the mayhem and missteps of the Clinton White House.

Her speech will be the grand finale to what is being billed as "Family Night." Unlike Elizabeth Dole, who spoke to the Republican convention about her husband, Bob Dole, Mrs. Clinton is expected to talk mostly about children and the concept of community as outlined in her book "It Takes a Village."

"You can expect she'll talk about issues that reflect her work over 25 years with women and children and families," said her communications director, Marsha Berry.

An accomplished speaker who rarely uses notes when she talks -- and who will speak from the podium, unlike Mrs. Dole, who wandered onto the floor of the hall -- Mrs. Clinton needs to do more than just try to out-dazzle Mrs. Dole with her prime-time convention appearance.

Although she has a devoted following -- mostly among working women and liberal Democrats, some of whom are wearing "Give 'Em Hell, Hillary" buttons -- she is plagued by negative impressions.

Never before has a first lady been the subject of multiple %J congressional inquiries, testified before a grand jury and faced the possibility, however remote, of indictment by a special prosecutor.

So controversial is the 48-year-old lawyer and mother that even in her hometown of Park Ridge, a Republican stronghold, residents have been divided on whether to hang a portrait of its famous former resident in some public place.

"The administration has lost control of Hillary's image," says Anthony Mughan, a professor at Ohio State University who has written about the 1992 political wives. "She has to divert attention away from the various 'gates' she's involved in and present herself as the Hillary Clinton who cares for children, goes to India and meets with Mother Teresa."

On a mission

Yesterday, greeted by warm, adoring audiences wherever she went, a cheery Mrs. Clinton started out on that mission. She made her way to state delegations, women's groups, a governors' association meeting, park dedication, high school and more -- all before the convention's opening gavel came down.

At her appearances, she talked much about building a bright future for her daughter, Chelsea. When she spoke of her husband's achievements, she referred to President Clinton as "my husband" as opposed to "the president" as she used to do.

A video shown at a women's caucus meeting showcased her work on behalf of women and children and sang her praises as a family woman whose close relationship with her daughter "ought to tell Americans a lot about Hillary Clinton, the woman."

Mrs. Clinton even indulged in a rare bit of self-deprecating humor, alluding to her "several conversations" with Eleanor Roosevelt, the activist former first lady with whom Mrs. Clinton is said to have staged imaginary talks.

And she referred to the attacks that have come her way, haltingly telling the Arkansas delegation it's been an "interesting" four years, and again invoking the specter of Mrs. Roosevelt.

"She had to face a lot of questions and criticism. I won't say that they pale in comparison to what is said today," she said as the audience laughed, "but they didn't have as wide a circulation as what is said today."

Comparisons to Mrs. Dole

Jokes aside, Mrs. Clinton's unpopularity -- recent polls consistently show that more people have a negative view of her than a positive view -- made her prominent role in Chicago this week a bit of a gamble for the White House.

"As a partisan Republican, I hope she makes a speech on national television once a week," said Sheila Tate, former press secretary to Nancy Reagan.

But aides ultimately decided that keeping Mrs. Clinton out of the limelight -- especially in her hometown and especially in light of Mrs. Dole's stellar performance two weeks ago -- would only fuel suggestions that the first lady is a liability to the Clinton campaign.

White House aides, in defending Mrs. Clinton, say her popularity is no worse than Bob Dole's.

Her speech tonight will inevitably invite comparisons with Mrs. Dole, a woman with a far different style and demeanor but a similarly impressive resume.

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