First Lady Hillary Clinton heading the president's health care reform efforts. (PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)

Editor’s note: This story was originally published February 5, 1993.

As she swept by white marble busts of white men, passed under the vaulted ceilings and through the ponderous atmosphere of the U.S. Capitol yesterday, Hillary Rodham Clinton made history. A black purse full of notes slung over her shoulder, followed by a small entourage of White House policy advisers, the First Lady arrived on Capitol Hill not as a ceremonial figurine, but as a working woman with a serious agenda: reforming health care.

And indeed, there she was -- coolly emerging in her black suit from a closed-door meeting in a Senate chamber with all the guys. Sitting at a conference table in the LBJ Room with 25 Democratic senators who offered her, one by one, their humble ideas for fixing health care and their assertions of how much they needed somebody to bring them together. Reporters and photographers outside struggling five-deep for access while one TV camera hit Sen. Thomas Daschle from South Dakota in the back during a meeting. Mrs. Clinton floating up to the bank of microphones next to Sen. George Mitchell and speaking with grace and gravity. Somehow, showing no need to nod and smile like so many First Ladies before her. After the cookies and the headband, the swearing-in coat and ball gown, the flap over her supposed name change, and all the other icons that have preceded her, she looked like she’d found her role.

It was the culmination of a remarkable seven days in the Hillary Clinton story during which she has displayed a versatility unmatched by all but the average working mother. It was a week in which she helped Chelsea with her homework, appeared on the front page of the New York Times bending over the Reagan china in a long black dress like a Martha Stewart cover girl, and yesterday, this: bringing the president’s task force on health care reform to Capitol Hill {see related story on Page A10}.

“The historic nature of the visit wasn’t beyond me,” said one White House aide in attendance. “I suppose that Lady Bird might have come up to ask for funding for flowers, but I don’t think there’s ever been anything like this.”

In the past, on rare occasions, First Ladies have traveled to the Hill on business, but none has carried a briefcase so heavy with problems. Rosalynn Carter testified in support of her bill to reform the mental health care system. Eleanor Roosevelt appeared before the House District Committee to point out the sorry state of D.C.’s government -- prompting Chairman Jennings Randolph to observe, “Mrs. Roosevelt, you are the first First Lady of the land to appear before a congressional committee.”

Hillary Rodham Clinton comes at a time when the Hill sits in a state of self-reformation -- everybody’s in a mood to fix everything from campaign funding to ethics -- and now the most nightmarish mess of all: health care. “Mrs. Clinton obviously had a very strong understanding of this complex issue, and left everybody with a good feeling,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). “This is the first time in my 19 years here that I think health care reform is going to happen.”

Into the microphones, without appearing to take a breath, she launched into what is becoming the prime topic of anxiety in America: “I think that people know there’s a problem. I mean, people who have been denied health insurance because of a pre-existing condition, who cannot change jobs because if they do they lose the insurance for their spouse and their child, people who are laid off and lose their benefits, ... the hundred thousand Americans a month who lose their health insurance, people who have to wait in long lines to immunize their children ...

“I think Americans know we have a problem, and it’s just going to take a lot of hard work by a lot of us working together to come up with a system that will represent the best solution to the problems that people already know exist out there.”

Mitchell has been toiling in health care for 10 years now -- last year he led an informal working group of Democratic senators who discussed the issue at great length -- but a consensus seemed beyond them.

And huge surprise! Consensus-building is supposed to be Clinton’s greatest working strength. Was that a sense of hope growing there on the Senate side of the Capitol, suddenly, for a moment, that these vague and mysterious but wondrous talents -- along with her obvious power with the White House -- could move the bureaucratic mountain? “This is part of an ongoing process of consultation, which we hope and expect will culminate in the historic enactment of comprehensive health care reform legislation in this year,” Mitchell said after the first meeting. “And I believe that when that happens, a major part of the credit will be due to the effort and the leadership of Mrs. Clinton.”

The afternoon on the Hill -- which included a meeting with Republican Sens. Robert Dole and John Chafee -- is “just one of many such visits,” said Melanne Verveer, the First Lady’s deputy chief of staff and policy adviser, who came with President’s Task Force on Health Care Reform members Judy Feder and Ira Magaziner and congressional liaison Chris Jennings.

“This was definitely more than a drop-by,” said Lisa Caputo, the First Lady’s press secretary. “This is Mrs. Clinton coming to the Hill and saying health care is a problem and health care is a priority for us.”

An overview of her past week might lend some insight into the complicated nature of Mrs. Clinton’s life -- and frankly, the nature of every working mother’s life however grand or modest. She accompanied her husband to Thurgood Marshall’s funeral last Thursday, oversaw the planning of her first official dinner with her social secretary, Ann Stock, on Friday, went to a weekend Cabinet meeting at Camp David on Saturday, attended the funeral of a close law school friend in Philadelphia and hosted a party for 130 guests including the nation’s governors and their spouses at the White House on Sunday, helped Chelsea with her homework on Monday, cheered her first soccer game at Sidwell Friends on Wednesday.

She blurs the lines. Mrs. Clinton has begun to break the traditional boundaries of both traditionalists and feminists, and the range of her daily activities -- from laughing about Socks to talking domestic policy -- has confused the country at times, and certainly the media.

She asks to be taken seriously, but there she was -- anyway -- granting her first post-inauguration interview to New York Times food writer Marian Burros -- the conditions of which were that she would answer only questions about her entertaining style. She stood for the photograph, as any First Lady of this century would, in an evening dress, bending over the red china and pink tulips. She talked about vegetables and the new no-smoking policy at the White House.

Cynical media manipulation?

Was a signal being sent?

Was she trying to say DON’T BE AFRAID OF ME, I’M NOT THAT TOUGH?

Explained Lisa Caputo: “Marian just asked for a food story months ago.”

Yesterday was another first. Hillary Clinton’s first public appearance as a policy maker.