FACE OFF: Hillary's Negative Legacy as First Lady
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and author of Mr. And Mrs. President: From the Trumans to the Clintons.
Tompaine.com, April 4, 2000
|Newspaper and Journal Articles-Written||It is now official. The Clinton
co-presidency is over. Hillary Clinton's Senate run means
that she will become modern America's first
"absentee first lady," as the Washington
Post noted. In 1992, Hillary Rodham Clinton rejoiced,
"If you vote for him, you get me." Eight years
later, Hillary! -- sans her last name -- implores: Vote
for me, forget about him.
Amid this extraordinary campaign, it is worth assessing Mrs. Clinton's seven-year-stint as a full-time first lady. Her closing flourish is in keeping with her entire tenure. Ironically, this historic gesture will cement her reputation as a great first lady with most historians and with her fans, even as it damages the very office she vowed to expand and invigorate.
Without winning a single vote, simply by becoming the first first lady ever to run for office, Mrs. Clinton has imposed a happy ending on her stormy White House years. Win or lose, by ending on this bold note, Mrs. Clinton guarantees that historians will compare her to Eleanor Roosevelt not Barbara Bush - that they will view her compromises as small detours from her trail-blazing path. Months before the launch, the Associated Press reported that "Historians say Clinton, a lawyer by training and a policy advocate by experience, has redefined the role of first lady to the extent that this political race is not so extraordinary." This symbolic legacy compensates for her otherwise minor individual achievements and major surrenders.
To be fair, being first lady is one of the world's toughest posts. It is an aristocratic throwback in a modern egalitarian democracy. Occupants endure a maximum of scrutiny with a minimum of autonomy. The gossamer shackles of the first lady's office put First Ladies in an exquisitely feminine bind -- their husbands' position gives them great potential to do good while constraining them terribly. First Ladies are supposed to help shape their husbands' image; they are not supposed to share power. Americans expect First Ladies to be happy homemakers and do-gooding celebrities, independent yet supportive, newsworthy but not controversial, neither too feminine nor too feminist. First Ladies enter the public sphere to champion the private sphere, they are supposed to blaze the trail for modern women while defending the traditional family.
In recent years, some First Ladies have thrived. Both Betty Ford and Rosalynn Smith Carter came to love what Nancy Reagan called the first lady's "white-glove pulpit,." with Mrs. Ford using it to express herself, and Mrs. Carter using it to champion her husband. Even Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush found their voices.
Alas, Hillary Clinton's tenure has been particularly rocky. She has sustained unrelenting abuse -- some unfounded, some deserved. Her enemies caricatured her in 1992 as the Lady Macbeth of Little Rock; during the presidency, as Shrillary the White House feminazi. Her responses and her actions, however, have often fed her critics. Early quips that she would not just stand by her man like Tammy Wynette or that "I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas" did not endear her to millions of homemakers - or country music fans. Revelations that she made $99,537 in cattle futures off a $1,000 investment in nine months during the 1980s undermined the Clintonian critique of Reaganite selfishness. And she has yet to offer a convincing explanation how her long-sought and subpoenaed Whitewater billing records mysteriously reappeared in the White House Book Room, adjacent to her private office, in the heart of the fortress-like executive mansion, with her fingerprints.
Even worse than the criticism, her husband's behavior humiliated her, repeatedly. From the Gennifer Flowers tapes to the Monica Lewinsky dress, it is hard to imagine the psychic toll of standing by her man. In Primary Colors, Joe Klein has the Hillary Clinton character "haul off" and slap her errant husband "right across the face. It was a perfect shot, a resonant splat." But the American people have only seen that kind of assertiveness in fiction, in the National Enquirer, or in the mind's eye. Hillary's public, recorded response to the revelations has been defiance, hostility to the Clintons' common enemies, and, during the worst days in August 1998, after her husband admitted to the Lewinsky affair, a dead, vacant, heartbreaking look in her eyes that only hinted at her pain.
Amid all this public tumult, amid all this publicly broadcast private agony, it is remarkable that she has been able to get up in the morning, let alone help shape history. And Mrs. Clinton scored some successes. She has been a key Clinton administration figure, recruiting personnel, honing policies, defining strategy, advancing pet projects, selling both the program and the president. Like most presidential wives, she has often been a confidante, sounding board, safe haven and touchstone of normal domesticity for her husband amid the luxurious White House pressure cooker. Her health care crusade was a glorious failure, a bold power play that, despite many flaws, identified a pressing social problem and showed that the first lady can help craft the solution.
In the wake of the health-care debacle, she, like her husband, has advanced a more modest, baby-steps agenda, but an agenda nevertheless. She, like he, has tried to make America a "kinder, gentler place," if you'll pardon the expression, without ambitious Great Society programs. Her call for a "politics of meaning," for some spiritual and altruistic dimension to our lives, generated much ridicule but served as a welcome reminder amid a dizzying boom that there is more to life than IPOs and SUVs. More practically, she has been able to publicize the needs of America's children, America's schools, America's Gulf War veterans, and America's sick, for more effective policies, more generous programs.
Overseas, Mrs. Clinton usually triumphed. Her silence when Suha Arafat libeled Israel was a rare gaffe. Her call for microcredit programs has helped jumpstart economic projects in the Third World and shine the spotlight on the need to think creatively in helping the poor. Her speech in China during the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women denouncing human rights was courageous and typical of her commitment to fighting oppression everywhere.
Abroad and at home, her frenzied fans have accorded her rock star status. Many Hispanics and African Americans hail her as their friend in the White House. Many professional women, young and old, revere her. To millions of women, Hillary can do no wrong. She is their role model, their inspiration, their icon. When she pioneers, they applaud her boldness; when she compromises, they appreciate and identify with her sacrifices.
All these successes, combined with her dramatic finale, will make it easy for historians -- who are notoriously easy on First Ladies -- to place her in the progressive mold, to celebrate her as another pathbreaking first lady in the activist's pantheon with Eleanor Roosevelt, Lady Bird Johnson, Betty Ford, and Rosalynn Carter. Her various personae, the different approaches she has taken to the task, will confirm the conventional wisdom that the first lady can be whatever she wishes to be.
And yet, the Hillary partisans are wrong. Celebrating her middling successes overlooks her grander failures. Mrs. Clinton's tenure has damaged the institution of the first lady - and the cause of modern women.
In crying "Buy one get one free" in 1992, both Clintons recognized the centrality of the first lady to the president's success. They rooted their plans to work closely together in their unique "partnership" as well as in the evolution of the first lady's role since the days of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. In office, Mrs. Clinton repeatedly invoked Mrs. Roosevelt, and other predecessors, to justify her involvement in all phases of governing. And yet, after overstepping as co-president in 1993 and 1994, Mrs. Clinton retreated. Her rapid disappearance from the national radar screens implied that she was wrong, that First Ladies should not shape policy. Mrs. Clinton then spent four years trying to rehabilitate her reputation and reestablish the rationale for a first lady's involvement in White House life. Gradually working her way back into policy meetings and into the political fray, she found the equilibrium that other First Ladies had also found -- focusing on specific projects, publicly appearing more deferential than revolutionary, focusing on the needs of children, not the minutia of legislation. And in 1998, during the Lewinsky scandal, her loyalty all but singlehandedly saved her husband's presidency.
Yet now she has decided that the first lady does not have to be around so much, that the nation and her husband can thrive without her, thank you very much. It is of course impossible to resign from a post with no salary, no contract, no formal terms of employment. But she is not only abdicating, she is abandoning the half-century attempt to argue that the first lady, for all the ambiguity, is indeed indispensable.
Even more disturbing, the office she is leaving is more partisan than ever, thanks to her. First Ladies, like their husbands, have always had to balance service to particular partisan needs with their duty to the nation. Even in the 1940s and 1950s Bess Truman and Mamie Eisenhower stumped with their husbands on campaign trains. More recently, during the 1990 midterm elections, Barbara Bush was in greater demand as a campaigner for Republican congressmen than her husband. Still, Mrs. Truman, Mrs. Eisenhower, Mrs. Bush, and most other First Ladies distanced themselves from politics. They understood that they were not only their husbands' wives, but one of the nation's symbolic leaders.
While she has helped light the national Christmas tree and performed other non-partisan duties, Mrs. Clinton has all but dropped the illusion that the first lady is non-partisan. She has campaigned and fund-raised aggressively - and effectively. More than most First Ladies, she has hosted groups of committed supporters rather than a cross-section of Americans. And worst of all, her often self-pitying and polarizing rhetoric has intensified the partisan divide in America. Attributing the Lewinsky scandal to her infamous "vast right wing conspiracy" is only the most conspicuous and successful example. Her us versus them, left versus right, good versus evil rhetoric has made it clear. Hillary Rodham Clinton functions more as the first lady of the Democratic Party, or of Clinton, Inc., than of the United States of America.
As a partisan zealot in the Clinton wars, Mrs. Clinton has rarely acknowledged her flip-flops or her errors. While less slick than her husband, she, too has demonstrated an elusive relationship with the truth. Life with the Clintons has been an unnerving journey through the looking glass, a fluid fantasy world where today's spin wipes out yesterday's realities.
In the world of Hillary Rodham Clinton, any woman linked romantically to her husband becomes a gold-digger or a right wing stalking horse; sleazy real estate transactions become altruistic attempts to set up Chelsea's college fund; sweetheart deals in the commodities market become the fortunate result of having learned "the stock tables" from her father. Mrs. Clinton morphs seamlessly - in public -- from crusading for health care as co-president to championing domesticity as a happy homemaker to running for Senate as a White House insider.
In this hall of mirrors, truth became a mere pose. Reporters spent countless hours speculating not about what really happened - but about what Mrs. Clinton wanted the American public to believe at any given moment. The biggest challenge came in the wake of Bill Clinton's grand jury testimony. "Two irreconcilable story lines began seeping out" of the White House, Time would later report, "one so painful it was hard to hear, the other so cynical it was hard to believe." Was it "worse for Hillary to appear as a stupid, duped wife or as a conniving wife who had been covering for her husband all year?"
In 1993, Hillary Rodham Clinton entered the White House as a shrewd, proud, powerful dynamo, an unapologetic, sometimes defiant, lawyer who brought her own skills, her own passions, her own agenda, into politics. True, conservatives bristled that she was too independent - resurrecting the "Who Elected Her" complaint thrown at Rosalynn Carter. And yes, some feminists bristled that this high-powered career woman was too dependent, getting her high position through her man. Nevertheless, Mrs. Clinton seemed to be striking a perfectly reasonable and quite modern balance: maintaining her sense of self and her integrity while acknowledging the unique nature of her husband's job and their opportunity. Seven years later, she is trying to resurrect that earlier self and parlay her image as a powerful, progressive celebrity into a Senate seat. She just might succeed in wooing enough New Yorkers, just as she has succeeded in keeping her partisans committed, and will also succeeded in dazzling most future historians. Alas, her saga has been a more complex one than the Hillary for Senate forces will acknowledge, a tale of constant compromise, of betrayal -- by her husband and of her ideals -- and of spinning a web of deceit so complex and so multi-dimensional that out of sheer exhaustion it is easier to believe the line of the day rather than the truth.
As all the potential First Ladies in the current campaign emphasize their deep commitment to the old-fashioned family, the damage Hillary has wrought to modern feminism becomes clear. As Laura Bush and Tipper Gore recoil at direct political questions and refuse to take bold stands, the damage Hillary has wrought to the modern first ladyship is evident. It takes a village to raise a child; and it will take time before a first lady feels comfortable enough to advance in the footsteps of Eleanor Roosevelt not Barbara Bush.
© Gil Troy
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