Mrs. Clinton's Role

As first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton takes the podium tonight at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, her role in the administration is far different than she and others thought it would be four years ago. Then, there was brave talk about "co-presidents." Mrs. Clinton expected, as did others, that she would play a key and visible policymaking role in her husband's administration.

It certainly started out that way. Accompanied by a wave of favorable, sometimes adulatory, press coverage, Mrs. Clinton took the helm of the presidential commission to reform health care, a sector that is one-seventh of the US economy. Almost immediately she ran into trouble for holding the commission's meetings in secret. When she unveiled the new plan, it was so complex and called for a health-care bureaucracy so huge and controlling that both Congress and the public balked.

Mrs. Clinton and the administration miscalculated on several counts. First, they forgot that President Clinton won with only 43 percent of the popular vote, meaning he didn't have a mandate big enough to support such vast change. Second, while the public was worried about health-insurance coverage and the ability to take insurance from one job to another, it was not interested in a huge new government program. Third, the voters did not elect Mrs. Clinton to anything, and many began to resent her influence and power. Within a couple of years, her poll ratings were in the cellar.

These miscalculations were among the worst of the last four years, matched only by those of Newt Gingrich and the House Republicans, who seemed to forget that their victory in 1994 did not take away the president's veto and who found to their chagrin that the president was not about to roll over and play dead.

Mrs. Clinton's image has also, unfortunately, been tarnished by her links to the various scandals that have come to be known as Whitewater. It was Mrs. Clinton's staff who allegedly took files from Vincent Foster's office the night he committed suicide. It was her Rose Law Firm billing records for Whitewater Development Corp. that went missing for two years, only to turn up in a part of the White House only a few people, including her, had access to. It is her statements under oath that have been called into question.

So the first lady and her advisers have tried to regain the high ground and limit the damage to her husband's presidency by focusing on issues that are more traditional for a first lady, but that she has long championed - children and family. Mrs. Clinton wrote a book, "It Takes a Village," that asks many important questions about the plight of children today. She has been quoted as saying that she wishes she and her husband could have another child. Her speech will reportedly focus on the same issues, in an attempt to negate the Republicans' claim to be the party of "family values."

The Clintons have paid a high price for their four years in the White House. Legal bills mount, a close friend has died by his own hand, and other friends are in jail or under legal siege. In some ways, Mrs. Clinton has come under even worse pressure than the president. She has been unnecessarily vilified by some of the Clintons' political enemies. A deeply religious woman, her attempts to seek spiritual shelter from these pressures have met with unseemly ridicule. One need not agree with the Clintons' politics to view their situation with compassion.

As she mounts the podium, Mrs. Clinton remains an intelligent and admired woman, a role model for girls, an influential adviser, and a spokeswoman on significant social issues. While her role in this campaign may be more carefully choreographed than the last time, she will doubtless have much to contribute.

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