WASHINGTON -- It was hardly surprising during Hillary Clinton's Asian trip with the president that when she said she might consider ''a formal role'' in revamping the American welfare system, critics paled at the thought of a resurrected Hillary as administration power-woman.
The White House soon gave assurances that the first lady didn't mean she wanted to be some kind of welfare czar, but merely wanted to assert her intention to speak out on issues of concern to her. But the political reality is that her track record as a woman with strong opinions and the determination to act on them will continue to draw fire, no matter how valid those opinions.
It seems an eon ago that Bill Clinton went around saying in the 1992 campaign that if he were elected the country would get ''two for the price of one.'' He bragged on the brilliance of his wife and told audiences that he expected her to play an active role in his administration.
Well before he was the Democratic nominee, however, he began to pull back, especially when she made a remark in Chicago defending her pursuit of her own professional career in terms that some took as denigrating homemaking.
''I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas,'' lawyer Hillary said in the politically unfortunate construction. ''But what I decided was to fulfill my profession, which I entered before my husband was in public life.''
The remark was headline stuff around the country and was not the first time that the wife of Bill Clinton had gotten into political hot water for asserting herself as an individual. During his first term as governor of Arkansas, she had continued to use her maiden name, Rodham, and it did not sit well with the locals. After his defeat for re-election, she began to call herself Hillary Rodham Clinton, and has ever since.
Bill Clinton's election as president in 1992 clearly was seen by the Clintons as a liberating development for her. Only five days after he took office, he appointed her to head the controversial task force to draw up the extensive health-care reform package that dominated his domestic agenda in 1993.
A favorable spotlight
At first, she basked in a favorable spotlight as a new kind of first lady reflecting the gains of women in the American society. But she soon ran into trouble by holding the task force's meetings in secret and resisting congressional overtures for information about where it was going. She became an obvious target of congressional conservatives and the free-spending insurance industry bent on scuttling far-reaching reforms that would cut into its huge profits and independence.
Soon she was the poster girl for the liberal-bashers and big-government critics, who had an easy time painting her and her husband's administration as no more than the latest edition of the New Deal philosophy of government-knows-best activism. The proposals she helped shape for universal health care came crashing down, and her standing in the polls with it.
After that, Mrs. Clinton generally took a lower public profile, focusing on such ''women's issues'' as child care, as demonstrated in her best-selling book, ''It Takes a Village.'' Even that was seized on by critics to cast her as a woman who supported the notion that child-rearing was a governmental, communal responsibility rather than one of the traditional family unit.
During her husband's re-election bid, she campaigned extensively but generally kept her head down as any kind of policy partner with the president. And all the while she labored under the cloud of the Whitewater investigation, in which she was repeatedly mentioned in the news media as a target for possible indictment on perjury or other charges.
Whatever happens in that case, Hillary Clinton seems certain to continue to be a lightning rod for criticism. That remains the price for public women, even first ladies near the end of the 20th century, who venture to chart new courses for themselves.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.
Pub Date: 12/02/96