Editor’s note: This story was originally published on February 8, 2000.
Whither the first lady?
Sunday belonged to "Hillary"--the candidate who can't sing but makes a mean tossed salad and is married to whatshizname. When Hillary Rodham Clinton formally announced her bid for the U.S. Senate, she made history as the only presiding first lady to seek elective office.
The politically correct response is to hail another precedent-shattering step for women, with only historians and sentimentalists pondering the inevitable changes in the Office of First Lady--that ceremonial, unpaid, wildly influential full-time job we confer on the president's wife. A position that comes with 211 years of history, expectations, glamour, baggage and a staff of 20 at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
But first, a bit of housekeeping: There's the next 11 months to get through and no clear picture of life at the White House with--for all intents and purposes--an absentee first lady.
"Obviously, I'll be a full-time candidate for Senate and will spend the bulk of my time in New York," Clinton says. "But I certainly will fulfill my duties here in Washington, whether it's following up on policy issues I've been involved in or hosting a state dinner."
After Clinton's formal announcement, when she was flanked by President Clinton, daughter Chelsea and mother Dorothy Rodham, the candidate launched a week-long statewide tour--undoubtedly with dozens more to come. Her White House staff expects her to return to Washington once a week but cannot predict precisely when the first lady will . . . well, be first lady.
"Planning for all this year's dinners and events here at the White House is proceeding as usual," says Toby Graff, Clinton's deputy press secretary. "The fact that there are not specific dates has nothing to do with her campaign schedule. It's just the normal process of planning at the White House."
Both the White House and Clinton's campaign have been vague about her schedule, which allows her to make last-minute changes to meet the demands of being a candidate. When she can slip away to Washington for an official first lady event, she will.
Clinton served as official hostess at six state and official dinners last year, and is expected to preside at several dinners this year--the first on Feb. 23 for King Juan Carlos of Spain, the White House says. (There are no plans, despite rumors to the contrary, for Chelsea to take her mother's place at the White House.) She also plans to be in Washington for the traditional White House Easter Egg Roll and for Christmas parties.
Clinton attended the State of the Union speech last month in the seat traditionally reserved for the wife of the president, and was at her husband's side last Thursday at the National Congressional Prayer Breakfast.
Last year, Graff says, the first lady attended approximately 10 to 15 White House events a month. But this year, her campaign will force her to miss or eliminate many of the cultural, charitable and social events in Washington--teas, lunches, award ceremonies.
The loss will be subtle but real for Washington: Last fall, Clinton hosted a tea in the first lady's sculpture garden to celebrate the Hirshhorn Museum's 25th anniversary. Artists, donors and museum officials mingled in the sunlit garden as waiters served tea and petits fours. The first lady spoke passionately about her commitment to the arts, praising the Hirshhorn's founder, its directors and the importance of modern art and artists.
Such teas will be rare this year. Instead, there'll be more phone meetings and videotaped appearances. A book on White House entertaining scheduled to be released last fall has been postponed a year.
It's easy to dismiss teas and cookie recipes, but harder to calculate the substantial role Clinton has played in national politics. Both the Gore campaign and the Democratic Party have expressed concern about the loss of her formidable fund-raising skills--she raised more than $50 million for congressional candidates in the past four years.
Her presence as unofficial ambassador is on hold, too. The first lady made five foreign trips last year; this year there are none on her schedule. But she does plan to be at conferences on women's and children's issues--which also happen to be part of her Senate bid: health insurance, family planning and school violence.
"I guess the bottom line is that she's worked too long and hard on issues she cares about over the last seven years to give up on them now," says Lissa Muscatine, the first lady's new press secretary. "Our challenge is to figure out how to best use her time when she is here."
Once again, Hillary Clinton has opened a Pandora's box.
Fans and foes will debate with equal fervor about women's choices, women's roles, what is gained, what is lost. Women will try--and fail--to put themselves in Clinton's place. In a national poll released by the Associated Press last month, only 51 percent had a favorable opinion of Hillary Clinton, but 75 percent felt it is "appropriate" for a first lady to run for political office.
But for some, that reserved, regal bearing that befits a first lady seems too highhanded for a politician. A polite ceremonial appearance in the Middle East turned into an international flap when Suha Arafat attacked Israelis, and Clinton--visiting in her role as first lady--said nothing.
Critics already have attacked her campaign for reimbursing the government for her plane travel at first-class commercial rates--not nearly enough, they say. There are charges that the first lady's White House staff (more than 20 full-time employees) will effectively be running her Senate campaign at taxpayer expense.
The political and ethical lines so blur that it becomes impossible to know where the first lady ends and the candidate begins. Last fall the Clintons hosted a White House reception for photographer Annie Leibovitz with Vogue magazine editor Anna Wintour and New York fashion moguls. The first lady served as head of the National Millennium Celebration on the Mall, which included a glittering New Year Eve's dinner and dancing for 1,000 at the White House. The guest list mixed Hollywood legends such as Elizabeth Taylor, Sophia Loren, Jack Nicholson and Robert De Niro with multimillionaire donors; the first lady's office closed the party to the news media with no explanation. Then there was the White House baby shower for social secretary Capricia Marshall. The 300 invitees included a number of generous Democratic donors bearing gifts, which raised more than one perfectly plucked eyebrow.
All this might have passed unmentioned if Hillary Clinton were simply a first lady entering her last year at the White House. But the Senate bid changes everything.
"It's so fascinating to me that the media response is to somehow define the role of first lady as hostess--and it isn't," says author Carl Sferrazza Anthony, an expert on presidential spouses. "As far as we think we've come, we still see the first lady the way our grandmothers did."
The fundamental question, he says, is what exactly is the "office" of first lady. "The reality is that each individual ultimately defines it for herself based on her professional background, personal interests, a vision for what she can do to improve American life, and the dynamics of her marriage," Anthony says.
Eleanor Roosevelt might be whispering in Clinton's ear again--or turning in her grave. In May 1945, Roosevelt was asked to run for the Senate in New York but declined because she believed elective office would diminish her ability to influence public opinion.
Or consider Cherie Blair, wife of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who announced last month that she will co-found a law firm specializing in human rights and public law. The news raised few eyebrows, but the London press is far more interested in the 45-year-old mother of three's announcement that she is expecting a "surprise" baby Blair in May. First Mum. First Senator. First Ladies. Tricky business, all this.
"Nobody--no historian, no reporter, no political spouse or political candidate--can accurately predict what's going to happen," Anthony says. "This is unprecedented, and it will be an unfolding story."