It's Hillabeth versus Elizary

August 30, 1996|By Ellen Goodman

CHICAGO -- Just about 15 minutes after Hillary Rodham Clinton left the podium, I came up with Reason 339 Why I'm Glad My Husband Isn't Running for President.

It was when CBS began interviewing her date for the high school senior prom. Spare me!

There was this guy, this blast from the past, offering up serious thoughts on Hillary, and how good it had been to get to know her better than he had in school. At least he hadn't taken Elizabeth Dole to the junior prom or we would have endless comparisons about their dancing styles.

Bad old days

It's been that kind of a week. Up to and including the long-awaited speech-of-a-lifetime, we have been subjected to endless speculations on Hillabeth. (Or is it Elizary?) This is yet another reminder of the bad old high school days when girls were pitted against each other for the title of ''Most Popular.''

In one of these television debates on Hillabeth, I made the mistake of saying that the whole spectator sport, the longing for a first ladies' debate or a mud-wrestling event, made me want to throw up on my shoes. (Sorry, mom.)

But it was everywhere.

In the polls that gave out their ''approval rating.''

On the magazine cover that had them jousting.

Even in the Illinois delegation that had a sign saying ''Anything Elizabeth can do . . . Hillary can do better.''

Well, in fact, Hillary's star-turn was not better than Elizabeth Dole's. Nor was it worse. It was different.

Elizabeth Dole narrated the TV show, ''This is Your Life, Bob Dole.'' Hillary Clinton gave a serious speech, making the connections between private life and public issues, between the family and the village.

The lasting image of Mrs. Dole's night was the candidate's wife walking the convention floor. The lasting image of Mrs. Clinton's night was of a beaming 16-year-old Chelsea watching her mother. And it was the rousing, unrelenting cheers of a crowd out to deafen the jeers of the Hillary-haters.

Cheers and goose bumps

I was on the convention floor in 1984, the night that Geraldine Ferraro was nominated for vice president. The hall erupted with cheers and goose bumps.

The applause that greeted Hillary Clinton was equally deafening. But this time the mood was defiant.

This is nothing if not a Hillary support-group. The best applause line in Chicago this week, the one sure-fire cheer-getter, at every event and in half a dozen speeches, is a defense of Hillary Rodham Clinton and her ''village.'' The Democratic faithful are more than indignant about four years of unrelenting attacks on the first lady for everything from Whitewater to ''seances'' with Eleanor Roosevelt.

Remember Hillary's reference to the child-saving gorilla? If Hillary were Binti and carried that child carefully to the door, 35 percent of the population would wonder what she was up to. Trying to start a government rescue program?

A commie plot

For many, Senator Dole's gibe at her and the deliberate mis-description of her village as ''collective'' was the last straw. Women who wake up in the morning with a deadline at work, a husband out of town and a child with the measles don't think of the village as a commie plot.

But in the end, even the most fervent Hillary fans acknowledge that there is no winner in the competition between the two Mrs-es.

At the heart of the Hillabeth debate are two remarkable women being judged and compared as wives. First Wives, to be sure, but wives. They matter in this race because of what they do ''for'' or ''to'' their husbands' chances of success. What they ''say'' about their husbands.

Graded for wifeliness

It's one thing to be ''graded'' for yourself. Another as his wife. It's one thing to rise or fall on your own, speak for yourself. It's quite another when everything you do reflects or backfires on your husband. In one way or another both these women are carefully performing a juggling act.

This is an era when a whole lot of American couples are trying to figure out how to have separate roles and be partners, how to be individuals and a couple. It's women who are most conscious of the lingering contradictions between being independent and ''wifely.''

For now, Hillabeth has hit the glass ceiling for independent wives. It's located in the East Wing of the White House. Come to think of it, that's Reason 340: Why I'm Glad My Husband Isn't Running for President.

8, Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 8/30/96

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