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  • First Lady of Paradox

    By David Maraniss
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Sunday, January 15, 1995; Page A01

    Hillary Rodham Clinton works in a room without a view, her lone south window shaded by an outside wall. Her small office is situated near the action in the west wing yet hovers above it all on the second floor, up an elevator and down a claustrophobic hall from where her husband and his assistants toil. It is an unimposing space, evoking neither power nor grandeur; during an interview there late one afternoon last week, it was neat, uncluttered and quiet.

    But with Hillary Clinton's office, as with the woman herself, things are not necessarily as they appear. She is, halfway through Bill Clinton's term as president, the First Lady of paradoxes, a woman who is seen as both old-fashioned and postmodern, prone to remodeling and redefinition, revered by some as the epitome of modern womanhood and equality in marriage, and reviled by others as arrogant and domineering.

    Inside the White House, she is aware that some of the president's men do not like her, a reality she said she has accepted. Many of them do, but some do not. They fret about her under the familiar cloak of anonymity. Their disdain can be fueled by fear: They worry that she will regard them as incompetent and say so to her husband. One called her self-righteous. She can, said another, slice you up with a look of "I've already thought of that." Another said that she exhibited "a kind of Nazi-ish feeling sometimes of 'Get on the program or get off the train.' "

    There is no backbiting of that sort from the First Lady's predominantly female staff. Her assistants seem to adore her. They describe themselves as a functional family within an occasionally dysfunctional place. Her policy aides are separated from her physically; they work on the second floor of the Old Executive Office Building, which cannot be reached from her office without a quick walk outdoors, but they are bonded to her by loyalty and a pride that is personal, professional and to some degree a matter of gender. They say that she has established a cooperative and good-natured group in which nobody thinks twice if one among them has to leave a meeting abruptly to care for a child or a sick husband.

    The notion that she is cold and self-righteous, they say, is utterly foreign to their experience with her. When she does something to raise their eyebrows, it is more likely with her hokey form of humor, often expressed in simple rhyming schemes that Maggie Williams, her chief of staff, says come from "another era, if not another century." It is not unusual for Hillary Clinton to end a conversation with a staff member by uttering, "Okey-dokey, artichokey." To her scheduler, Patty Solis, she has been heard to say, "Miss Patty, you're as cute as a bug in a rug today."

    The contradictory perceptions of the First Lady within the White House are modest reflections of the way she is viewed by the outside world, where, for better and worse, she has been a larger-than-life figure since the presidential campaign of 1992. It has been said of Bill Clinton that he tries to be all things to all people, and now, increasingly, Hillary Clinton is encountering a variation on that theme. She is, intentionally or not, countless different things to countless different people, and many of those things have taken on negative connotations.

    From her tribulations with the Whitewater controversy to her central role in the health care defeat, her public image has suffered to the point where she ends the second year of the Clinton administration as a drag on her husband politically, slightly less popular than him in some opinion surveys. Frank Luntz, one of the pollsters for the new Republican leadership in Congress, said his surveys show she is "an asset to women 18 to 34 and a liability to everybody else. She is still a role model to young women, particularly working women. But she reminds most men of their first wife -- or mother-in-law."

    She said she understands that some of the contradictions are of her own making. She is at once driven to public service and averse to public scrutiny. She considers herself straightforward and aggressive, with a healthy ego, and yet inherently shy.

    Members of her staff keep saying that she would be better appreciated if people knew more about her, and she often seems to be making efforts in that direction -- here talking for hours at a forum on First Ladies, there inviting a friendly band of gossip columnists to lunch for an off-and-on-the-record session.

    Yet she remains elusive, reluctant to reveal much, and in fact believes that efforts to define herself or to be defined by others through the means of modern American communications are inevitably futile and misdirected. There is, she said, an element of mystery in every human being, and when people try to capture that mystery and "put it in a box," they are more interested in feeling better about themselves than understanding the other person.

    "I don't think you can ever know anybody else," she said. "And I certainly don't think you can know anybody else through the crude instruments available to us of exposing bits and pieces of somebody's life. And I think that does a disservice both to the person, but more broadly to the common human enterprise of each of us trying as best we can to come to grips with life's challenges. So I find it very difficult to understand the dissection of bits and pieces of people, the categorizations of 'Aha! Now I know!' -- filling in some fact that, unrelated to any other context of some person's life, is expected to be revealing. I just don't understand that."

    Still, the bits and pieces accumulate, day by day, into the new year. Who is this First Lady?

    She is in hibernation after the health care defeat, says the Boston Globe.

    She is a bitch, whispers Kathleen Gingrich to Connie Chung, quoting her son Newt.

    She is softening her image, says the New York Times.

    She is a behind-the-scenes force in shaping her husband's "middle-class bill of rights," says the Los Angeles Times.

    She is just "playing some small role in trying to help my husband and serve my president," she explains in the interview. Is that not being a bit overly modest? she is asked. "Well, I don't know," she says, descending into the bits and pieces realm herself. "That depends on who you talk to, and sort of depends on the day."

    All attempts to solve the riddle of Hillary Clinton eventually come around to her professional relationship with her husband. She insists, on the one hand, that her opinions carry no more weight with the president than any of his other advisers, yet notes, on the other hand, that all the First Ladies she has studied have had enormous private sway over their husbands. She points out that even the quiet Bess Truman would spend her nights vetting her husband's speeches and his schedule.

    With Hillary Clinton, according to Roy Neel, who served for a time as the deputy chief of staff, "there was never any delusion that she would be anything other than a nontraditional First Lady." Her extensive unofficial portfolio has included close involvement in matters substantive and political, from the controversial handling of the White House travel office -- now under investigation by both the Justice Department and Congress -- to the appointment of federal judges in the Midwest. When new aides were brought on, from communications director David R. Gergen in 1993 to the more recent appointment of press secretary Mike McCurry, they were first passed through interviews with Hillary Clinton.

    Defining Her Role

    Twenty-one years ago, when she was a junior counsel working on the House impeachment inquiry staff preparing the legal case for the removal of President Richard M. Nixon, Hillary Rodham told her office mate, Tom Bell, that her boyfriend, Bill Clinton, was going to be president some day. A few years later, when she sought advice from friends on whether to marry Clinton and assume the life of a political wife, she began mentioning Eleanor Roosevelt as her role model. The woman did not have to be subservient, she would say; she could mold a career in public service alongside her husband.

    During Clinton's five terms as governor of Arkansas, she evolved into not only his closest adviser but his alter ego. What he was weakest at became her strengths. She was the one to say no to people. He loved to waste time, she would cut to the chase. She looked out for their financial interests. She was his pro bono lawyer on controversial issues. When he decided that he wanted to define himself as the education governor, she headed a task force on education reform. The education effort was hailed as a major success, solidifying his career in Arkansas and enhancing his future on the national stage. They were at once a married couple and a political partnership, and he needed her to get where he wanted to go.

    A few months into his presidential campaign, at a Democratic state convention in Florida, Bill and Hillary Clinton first heard someone utter a slogan about the Clinton candidacy: "Buy one and get one free." Elect Bill and you get Hillary, it meant -- two presidents. Did that provoke any discussions between the Clintons about what role she might play in the White House? "No, not at all," she said during the recent interview, laughing. She "thought it was funny. ... People started introducing me that way and stuff. It was just viewed as a humorous twist."

    The joke disappeared when polls started showing public unease about her apparent status as an unelected coequal, but that did not provoke a reconsideration of the relationship. In private meetings, she still came across as the political partner. One day during the campaign she went up to Capitol Hill and met with 12 chief aides to senators, trying to sell her husband's candidacy to a skeptical congressional audience. Neel, who was there representing Tennessee Sen. Al Gore, recalled that he was stunned by her performance, unlike anything he had ever before seen. "She didn't talk like a typical political wife and she didn't even talk like a campaign manager, schmoozing with inside stuff," he said. "She talked like an extremely competent candidate."

    But by her account, she and her husband, who talk constantly about politics and policy, did not discuss what role she would play in the White House until after the election. And then, she said, their conversation began with Clinton asking her to head the health care task force. "I mean, we always knew that I would do something that he decided to ask me to do," she explained. "Because that's what I had done during the years we were in Arkansas." It had worked in Arkansas, they thought, so of course it would work in Washington.

    According to members of the First Lady's staff, there was never any discussion of the risks involved in having her lead what was considered the make-or-break issue of President Clinton's tenure. No one broached the notion that placing her in charge might make it harder for those who disagreed with her position to get an equal hearing, or for Clinton himself, in case the effort failed, to distance himself from it. "We just went to work on it," said Maggie Williams. They believed, Williams said, that they would be judged by the merits of their work.

    Their critics maintain that Hillary Clinton and her staff carried out their mission with a conviction that bordered on self-righteousness, if not hubris, and despite the fact that they held public meetings all over the nation and read thousands of letters from citizens, they put together a plan that seemed out of touch not only with public sentiment, but with what could be sold even to Democrats in Congress.

    By most postmortems, the health care debacle was a significant factor in the Democratic defeat last November, as some voters blamed even those many Democratic members of Congress who did not support the president's plan.

    Did she feel she had let her husband down? "No," she said. "I could have done things differently and in retrospect would have done things differently, but the fundamental goal was a worthy goal. There is absolutely nothing to apologize for."

    But she does acknowledge some blunders, primarily those of political style rather than substance. One, she said, was placing too much faith in the Arkansas experience, drawn from a different place and time. "It's natural, if you've not had a lot of experience in Washington ... to try to translate into the White House what had worked for you wherever you came from. And I think some of the translations are more easily made than others. And I think the lessons that we might have learned in education were applicable only up to a point." The Arkansas focus was more on policy than politics, or at least the two were largely one and the same. In Washington, she said, they vastly underestimated the political dimension.

    She is not alone in that assessment. From across the ideological divide, conservative strategist Paul Weyrich said he previously had considered the First Lady more politically astute than she turned out to be. "I thought she really had a larger sense," Weyrich said. "But she came from essentially a one-party state and became involved in getting things done a certain way. In Arkansas, they didn't have an independent legislature that was able to calculate from the other side. All those years in Arkansas gave her a skewed view."

    During her lunch with the gossip columnists, in a comment reported only by the New York Times and considered off the record by the First Lady and the others present, she had disparaged herself as being politically "dumb." Two days later, she was less eager to partake in self-criticism. There were so many lessons from the health care defeat, she said, that she "couldn't even unpack all of them."

    Finding Her Way Out

    Bill and Hillary Clinton soak up books on past presidents and First Ladies. Last summer and fall, they read "No Ordinary Time -- Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II," Doris Kearns Goodwin's account of the Roosevelts in the White House during World War II. Hillary Clinton began reading it, then her husband swiped her copy, and she decided to let him keep it because she liked to read books after he had underlined passages, as he always does. In Goodwin's book there is a description of how Eleanor fell into a depression after the one government assignment she undertook for her husband had proved calamitous. FDR had made her deputy director of civil defense, but she constantly fought with the director, New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia of New York, and was criticized in the press for using civil defense funds on such enterprises as dancing. She resigned after six months and never took a government job again.

    When she was depressed, Eleanor Roosevelt would get in what she called "Griselda moods," according to Goodwin, "moods where she couldn't force herself to have a happy exterior." Few people saw these moods. She would stay upstairs sometimes until 9:30, reluctant to come down for breakfast. She did not want to talk.

    Did Hillary Clinton ever feel like that? A longtime associate of the Clintons found her in a depressed mood one night in late November. She and her husband were just beginning their search for ideas about how they might renew themselves and recover from the congressional defeats that were viewed as a direct repudiation of the Clinton presidency. Hillary Clinton came to this strategy session in a bitter mood, the associate said, bedraggled and surly. Her confidence seemed shot. He concluded that there had been a noticeable shift in her relationship with her husband. For years, Bill Clinton had treated his wife as though she could do little wrong. When he was in trouble, he would turn to her to get him out of it. He placed implicit faith in her judgments.

    Now her judgment was a source of public dispute. She had maintained the family finances, and now her family finances were at the heart of the Whitewater investigation. She had been a partner at the Rose Law Firm in Little Rock and helped bring three other partners to Washington, only to see one, Vincent Foster, commit suicide, and another, Webster L. Hubbell, get indicted on charges of double-billing his clients and the firm. The third, William H. Kennedy III, was officially reprimanded in the travel office matter. He resigned his position as associate White House counsel in November. And she had led the health care fight, only to see its failure later described as a major factor in the electoral rout of the Democratic party.

    When the longtime adviser met with the Clintons in the White House after that debacle, it seemed to him that Hillary Clinton had lost some of her power, that she viewed herself as less essential in the partnership with her husband. He offered some advice about programs and causes that she might take on to recover some of her standing. She was scornful at first, he said, saying that people were telling her to do little things and that what she was interested in was "systemic change." But she began listening, to this adviser and others. And within weeks she had regained her optimism.

    It was not just health care and the election that had made her first two years in the White House what Hillary Clinton called "the best of times and the worst of times." Even before that, for the first year and a half, as reports and rumors seeped out that she was a harridan, yelling and throwing things at subordinates as well as at her husband and his aides, she would often think to herself, "What's going on here? Why are some of these people slandering me or my husband on a daily basis? Why is all this stuff happening? And then the personal losses: my father, Vince Foster, my mother-in-law. It takes a toll on you."

    But she read something late last year, she said, that she found helped her whenever she got down. It was from the theological writings of Henri Nouwen, about the parable of the prodigal son.

    "And in that, as he talks about the parable from the perspective of the father, the prodigal son and the good son, who had to feel left out, when the father took back the boy who had squandered his birthright, you read through that and there's a passage that just struck me," Hillary Clinton said. "And the phrase is, 'the discipline of gratitude.' ... I don't mean to sound out of touch, but there's so much that goes on in my life on a daily basis that I'm grateful for despite everything else that's going on. And then to think about gratitude as a discipline, so that every day gives you an opportunity to practice that gratitude, is very important to me. So there are days when I'm more chipper than others, but there isn't a day when I'm not trying at least to remember and be grateful for all that I have."

    It is typical of Hillary Clinton that even in her gratitude there would be a discipline.

    The Future

    To the First Lady's staff, any talk of how she has receded from the public fray since the health care defeat is preposterous. Hillary Clinton, said Melanne Verveer, her deputy chief of staff, is "constitutionally incapable of being inactive." She has spent the last two months shaping her course for the next two years, her aides say. The new course she has begun appears, so far at least, to be a more traditional one.

    She intends, Hillary Clinton said, to pursue her long-standing interests in women, children and health in another realm, concentrating less on legislation and more on the bully pulpit, hoping that she can be defined by what she talks about. She plans to write more articles like one she penned for Newsweek recently regarding orphanages and the treatment of children in the welfare debate. She intends to get on as many radio talk shows as possible, "shows where people are willing to talk instead of yell."

    Her first mission, starting this week in New York, she said, is to take a discouraging fact she gleaned from her study of health care and try to use it to improve the lives of elderly women. She discovered last year, she said, that fewer than 30 percent of women over 65 are taking advantage of a Medicare benefit that allows them to get coverage for mammogram screenings. She intends to hold meetings with elderly women around the country to educate them on the issue, which she considers "a definable problem that government can address effectively."

    The need for effective government assistance, rather than no government assistance, is the ideological battleground on which she wants to engage the new Republican leaders in Congress. On welfare reform, for instance, she argues that the Republican notion of cutting off payments to unwed teenage mothers unless they live with their families is counterproductive and ignores the possibility that they often are fleeing inadequate homes in the first place. She said she already has spoken briefly with House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) about this. She said she also told Gingrich she appreciates the fact that the conservatives seem eager to debate important issues on their merits.

    She wants to be in the middle of the debate, making her case. When Maggie Williams, her chief of staff, is asked about her boss's future intentions, she replies, "She's a litigator. Every day she gets up and goes to court. When she loses, she files an appeal."

    © Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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