Sizing up political stripes of first lady

After exhorting her fellow students to "practice politics as the art of making what appears to be impossible, possible," Hillary Rodham, the first student ever to give a commencement address at Wellesley College, wandered down to nearby Lake Waban to swim.

She took off her glasses, stripped down to a bathing suit, and waded in. Since it was forbidden to swim in that part of the lake, a security guard who saw her confiscated her clothing and glasses. Dripping, she groped her way back to the dorm in the dark.

Since that warm spring day in 1969, these two sides of Hillary Rodham Clinton - earnest idealist and occasional rebel - have run through much of her public and private life.

Now, as she prepares for an unusual odyssey in American politics - a probable run for the US Senate in New York - they are emerging as part of a complex persona that in many ways defies the common perception of her as an old-line liberal.

Indeed, what emerges from her writings and speeches is the portrait of a first lady who is multidimensional. While an ardent advocate of gun control, for instance, she favors the death penalty. While a strong supporter of abortion rights, she has said she would not have an abortion herself. While championing women's rights and independence, she has stood by her husband through tumultuous and humiliating times.

"She's squarely middle road," says Carl Sferrazza Anthony, a historian on first ladies. "I think it's a great error for people to assume that she is ideologically left wing. She constantly looks to the private sector to fill in and help out in the community."

Throughout her career, Mrs. Clinton has been a clear advocate for women, a feminist who believes strongly in the importance of strengthening families and protecting children.

It was Clinton who in a speech during the 1992 campaign helped turn the Republican family values issue into a Democratic cause clbre by declaring that real "family values are about valuing families." And during her career as a lawyer, child advocate, and supportive political spouse, she has championed issues such as the Family and Medical Leave Act, education, child care and, of course, health care.

Family values

"Especially in connection with the family, marriage, and raising children, she is very much of a traditionalist," says Harold Ickes, her top political adviser. "She really does believe the family is the basic unit of society and a strong family is very important in order to raise children."

Her abortion stance, along with her support for gay rights, causes critics like Randy Tate of the Christian Coalition to question that assessment. He characterizes her public policy stances as "extreme" on family issues.

"She has advocated a greater role for the government, whether it's been that the 'village'/government programs should raise our children or run our health care," says Mr. Tate. "It runs contrary to the mainstream, common sense approaches supported by most Americans."

Clinton does believe, without apologies, that there is a strong role for government, but in a more neo-liberal sense: only if it's "effective" government.

Her experiences to date have not changed that fundamental commitment to use government to improve children's lives - a calling that came to her, she says, while working at the Yale New Haven Hospital and Child Study Center and the Children's Defense Fund as a law student.

But they have tempered her. Probably none has changed her approach more than the health-care reform debacle of 1993.

With great fanfare, the first lady took on one of the country's most vexing social issues. She created a task force that operated in secret. Many analysts agree the huge bureaucratic overhaul she proposed addressed the major problems. It was a policy masterpiece, but a political disaster.

Its defeat helped spark the Republican takeover of the House in 1994 and tarnished her image, forcing her to take on a more traditional role in the White House. At a speech in April at Hofstra University, Clinton - tellingly - said her methods had changed, but not her motives. "I'm not going to try that again, rest assured," she said. "I come from the school of smaller steps now."

Her health-care agenda now calls for a patient's bill of rights to force insurers to provide access to specialists, legislation to improve medical-record privacy, and tax breaks to encourage small businesses to offer health insurance. She also supports her husband's proposal to use the federal budget surplus to shore up Medicare.

During her visits to New York this spring, she has emphasized centrist Democratic issues. She's called for rebuilding the state's crumbling schools, turned thumbs down on school vouchers, and called for tougher gun-control laws. She's celebrated women's rights and championed the need for more and better child care. These are her signature issues.

Opponents say they mark her as a typical tax-and-spend liberal - an extremist whose policies will undermine the already fragile American family.

Her supporters counter she is articulating a much-needed family agenda. They see it addressing a culture in which the definition of family is changing, with parents struggling to find the right balance between child rearing and career.

People who've worked closely with the first lady like to point out that she's worked hard to perfect that balance in her own life. Lisa Caputo, Mrs. Clinton's former press secretary, says during the 1992 campaign the first lady refused to go out on week-long campaign swings, preferring two and three-day stints so she could spend time with her daughter, Chelsea. Once in the White House, Ms. Caputo says, meetings would come to a halt when Chelsea called.

"Her schedule would be completely overhauled and rearranged at the 11th hour so she could go to Chelsea's soccer game," says Caputo.

Clinton is also adamant about protecting her family. Another former press secretary, Neel Lattimore, talks about the "zone of privacy" she tries to maintain at the White House. That's often made relations with the press difficult. "She's not an easy person to get to know quickly, because she's so multidimensional."

But her fierce protectiveness has also created problems for the first family and raised questions about her political instincts. It was Mrs. Clinton who opposed releasing the Whitewater documents, which eventually led to the appointment of Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr.

From Travelgate, the early firings of the White House travel office staff, to the Lewinsky scandal, when she defended her husband against a "vast right-wing conspiracy," Clinton's need to control information and access has left a trail of trouble that will undoubtedly haunt her during the coming campaign.

Take-charge style

Critics say her controlling nature will also cause difficulties in the role of senator, where compromise and horse-trading are necessary to get things done. But supporters disagree.

"She's extremely smart," says a former aid. "I think she'd have as much power as the majority leader - I mean, I wouldn't want to be on the other end of a negotiation with her."

Clinton is expected to form an official exploratory committee after the July 4 weekend. She will then spend most of the month in New York "listening" to people.

But it's clear she's already has a basic agenda. It was probably best articulated when she returned to Wellesley to give another commencement address, this one in 1992. "Too many of our children are being impoverished financially, socially, and spiritually," she said. "The shrinking of their future diminishes us all."

The question remains whether her remedies will be the ones New Yorkers support.

*Linda Feldmann in Washington contributed to this report.

Before she became first lady ....

Edible allowance: Hillary Rodham performed chores around the house, not for a traditional allowance, but for an extra potato with her dinner.

New kid on the block: As a four-year-old in Park Ridge, Ill., she was told to fight back against a neighborhood bully. Her mother said, "There is no room in this house for cowards," a line Hillary would later repeat to her husband in the White House.

Social activism: Inspired by her youth minister in a Chicago suburb, she organized baby-sitting services for migrant workers.

Not skin-deep: Well before the women's movement redefined beauty, Hillary put grades and good works ahead of applying makeup and doing her hair.

Republican roots: The Rodham family was staunchly Republican, and Hillary the teenager was no exception: She campaigned for Barry Goldwater in 1964, converting to the Democratic Party a few years later.

Children's advocacy: While a student at Yale Law School, she volunteered with what was later to become the Children's Defense Fund, founded by Yale alumna Marian Wright Edelman.

In the minority: During the Nixon impeachment inquiry, she was one of only three women among 43 lawyers for House Judiciary Committee special counsel John Doar.

Sources: Current Biography Yearbook; Vanity Fair

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Sizing up political stripes of first lady
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today