The roles of first lady come to bear

August 21, 1998|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- So it comes down to Bill and Hillary, man and wife, president and first lady, father and mother.

Since January, when the name Monica Lewinsky came out of nowhere, Americans have repeatedly said, "If it's just sex, it's their problem." Now it is their problem. Her problem.

All through this tawdry affair, there was one jury to whom the president couldn't bear to tell the truth. Not the 23-member grand jury, but the two-member mini-jury of wife and child. Now the president, husband and father says, "I intend to reclaim my family life." But he doesn't say how.

On the eve of his brief and sober talk with the nation, a friend driving off on vacation called me from her cell phone to declare, "If she walks out, every woman in America will stand up and cheer." Not on a bet.

Hillary, chief defender, last true believer, came on the national stage as a polarizing figure. Some cheered and others bristled when she declared that she was not Tammy Wynette. Many were cool to the woman who said she was not a cookie-baking mom, and downright hostile to the woman who tried to reform health care.

But in this scandal she has won over those skeptical Americans. Perhaps they prefer a betrayed woman to an uppity woman. Perhaps they feel better feeling sorry for her. Perhaps they just admire grit.

A rising rating

In the opinion polls that stalk our political leaders at every turn, the extraordinary fact is not just Bill's job approval rating, one that has soared with every Starr attack. It's Hillary's rating that has risen in tandem.

We are told that Hillary was the last to know. Well, maybe the real story was as "unbelievable" as the first lady's notion of a "vast right-wing conspiracy" against Clinton or even a cabal against Arkansas.

Today, Hillary is faced in the most public way imaginable with the fact that her husband was willing to risk humiliation -- his, hers, their daughter's -- to be sexually serviced by a 22-year-old intern. Her political partner who was driven by ambition into the Oval Office was equally -- more? -- driven by sex. The man whose political instincts she respected had a homing instinct for disaster so finely tuned that he connected with the one woman -- OK, maybe there are two -- who would save such a dress.

Over the past six years, Hillary has stretched herself thin across traditional and nontraditional roles -- the Hillary, the Rodham, the Clinton. Now, declaring that she is "committed to her marriage and loves her husband," she faces another such contortion as a wife, mother, first lady. How to maintain a marriage and self-respect?

As a political wife who spent most of her adult life in public, Hillary Clinton learned to circle the wagons around her family. It's hard to imagine this lawyer allowing her worst enemy -- Ken Starr -- to destroy her marriage. Let alone Monica Lewinsky.

As a first lady -- that quasi but real job -- she has learned to calculate public and personal responsibilities. Buy One, Get Two. How attuned is Hillary Clinton's sense of duty and commitment? Where do work and love balance out? On Monday, it is said, Hillary helped write the speech.

Messages to daughter

But as a mother, how do you calculate the messages your decisions pass on to a young daughter? Do you want to teach her loyalty? Blind loyalty? The strength to endure? Or the strength to get out?

And as a woman, how do you ever again respect this man? Or trust him?

"I have learned a long time ago that the only people who count in any marriage are the two that are in it," Hillary said last January. I do not doubt that. "It's nobody's business but ours," said the president on Monday. So be it. I leave it to others to decide when you save your marriage and when you pack your bags.

Jesse Jackson says, "She took seriously the vows 'for better or for worse.' " More seriously than Bill took the vows of fidelity. Mr. Jackson said that "bonding takes place in adversity, bonding takes place where there are head winds." So does capsizing.

Some 'splaining to do

The mantra of the administration has been that it's time to move on. But in James Carville's language, "What did Desi say to Lucy? The president has some 'splaining to do."

The Clintons don't have a deal. They have a marriage. A marriage surely reeling from revelations about character and betrayal.

She is a "wronged wife" who cannot tolerate being seen as a victim -- or being one. A woman who bridged the changing roles of her generation and gender -- independent-minded and committed.

Under public scrutiny far more relentless than the Martha's Vineyard sun, this woman will be trying to strike a far, far harder pose: How can she still stand by her man . . . on her own two feet?

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 8/21/98

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