A Clinton Senate run smacks of contempt for first lady role

May 26, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Back in 1992, when his family's single-minded ambition was to gain the White House, Bill Clinton advertised his wife, Hillary, as a kind of political bonus for the country. If the voters elected him, he pointed out, they would be getting "two for the price of one."

Soon after his election, he appointed her to be the driving force in perhaps the only truly bold domestic initiative of his presidency, the campaign for universal health coverage. She ran it imperiously and in the end the ambitious and worthy effort failed, shot down by the insurance industry and its mostly Republican allies.

Since then, Mrs. Clinton, while not quite settling into the traditional first lady role of the woman behind the man, has occupied herself with somewhat lower-profile activities.

She has done so while suffering under the burden not only of having a publicly proclaimed unfaithful husband, but also staunchly defending him as the victim of, in her famous phrase, "a vast right-wing conspiracy" to drive him from office.

All this has been quite a full plate, for an ordinary woman anyway. But Mrs. Clinton quite obviously is not an ordinary woman. Still holding the most influential role accorded to any U.S. woman for another 20 months, she is casting a covetous eye on a U.S. Senate seat in New York.

So we have the prospect, if she does run, of Mrs. Clinton spending the next year and a half trying to keep two balls in the air. She would continue being first lady of the land, presumably a nonpartisan position while at the same time being a partisan candidate.

At a minimum, the arrangement would be a king-sized headache for the green-eyeshade types at the White House and her campaign committee, who would be obliged by law to separate out the cost of her travel and other expenses in the first role from those incurred in the second.

But more important is this question: What's her rush? The Senate will still be there when her husband leaves public office.

A Senate seat from New York presumably won't be open again for some time after 2000, what with newly elected Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer likely to dig in for the long haul. But why New York? If she's going to be a carpetbagger, running in a state where she hasn't lived, there are plenty of others that fit that description.

The first lady would not, to be sure, be the first nonresident elected to the Senate. In New York itself, Robert Kennedy ran and won a Senate seat there in 1964 after a lifetime of residence and association with Massachusetts. But he quit his government job, as attorney general, before seeking that seat. How does a first lady quit that job, short of divorcing the president?

On the most obvious level, her candidacy will set tongues wagging across the country that there might be more than political ambition in her desire to put considerable distance between herself and the president. But the bottom line is, she's got a pretty good job right now. How does she justify this move, other than by acknowledging blind personal ambition?

She has, certainly, the right to run for whatever public office she chooses. But leaving the impression that she can't wait to get on to something that will better demonstrate her political influence in her own right smacks of contempt for a role in American politics that has always been respected, even revered, by the public.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

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