Why is Hillary Rodham Clinton America's "First Lady of Paradox"?

Take a look at the First Lady's biography and a selection of her speeches.

Examine detailed information about all the first ladies in history.


Go to The Print Edition Supplement

Go to Inauguration '97

Go to Home Page

First Lady Remains Vital Force in White House

By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 20, 1997; Page S16

Hillary Clinton sees herself as "a catalyst for the constructive exchange of ideas and the creation of positive solutions," but the national health care plan she advocated drew some of the harshest criticism of her role as first lady. Michael Williamson, The Washington Post.
On an unseasonably warm October day, Hillary Rodham Clinton took a break from the campaign, put on shorts and went for a walk with a couple of old friends. Strolling through Georgetown, she abruptly stopped and, without explanation, led her pals around to the back of a nearby building.

"I was right," she exclaimed. "This is my doctor's office. I only recognize it from the back."

When you're first lady, thanks to the Secret Service, you wind up entering a lot of buildings from the rear and, thanks to all sorts of factors, your view of the world is inevitably a little skewed. Backs of buildings look like fronts. Bad politics may look like good policy or is it the other way around? But as she looks ahead to a second term after four turbulent years as the nation's most visible spouse, friends say Hillary Clinton now recognizes there is more than one side to a multi-faceted role she has struggled to master.

When she moved into the White House in 1993, she brought the outlook of the corporate attorney she had been in Little Rock. Achieving goals must mean legislation, policy, programs, tangible things she could get her hands on. And the way to go after them was in hard-charging, trial lawyer fashion.

She arrives at this second Inauguration Day, associates say, with a fuller understanding of the job, an appreciation of its nuances, contours and, yes, limitations. It doesn't always require signed bills to make a difference, she has discovered. The power of her voice, her ability to focus attention on a favorite issue, are enough to redefine the debate.

"It's taken her a long time to understand that symbolism, the symbol of a first lady taking on causes, is highly efficacious, that there is value just in that symbolism, there is value in voice, there is value in advocacy, there is value in putting a spotlight on it," said one adviser. "That's sort of the understanding that has come slowly."

"She sort of resisted symbolism, for very good reasons," said another. "I mean, her idea was, 'What good is a symbol? You're not getting anything done.' . . . She now appreciates that you can sort of combine the two."

Liberal Voice Among Centrists
Whether this represents a natural maturation on the job or diminished expectations after a humbling first term, Hillary Clinton by no means has surrendered her position as a vital force in the White House. While not the "co-president" her critics feared, she remains actively engaged in policy matters, as evidenced by her attendance at the recent day-long Cabinet retreat, and has laid down markers for second-term legislative goals in areas such as health care, adoption and the District's financial crisis.

Still, her public comments in the months since her husband's reelection have provided an occasional window into her evolving vision of her role in public life.

"One of the opportunities I have is to bring public attention to what is working in America and around the world and to be a catalyst for the constructive exchange of ideas and the creation of positive solutions," she said in a written statement to The Washington Post describing her thoughts during this transition period.

She will, by the process of elimination, serve as virtually the only strong liberal voice left in an administration that's gone through a centrist makeover. Her aspirations for the next four years continue to be centered on children's and women's issues, according to her aides, and carried out along the lines of three first-term successes.

The publication of her best-selling book, "It Takes a Village," even though it was derided as a near-socialist treatise by her harsher foes, has inspired her to want to write more. Her trips abroad, and particularly her widely praised human rights speech in Beijing, have sparked a desire for a busy second-term travel schedule. And her relatively quiet work on "Gulf War Syndrome" illnesses promises to be a model for future, generally low-key advocacy on issues important to her, with welfare reform at the top of the list.

"I intend to speak out about it, write about it and if there's a formal role that would make sense in terms of reporting to the president kind of like I did on the Gulf War disease, go out and listen to people and write him some memoranda," she told Time magazine after the election.

Influential Predecessors
White House watchers have focused frequently on first lady
Hillary Rodham Clinton.
James M. Thresher, The Washington Post.
For all of the talk about Hillary Clinton as a pioneering, transitional figure for women, she is hardly the first presidential spouse to play a dominant role in her husband's administration, nor is it likely that hers has been the most significant.

The involvement of first ladies, and the controversy that inevitably follows, can be traced nearly to the dawn of the Republic. Abigail Adams, the second woman to occupy the position, was consulted on virtually every presidential action and was derisively dubbed "Mrs. President" as a result. Nellie Taft crafted William Howard Taft's speeches, vetoed his personnel choices and attended his Cabinet meetings; even her husband called her "the real president." Edith Wilson essentially ran what was called a "petticoat government" for months while Woodrow Wilson was incapacitated by a stroke.

Hillary Clinton is "a variation on the same theme," said Sheila Tate. Tate worked for Nancy Reagan, whose influence was so great that she was considered responsible, among other things, for firing White House Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan. "Any time a first lady too visibly usurps or is given the latitude to involve herself too visibly in the work the American people assign to the president, they balk. It doesn't have anything to do with gender. It doesn't have to do with partisanship."

Nonetheless, Hillary Clinton approaches this next term after four years as trying as any of her predecessors experienced, from the collapse of her historic health care plan to the mess of the White House travel office affair. Persistent investigations into her finances and actions make her the first presidential spouse to enter a second term faced with potential indictment. Personal tragedies, including the deaths of her father, mother-in-law and her friend, Vincent Foster, have compounded the moments of misery.

Circle of Friends
Hillary Clinton will make history as
the first presidential spouse
shadowed by possible indictment.
Mary Lou Foy, The Washington Post.
Even after all this time, she is still routinely the butt of late-night humor, the mere mention of her name enough for a laugh-generating punch line. On a single, rather typical night earlier this month, for example, she came up several times in monologues by both CBS's David Letterman and NBC's Jay Leno.

Letterman: "You know what happened to Hillary yesterday? Hillary received a Grammy nomination. . .. I think that's strange because I thought she had destroyed all her records."

Leno: The Star tabloid says "Hillary Clinton has had cosmetic surgery done. Boy, she'll do anything to avoid being served a subpoena."

She survives, in large part, thanks to the support of a wide circle of friends who keep her grounded, including a group of 75 childhood chums in town from Illinois this week to help celebrate the inauguration.

"It's been tough, really tough. Rougher than any of us would have anticipated," said Lynn Cutler, a friend and former vice chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee.

"There are days she likes doing it because she can get things done and there are days that are pretty bleak and there are days that are pretty isolated too," said Betsy Johnson Ebeling, a friend from grade school in Illinois who remains one of the first lady's closest confidantes.

As a result, perhaps, her distrust of the Washington establishment, and the news media in particular, is palpable. Six weeks of requests for an interview for this article yielded only a four-paragraph written statement outlining her second-term goals in the broadest of terms.

Idolized by Staff
Hillary Clinton with her
daughter Chelsea, in Bangladesh.
File Photo by Win McNamee, Reuter.
The enigma of Hillary Clinton remains in the dichotomy of her persona. She can be as engaging at public events as her gregarious husband. She can be a commanding speaker, one who can even hold the rapt attention of normally fidgety eighth-graders in a Fairfax County school for an hour, which is no small feat.

Friends describe a warm, generous and funny woman in private, one who takes her aides' children to theatrical productions and dances the Macarena with her buddies in a Little Rock hotel suite while waiting for Election Night returns. Her staff's admiration and devotion to her is so deep it borders on idolatry, to the point that one aide compares the response to the first lady's overseas trips to "the second coming of Christ."

But in the public mind, she is often seen as cold, guarded and supremely certain that hers is the right and only view. Friends insist that side of her is the defensive crouch of a woman who feels misunderstood.

"I would love for the world to be able to see the very frisky side of her that I know," said Diane Blair, a friend since 1974 and a political science professor at the University of Arkansas. "She's got a devilish sense of humor. I would like that fun side of her to be more evident."

Perhaps it will be, Blair said. "I just have a sense that she's rethinking herself now. And how to best manifest that."

The first lady seemed to be musing on that subject aloud shortly after the election, when she was conducting a question-and-answer session during a visit to Australia and opened up in a way that she had not during much of the campaign and has not since.

The first lady comforts the president as he leaves for his mother's funeral in 1994. Margaret Thomas, The Washington Post.
"In our country, we expect so much from the woman who is married to the president, but we don't really know what it is we expect," she told her audience. "There is something about the position itself which raises in Americans' minds concerns about hidden power, about influence behind the scenes, about unaccountability. Yet if you try to be public about your concerns and your interests, then that is equally criticized. I think the answer is to just be who you are and do what you can do and get through it and wait for a first man to hold the position."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

Back to the top