Hillary Clinton: popular, at last

November 30, 1998|By Ellen Warren

NOW THAT she has been totally humiliated by that rat she married, the country seems to be falling in love with Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Her popularity poll numbers are zooming to new highs.

With a decent hairdo (finally), she's a babe.

And how about this past congressional campaign? Democrats did better than anyone dreamed and Give'em-Hell-Hill was the party's biggest asset.

What a gal. What a trooper. What's going on?

Consider only two years ago, pre-Monica. Back then, the president's handlers were afraid to let her loose in the hustings, for fear her lousy poll ratings would rub off on her husband's re-election campaign. Tarred by Whitewater, tainted by Travelgate, tangled in a health-care policy debacle, she was radioactive.

Talking to voters during the '96 presidential campaign, at outlet malls and grocery store parking lots around the country, I'd get an earful from voters, male and female, who would volunteer just how much they couldn't stand the first lady.

Strong reaction

It was a scary kind of loathing, straight from the gut. Not always rational but deeply felt, the reaction seemed to boil down to this: She was too aggressive, tough, strident, outspoken, power-hungry. Nobody said it in these words but it was hard to escape the idea that they thought Mrs. Clinton was behaving too much like a fella.

Even as America lurches, slowly, toward more gender equality at work, at home and at school -- the much-analyzed "American people" seem unwilling to apply those same standards at the White House.

How bad was it? In January 1996, Mrs. Clinton had the distinction of scoring the lowest ratings for a first lady in modern history when the Gallup Organization found only 43 percent of those questioned viewed her favorably.

Her poll numbers were still low around Labor Day when the Clinton re-election campaign had started. It wasn't like the election four years earlier when the Clintons crowed that electing him would mean Hill-and-Bill. "People call us two-for-one," Mrs. Clinton said. "The blue-light special."

There was no mention of that "special" in '96, though. By then, much of the country had cooled on the brainy Yale-law grad who took on health-care reform, connived to turn a $1,000 investment in cattle futures into a $100,000 bonanza and, for much of her marriage, was the one who earned the dough to support the family and keep Bill in Moon Pies and doughnuts.

"We didn't elect her," was a frequent complaint of voters who despised seeing a first lady with policy influence. What was OK for equally unelected Cabinet members, of both genders, was not acceptable in the White House.

Two years earlier, in the fall of 1994, it was the same thing when Chicago Tribune reporter William Neikirk traveled the sensible Midwest talking to the real folks in what the Washington Beltway punditocracy calls the "flyover states" unworthy of serious attention.

No fans here

More than half of the people Mr. Neikirk talked to then didn't like Mrs. Clinton and objected to her public policy role. "The smartest thing they did after Hillary failed on health care is they shut her up," an Indianapolis woman executive told the Tribune. "I'd hide her for a while."

And so they did.

In the ensuing years, Mrs. Clinton has gone from writing a serious book on child welfare, "It Takes a Village," to penning one featuring the White House pets, a literary genre pioneered by her profoundly popular predecessor, Barbara Bush.

Coincidence? I think not.

Mrs. Bush, a thoroughly disciplined woman and a tougher cookie than she let on in public, used to say that people loved her because her looks (fat, wrinkles, gray hair) made her utterly nonthreatening.

Now, so is Mrs. Clinton. What could be less threatening than a woman cheated on by the most powerful man in the universe in the most achingly public sexual affair in the history of cad-dom who fell for a post-adolescent who liked to talk dirty on the phone.

"Bad Hillary" would have cleaned Bill's clock, heaved his Zegna ties over the Truman balcony and sent him, his cigars and his lifetime supply of "Leaves of Grass" packing to the nearest YMCA.

"Good Hillary," started aerobicizing like a gerbil, lost weight, got fit and wound up on the December cover of Vogue, which trills, "The Extraordinary Hillary Clinton."

There's similar swooning at Newsweek, where the story is "Hillary's Splendid Season" -- a glowing account of how, in a frenzy of jammed campaign stops, she made the difference in a number of tight congressional races where Democrats won.

Her approval ratings -- in the 70-percent range -- have never been better.

Chicago political consultant David Axelrod wouldn't put it quite that way. But he does say that Mrs. Clinton's appearance on behalf of his client in the Iowa governor's race, Tom Vilsack, dominated TV coverage of the tight contest the weekend before the vote. And that free media, says Mr. Axelrod, was critical to Mr. Vilsack's success.

A woman scorned

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