First Lady As Mirror For America

Before she ever set foot in the White House, Hillary Rodham Clinton made it clear she intended to write a new chapter in the history of America's first ladies.

And write it she has - in ways she probably never expected.

The remarkable trajectory of Mrs. Clinton's six years in Washington - from a "co-president" who pushed for health-care reform to a wronged woman standing faithfully by her man - continues to be history in the making.

Political analysts speculate that her husband's future may lie in her hands - that if she abandons him, so will the rest of the country. Publishers have floated word that her memoirs could bring a whopping $5 million. And even though some critics question her loyalty to her husband, the American people continue to find themselves drawn to her. Opinion polls are showing popularity ratings of nearly 60 percent - proving Clinton to be likable to more people as a victim of marital infidelity than she was as an aggressive advocate of public policy.

"In the annals of first-lady history, there's never been anything like it," says Myra Gutin, author of a book on 20th-century first ladies.

"We are living with Hillary, soap-opera moment by soap-opera moment," adds Sarah Willie, professor of sociology at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania.

In the midst of her highly public personal travails, Clinton has come to represent something for almost everyone, it seems. And as the subject of endless speculation - about what she will or won't do, about the kind of relationship she does or doesn't have with her husband - some observers say she has become a kind of lightning rod for other people's feelings.

"Our fascination with her is less about her than it is about a smart, self-possessed, successful woman in a very prominent position," says Ms. Willie. "And I think that any public figure serves as a blank screen onto which most of us project our individual responses, especially when there's a crisis.

"People feeling sorry for her, or identifying with her, or wanting her to divorce [Mr.] Clinton, are as much about people's individual life situations" as they are about her, Willie says. "It's not unlike the incredible response we saw to Princess Diana's death."

Gender shifts

Public speculation about Clinton - and the increase in her popularity since her husband admitted to having a relationship with Monica Lewinsky - may also reflect cultural shifts in thinking about feminism, and about strong women and the role they play in society.

"This really reflects a moment of ambivalence culturally," says Lyn Mikel Brown, a feminist and professor at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. "I think we're in flux about what it means to be a woman. And the kind of person Hillary Clinton is has pushed that discourse in a way very few women have done. She's been a Rorschach test for women."

Ms. Brown also notes that the first lady's ordeal may have made her seem more human to women who "couldn't connect with her" in her more political role. "This has made her more vulnerable," she says.

On the other hand, Brown says, "Yes, this is another dimension of her, but why did we ever think she was just one thing? Why did people think of her as a cold, calculating, running-the-country kind of person?"

Clinton's critics say the answer to that question is easy. She and her husband campaigned for the presidency on a promise of a "two for the price of one" partnership in the Oval Office. And they quickly made good on their pledge, with Mrs. Clinton playing an active role in policymaking and becoming the first first lady to have an office in the presidential West Wing.

"I think she thought she had the right to share the powers of the presidency," says Noemie Emery, who writes political commentary for the conservative Weekly Standard. "She was completely without accountability [to the American people]. She had a constituency of one, her husband.... She got an awful lot of people angry."

Ms. Emery argues that the office of first lady gives an "unparalleled platform" for pursuing interests in things like historical preservation or social work. "But when it comes to assuming the powers of the Executive Office, and being co-president," she says, "I think that's completely out of the question from now on."

But some historians disagree. They say Clinton has taken the activist precedent set by Eleanor Roosevelt, and carried it even further. And though Americans may not choose another president with a spouse like Clinton in the next election, historians say the territory she has carved out will remain.

"Hillary Clinton will make ever more important things possible for spouses of presidents who follow her," says Kitty Sklar, one of the pioneers of US women's history. "That's just the way history works. When something has been done once, it's easier to do it again. When something has been done and errors have been made, it's easier to do it again and correct those errors.

"She is a really important historical figure," says Ms. Sklar, a history professor at the State University of New York in Binghamton. "It's very likely that American voters in the future will recognize [another] Hillary Clinton when they see her, and will be able to grant her some of the space that Hillary has carved out for herself. And it will be easier for her from the beginning."

First lady's Catch-22

For the time being, however, some of Clinton's greatest challenges lie immediately ahead. Ms. Gutin, the first-lady historian, says Clinton is in a "no-win" situation with her husband, as far as the public is concerned.

"If she doesn't defend him, there may be some people who look at that and say she's not supporting her man, this guy who's obviously been the center of her life," she says. "On the other hand, if she does defend him and does it vociferously, then people say, 'Why is she staying with this guy?... She's too smart.' "

It may require the perspective of hindsight to understand the part that Clinton has played in changing the role of first lady. But, says Gutin, one thing is already clear: "We've never had anyone like her."

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