Hillary Clinton taking a new tack this time First lady embarks on 2nd-term strategy to spruce up image

March 17, 1997|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- For the first time, Hillary Rodham Clinton went last week on a domestic trip with a small contingent of press at the back of her plane. For the first time, she sat down recently with a group of reporters to talk about her pet issues.

The only thing unusual about these firsts is that it took the first lady a second term in the White House to agree to them.

Trying to deflect the layers of controversy that have been as much a part of her persona as rotating hairstyles and a three-prong name, Mrs. Clinton, 49, has embarked on a new, long-term strategy to spruce up her image, put out some of the sparks that crackle around her and help the public get to know her better.

The past week -- in which she presided over a briefing on education, spent a 17-hour day making speeches and appearances in Little Rock, Ark., and then left yesterday on a two-week goodwill trip to Africa -- has offered a glimpse into the kind of role she is molding for herself for the next four years and, in a way, for posterity.

The role appears to be one part traditional hostess and nurturer -- walking through a disaster site in a pink knit suit, pearls and shimmering stockings last week, she patted the shoulders of tornado victims in Arkansas -- to two parts policy-minded intellectual and advocate.

She may be working the levers more quietly than before, but she is still engaged in policy, with her White House operation a sort of mini-think tank for social issues.

Earlier this year, Mrs. Clinton held a round-table discussion on "micro-credits," small-business loans intended to boost depressed areas. She has attended a Cabinet-level meeting on education and, traveling the nation to promote her husband's school initiatives, she has beefed up her staff with a second speech-writer.

Mrs. Clinton is also organizing -- and, with her husband, will preside over -- a White House Conference on Early Childhood Development, scheduled for next month. Scientists have been invited to the session to discuss the latest research on the development of the brain in the first three years of life.

"She sees herself as a bit of a catalyst to get people exchanging ideas," says her press secretary, Marsha Berry.

'Micro-issues'

But bruised from the health care reform debacle in her husband's first term, Mrs. Clinton is fixing her energies on small initiatives -- what one friend called "micro-issues" -- rather than grand, sweeping proposals.

"I think you're going to see her giving attention to particular programs rather than making big policy speeches," says her friend Brooke Shearer, an Interior Department official. "She's more likely to say, 'Here's a program that works,' rather than, 'Here's a 10-part program for federal initiatives.' "

Another part of the second-term strategy, one she decided on only reluctantly and somewhat begrudgingly, involves lifting the veil -- a little.

"She's willing to be more accommodating," says Melanne Verveer, her deputy chief of staff. "She recognizes its importance for the things she cares about."

But she still keeps a tight rein on her image -- even to the point of ensuring that she is photographed from her left -- and on her dealings with the press.

Unlike a typical freewheeling news conference, Mrs. Clinton's briefings for reporters -- the second of which was held last week -- are focused on a particular subject. In January, micro-credits; last week, early childhood education and national testing standards.

Held in the White House Map Room -- the site of her husband's famed coffees with contributors -- 20 journalists sit around a table decorated with floral arrangements, each reporter assigned a seat with a hand-scripted White House place card and offered a beverage. Mrs. Clinton sits at the head of the table, flanked by a Cabinet secretary and other Cabinet and White House officials.

At last week's session, Education Secretary Richard W. Riley sent around the table a photograph of his new granddaughter in a bunny suit. It is a far cry from the rough-and-tumble feeding frenzies of the White House briefing room.

Public Policy 101

"Today we're going to talk about education," Mrs. Clinton declared at the opening of the briefing, sounding like a professor at a Public Policy 101 lecture hall.

"It's unique to her," Verveer says of the forum the first lady has devised for meeting with the press. "It's rooted in substantive considerations. It's a comfortable approach for her. It's a respectful setting for both sides."

Although the briefing ended, inevitably, with a flurry of questions about the first lady's involvement in campaign fund-raising irregularities -- she responded by saying she didn't know why a controversial contributor was repeatedly allowed into her office -- for the better part of an hour, she held forth on education.

Education, the centerpiece of President Clinton's agenda for his second term, is also the key component of the first lady's second-term portfolio.

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