For Hillary Clinton, Listening in Public Is a Political Fine Art
HEALTH CARE TASK FORCE
WASHINGTON — THE work of the Task Force on National Health Care Reform run by Hillary Rodham Clinton is set to go public Monday, bringing what has been an almost invisible network of nearly 500 people performing volunteer staff work out from the shadows.
Its first meeting will be a 12-hour marathon session here, exactly five weeks before the group plans to issue its blueprint for what is likely to be the most far-reaching government intervention in the economy in decades.
The task force has moved from collecting and vetting new ideas into a phase for narrowing and refining its options. But it may not reveal much Monday.
The session will take the form of a hearing. Health care interest groups, excluded from task force staff work, have each been given a question to answer. Hospital representatives will be asked, for example, why patients are charged $35 for a towel. (American Medical Association develops response, Page 2.)
So far, the public diplomacy of the task force has fallen on Mrs. Clinton herself. She has made a steady series of visits with members of Congress, always making a good impression, mostly by just listening. Today she was scheduled to make her seventh appearance in health care-related public events and forums around the country.
(Mrs. Clinton's appearance today and at Monday's meeting depends on whether she has returned from her unplanned stay with her father, who is hospitalized in Arkansas.)
While Mrs. Clinton has obviously never taken on a task as imposing as this one, she has made her professional reputation on this sort of public problem-solving.
The closest parallel in her career was when her husband installed her as head of an Arkansas commission on educational standards in 1983. The 16 members of the commission developed a controversial set of proposals that included mandatory teacher testing. She went around the state and sold the public and the legislature on the plan. The meeting Monday may be the beginning of taking the health-care process public in a similar way.
Following the work in Arkansas' education system, Mrs. Clinton served from 1987 through 1991 as the original head of a new American Bar Association (ABA) Commission on Women in the Profession. That commission as well went into the field to hold hearings to help define the problems.
Her mode of operation in meetings was to listen to others extensively, says Elaine Weiss, who was staff director of the commission. "You may think, gosh, where's this going?," she says. But then Mrs. Clinton would step in and summarize a two-hour meeting, finding common ground the group had not seen, making clear that she understood and valued even views she did not agree with, and then make her own views clear.
"She's brilliant at achieving consensus when there may not appear to be consensus at the beginning of a project," Ms. Weiss says.
But Mrs. Clinton also has a reputation for being more straightforward, more candid, with her views than President Clinton, who has a bottomless well of patience for hearing more. Perhaps for the same reason, she is more punctual and organized than he is.
"She is very analytical in the sense of being able to go right to the heart of the matter," says Elizabeth Ozenbaugh, deputy attorney general of Iowa and a friend from the 1970s when both were young faculty members at the University of Arkansas law school.
Another colleague then, Prof. Ray Guzman, who still teaches there, recalls Mrs. Clinton clearly as an "extremely strong-willed, strong-minded faculty member."
"This is an extremely bright woman who can cut to the chase very quickly," Professor Guzman says.
Even then, Mrs. Clinton made an impression with the prodigious amount of work she could accomplish. Most assistant professors were trying to "stay one chapter ahead of their brightest students," Guzman says. Mrs. Clinton had a reputation as a good teacher, ran the legal clinic, performed community service, and wrote some law journal articles.
But a personal side was also part of Mrs. Clinton's style. Ms. Weiss, for example, remembers that Mrs. Clinton established an informal, enthusiastic atmosphere at the ABA commission, where people laughed a lot, even though their views were very different.