Public's View of Hillary Clinton Splits Along Age, Gender Lines

Recent polls signal a growing concern that the first lady has too much influence

IN a discussion of Whitewater last week at Georgetown University, opinions broke along gender lines, with many young women upset that men in their class were so ready to condemn Hillary Rodham Clinton.

``These are Generation X women,'' says the professor, Diana Owen, using a phrase that describes post-baby boomers and their often pessimistic outlook. ``They don't have too many role models, and they don't see much of a role for themselves.''

At Georgetown's law school, student Kara Andersen expresses how disappointed she'd be if Mrs. Clinton turns out to have made significant mistakes. While succeeding in the man's world of corporate law, Mrs. Clinton also made a mark working for causes associated with women, like the Children's Defense Fund. ``To me, it means I can do those things,'' says Ms. Andersen.

The Whitewater troubles that have beset the Clintons have focused especially on Mrs. Clinton, who handled family finances and served as attorney for the failed Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan.

Her perils threaten disappointment, especially for young women who see her as a role model.

The regard the public holds for her shows a striking gender gap. In a Gallup Poll released Wednesday, 64 percent of women surveyed said they viewed her favorably compared with 45 percent of men. Among women, Mrs. Clinton also evokes a striking age gap. Of young women, 72 percent see her favorably, compared with 52 percent of those over 60.

Slip in polls

Overall, public esteem for her has been high but has fallen a bit and become more polarized since last fall. Her approval rating has dropped from 62 percent in September to 55 percent last week, notes Gallup. Notably, negative views are now held by 40 percent, up from 27 percent last fall.

But the striking shift is in the tone of her press coverage. As she launched the health-care plan last year, she was portrayed in a very positive way - ``Saint Hillary'' in a New York Times Magazine headline not altogether ironic. She's now mentioned mostly in connection to Whitewater and related potential scandals.

She still fares better than her husband in polls, but she could become a political liability should damaging evidence turn up in Whitewater. Already, two friends and allies are no longer in the administration, and a third is in trouble. Deputy White House counsel Vincent Foster, an apparent suicide last summer, was her former law partner. White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum, who resigned recently over his handling of Whitewater inquiries, was her mentor 20 years ago when she worked for the House committee investigating Watergate. Another assistant in the White House counsel's office, William Kennedy, is also a former law partner. His duties were curtailed last week after he said he'd only recently paid taxes on a nanny.

As in much of the Whitewater business, it isn't clear what these staff problems mean. But these controversies are swirling around Mrs. Clinton.

The tax returns the Clintons released last week from 1977 to 1979 confirm one aspect of her biography that has recently come to light: She made more than $100,000 in one year, doubling the family earnings, by speculating in commodities with the help of an Arkansas friend.

The investment was not illegal, but it does show she was no purist uninterested in the gambling-type speculation that came to caricature the 1980s.

Some of the Whitewater controversy grows out of the pioneering nature of the Clinton's Arkansas careers. Mrs. Clinton was one of the most prominent lawyers in a state where her husband was governor. When she and her law firm represented banks before state regulators appointed by her husband was there a conflict of interest?

The answer depends partly on how one views the marriage connection. Many states prohibit state legislators from representing clients before state agencies because of the power a legislator has over agency budgets and appointments. What about a governor's wife? Neither the law nor legal ethics have settled these relatively new questions.

White House role

Mrs. Clinton's role in the White House is more unprecedented. Rosalynn Carter attended Cabinet meetings and was an active adviser to her husband, President Carter, but only in a private and general way. Mrs. Clinton has taken on specific policy duties at the heart of the administration's agenda.

This is not a settled role either. Last spring, in court, the administration argued that she was effectively White House staff, therefore not subject to rules governing outside advisers. Yet, she is not subject to rules governing White House staff either.

Many young women say that she should bear responsibility for any mistakes made concerning Whitewater, yet they say she is under unfair scrutiny because people are uncomfortable with her role as a smart and powerful woman.

Polls indicate a majority are. In recent months, the share of people who say she has too much influence has grown to 53 percent, according to Gallup.

``It's symbolic of what happens to a lot of us,'' says Amy Spencer, a Georgetown law school student.

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