Hillary Clinton Takes a Page From Eleanor Roosevelt Book
THE historical analogy is growing ever closer.Skip to next paragraph
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Like former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Hillary Rodham Clinton will soon write a regular newspaper column, aimed at presenting an unfiltered view of herself to the public.
Like Roosevelt, who wrote 12 books and co-wrote six others, Mrs. Clinton has also written a book to be published this fall, titled ''It Takes a Village and Other Lessons Children Teach Us.''
Also like Roosevelt, Hillary Clinton held an official position in her husband's administration; both came under fire for their roles and left their overt public policymaking positions. On a more fundamental level, both have functioned as eyes and ears for their husbands and as emissaries to important Democratic constituencies.
But as much as the historical reputation of Eleanor Roosevelt is largely positive, Hillary Clinton can't seem to win that part of the analogy. In her 2-1/2 years as one of the most powerful unelected people in the democratic world, her favorability rating has crept steadily downward - from a Gallup Poll high of 67 percent in January 1993 to 49 percent as of March 1995.
Does any of this really matter? Allan Lichtman, an American University historian with a system for predicting presidential races, says first ladies are ''irrelevant'' to their husbands' reelection chances, even when they have played important policy roles.
Rather, the fascination with first ladies derives from their unique access to the most powerful person in the world, in addition to their status as role models for women.
Is Hillary Clinton really running her husband from behind the throne? Or has she been ''put in her place'' and told to stick with the ''safe issues'' such as women and children? In Washington, Hillary-gazing is a never-ending parlor game. And the Hillary-as-Eleanor theme is a constant component.
Clinton herself has encouraged the analogy by referring often to Roosevelt and her legacy.
''Everywhere I go, I find Eleanor has been there,'' Clinton said recently in announcing her plan to write a weekly column.
''There are pictures of Eleanor visiting the Children's Welfare Society as I walk through the hallways. There are columns attacking Eleanor for things I'm attacked for. Nothing is original when it comes to this position because of the extraordinary woman that she was.''
Since before Clinton became first lady, she has had a running dialogue with historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book on the Roosevelts, ''No Ordinary Time.'' They have talked about Roosevelt's writings, her press conferences, and her activism, Ms. Goodwin says.
Roosevelt also faced negatives.
''Eleanor was always fighting rumors,'' such as that black maids in the South were organizing against their bosses in so-called ''Eleanor Clubs'' after visits by Roosevelt, Goodwin says. Roosevelt was so troubled that she asked the FBI to investigate whether any Eleanor Clubs actually existed; they did not.
''People would make snide comments about Franklin Roosevelt regarding his wife, such as 'Do you have lace on your pants?' '' Goodwin says. Still, she adds, by Roosevelt's third term, even people who disagreed with his wife's views tended to admire her indefatigable spirit.
''Anger toward Hillary seems somewhat unfocused and larger than it was against Eleanor Roosevelt,'' Goodwin adds. ''It may be that because Eleanor was so far ahead of her time, she wasn't seen as a threat.''
It is noteworthy that 50 years have elapsed since a first lady has come close to matching Eleanor Roosevelt for her public profile. Since the Roosevelt years, first ladies have generally had high popularity ratings and kept relatively quiet in public on policy matters.
James Rosebush, chief of staff to Nancy Reagan, a first lady who did have image problems, says Clinton's plan to write a weekly column is ''a very good idea, very astute politically.''
''It's a way for her to present her ideas unedited,'' Mr. Rosebush says. ''Since it has not been done by a first lady in a long time, there will be a lot of curiosity readers.''
CLINTON will write the first draft of the column herself, then will be aided by a researcher at Creators Syndicate, the column's distributor, says a White House official. The column will debut July 23, five days after the Senate begins hearings on the Clintons' role in the murky Whitewater real estate deal.
Clinton could discover a flip side to putting thoughts on paper: She could be providing more ammunition to the Hillary-bashers, such as radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, who have been laying off her of late.
''If she advocates a Marxist philosophy of collective child-rearing [in her book], she'll resurrect herself as a target,'' says another Hillary foe, Floyd Brown.
But as long as Hillary-bashing remains a matter of preaching to the conservative choir, the White House may not care. More important to President Clinton's reelection chances could be Mrs. Clinton's ability to energize the Democratic-leaning voters - especially the women - who stayed home for the 1994 elections.