THE WAY the presidential campaign is shaping up, we may be in for our first battle of the couples.
It won't be just George vs. Bill; it's going to be the Bushes against the Clintons, and Katie-bar-the-door.
George Bush and Bill Clinton have both established themselves as candidates who will do just about anything to win. Their wives, in different ways, are pretty much the same.
Barbara Bush showed in 1984 that if cattiness is called for, she's ready. She said Geraldine Ferraro reminded her of something that rhymes with "rich." She recovered from this show of claws. She is universally revered as a lady who looks and acts like everyone's dream of a grandmother, and also everyone's idea of a first lady.
She is, in fact, the most popular public figure in the country. In a season when other political personages, including her husband, have hit the skids in public esteem, her approval stands at a shining 75 percent. In tribute to her exceptional hold on the electorate, the New Yorker ran a cartoon recently showing the White House wrapped with a banner that said, "Keep Barbara Bush in the White House." She may be the president's best hope of re-election.
Hillary Clinton is new to the national scene. She has made a stunning impression, both good and bad. The country met her at the supremely awkward moment of her "60 Minutes" appearance right after Gennifer Flowers burst all over the New Hampshire primary. Here was this good-looking woman with dark blue eyes and dark eyebrows and lashes insisting, in the most forceful way, that she loves her husband and that the state of their union is good.
She was so forceful that Richard Nixon, always ready to stick his oar in, warned that she might make her husband "look like a wimp." Voters seem more concerned that she might make her husband look like a co-president, an idea whose time may not have come.
Barbara Bush says that she leaves the government "to my husband and other people who are elected to office." Hillary Clinton does not. She is not just a corporate lawyer, a children's advocate (until recently chairman of the board of the Children's Defense Fund) and a teacher of law. She is as committed a policy freak as her husband, and she can discourse just as fluently about the country and its needs for 35 minutes without a note or a pause for breath. Barbara Bush seems to glory in being the wife of a prominent man. Hillary Clinton fights being identified as "wife of." In the New Hampshire primary, while other candidates' spouses -- Ruth Harkin and Niki Tsongas, both of them also lawyers, by the way -- made numerous joint appearances, Hillary Clinton firmly declined to join in.
Ruth Harkin told interviewers she shares her husband's life, not his job; Niki Tsongas, a gentle soul, did not need to reassure anyone that she would not put an equal hand on the rudder of the ship of state.
Some of her feminist sisters find an idol in Hillary Clinton. The traditionalists, some men among them, have had a problem since she made her famous remark -- "I could have stayed home and baked cookies." Housewives felt insulted and dismissed, even though it was fairly easy to see that she wasn't putting them down but defending her own choice.
The case against the Clintons was put by an unhappy primary voter, who said on the sidewalks of New York outside his polling place, "I think he's a liar and I think she makes Nancy Reagan look like Snow White."
Nancy Reagan has probably contributed, involuntarily, to Barbara Bush's runaway approval rating. Americans suspected that Nancy Reagan and her astrologer were manipulating the president. Her volunteer work against drugs was something no contemporary without an armed guard -- she had one in the Secret Service -- could have expected to do. Anyone can emulate Barbara Bush. She reads stories to children who don't get read to; she fights illiteracy.
Hillary Clinton teaches law school classes along the campaign trail. She was a star graduate of the Yale Law School. Barbara Bush dropped out of college to marry George Bush. When it was pelting cookies on Hillary Clinton, Barbara Bush graciously came to her aid, stating what Hillary Clinton had meant to say -- that women should have "the chance to do that which they choose to do."
Hillary Clinton, who is so brainy and so political, may have made a more serious misstep when she indirectly took on Barbara Bush. In a Vanity Fair interview, which she unaccountably called "a private conversation," she complained about a double standard in the press. She said of Barbara Bush's husband, "I understand he has a Jennifer too."
What this said is that if the campaign gets nasty on the Bush side, a Clinton is ready to fire back. Notice has been served in the War of the Couples, as this could turn out to be, that Hillary and Bill are no Kitty and Michael revisited. It's going to be take-no-prisoners time.
Mary McGrory is a Washington Post columnist.