Making A Difference

Facelift For The First Lady

Enmeshed in controversy and her popularity nosediving, Hillary Clinton resorts to an image change

Facelift For The First Lady
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She evokes strong sentiments. She is either loved or hated, praised or reviled, respected or scorned. People are rarely neutral in their feelings towards her. While Republicans delight in comparing her to Lady Macbeth, her supporters liken her to Mother Teresa.

Hillary Clinton is perhaps the First Lady to become actively involved in the politics of her country. Her predecessors restricted themselves mainly to tendering behind-the-scene advice. With the exception of Eleanor Roosevelt, they rallied behind non-controversial issues like literacy, drug abuse and mental health. Unlike them, when her husband took office in January 1993, Hillary had already picked up a 67 per cent favourable poll rating. But according to a recent CNN-USA Today Gallup Poll, this has dropped to a low of 43 per cent, the first time in over 30 years that a majority of Americans have held their First Lady in an unfavourable light. The poll also finds that people think she is lying about Whitewater and related issues, and that she may even have done something illegal or unethical.

How did Hillary's popularity nosedive in three years? Partisan politics, say her supporters, because conservatives can't stand her political activism. Nevertheless, it has become painfully obvious that—close to the 1996 presidential elections—the latest accusations and revelations might be hurting the president and his wife. Sources say that there is a new White House plan to address and staunch the hostility and criticism surrounding the First Lady, while she promotes her new book, It Takes a Village: And Other Lessons Children Teach Us (Simon & Schuster). The cross-country book tour which began this week is "aimed not only at selling her book", say critics, "but also at selling her".

The book has raised eyebrows. According to insiders, Hillary has failed to acknowledge that it has been ghost-written and researched by a Washington writer. The idea behind the book—the proceeds from which are to go to children's hospitals—is that government, business, churches and the media share responsibility with parents to help raise the nation's children.

In a week of back-to-back interviews on radio and television, including a much-hyped one with ABC's Barbara Walters on 20/20 programme and another on NBC's Today show, Hillary has defended her ethics, displaying the same confidence that initially impressed the Congress during the 1993-94 debate on health-care reform, but later proved to be her own undoing. However, it is a kinder, gentler Hillary Clinton on television today. There is no longer the sharp sense of moral rectitude—sanctimony, pontification and arrogance—that so offended some Americans.

Whether rightly or wrongly, Hillary has been credited with several unpopular decisions at the White House, including the dismissal of travel office staff, a controversy now popularly known as Travelgate. The Whitewater investigation of both the Clintons has, in addition, served to sharpen the focus of media and public interest. Critics delight in promoting the image of Lady Macbeth—strong-willed, interfering, domineering and power-hungry.

According to conservative analyst Linda Chavez, both Watergate and Travelgate "boil down to greed for money and power", and are, basically, "an old-fashioned story of craft and corruption". In the Travelgate controversy, it was Hillary, critics argue, who ordered the firing of officials in the White House travel office, which makes arrangements for reporters covering presidential events outside Washington. Hillary flatly denies this despite the newly-released documents from aides, recalling just the opposite. The game plan was to replace existing staff with the Clinton's own friends from Arkansas. A flap in the media about the use of the FBI to inquire into alleged wrongdoings by the travel staff, prevented the plan from going ahead.

The dismissals of May 1993 were criticised when the White House conceded they took place to provide business for an airline charter firm co-owned by Harry Thomason, television producer and friend of the Clintons. Hillary repeatedly emphasises that she did not order the dismissals, although she does admit to voicing "concern about the financial mismanagement". The ousted travel office director, who was charged with embezzlement on the basis of allegations levelled by Thomason and others, was acquitted last year.

The Whitewater controversy had occurred when Bill Clinton was attorney general in Arkansas in 1978. James McDougal, an Arkansas businessman, offered the couple a 50-per cent share of230 acres on the White River, to be bought with a $203,000 loan from a bank willing to accept the partners' signatures as collateral. The deal went sour and McDougal was later involved in the billion dollar savings and loan scandal of the '80s.

The critics' main grouse against the Clintons was that they neither troubled themselves about the ethics involved in the land deal nor questioned the legality and propriety of accepting something for nothing. Although Whitewater never produced profits, the Clintons reportedly got some hefty tax write-offs as their income increased with Hillary's growing law practice. McDougal passed on some legal business to Hillary with the Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan Association, including a $2,000-per month retainer he says the then governor solicited, although Bill Clinton denies it. In her 20/20 interview, Hillary denied working seriously with McDougal, despite records showing that she billed the account for 60 hours. "That was not a lot of work for me, certainly.... There's not a contradiction," she said.

Hillary's critics contend that she also profited from another venture—the cattle futures commodity market, where she reaped a $100,000-profit on a $1,000 investment, again with help from an Arkansas businessman, James Blair. As general counsel of Tyson Foods, one of Arkansas' biggest employers and an industry regulated by the state, Blair reportedly did business with the state while fattening the Clinton' bank balance. Says Chavez: "Neither the governor nor his lawyer-wife questioned the legality of dealing with Blair or of lining their own and their friends' pockets, while railing simultaneously against the Republicans' decade of greed."

The controversies have provided the conservatives with the opportunity to pillory the First Lady. Her holier-than-thou attitude doesn't hold up, they say, in the face of her obvious venality. Whether she succeeds or not in refurbishing her image, the First Lady still has a strong core constituency of loyal supporters. They include women's groups, minorities and labour unions, who have established a 'spiritual kinship' with her.

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Hillary's supporters insist she is more sinned against than sinning, that Republicans are uncomfortable with a strong woman who can stand up to them, especially senior members of the Congress. They admit she erred in the Travelgate and Whitewater scandals, but insist there was no deliberate wrongdoing or unethical behaviour on her part. According to liberal writer Mary McGrory of The Washington Post , Hillary's biggest mistake is that she has not realised that the country is "not ready for a co-presidency."

After the disastrous defeat of the Democrats in the November 1994 elections, Hillary disappeared from the limelight. No longer was she infuriating conservatives with daily pronouncements on health care, child rearing, or the role of government; or delighting Liberals with her well-articulated advocacy for their causes.

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The effort carried on in 1995. Hillary made a well-orchestrated comeback by appearing prominently at UN-sponsored conferences in New York and Copenhagen. She wrote guest columns in magazines and newspapers about the need to invest in children and education, made a goodwill tour to India and other South Asian countries, and spoke fervently on women's rights at the Women's Conference in Beijing. Her image makers concentrated on bringing Hillary's image in line with that of previous First Ladies, who spent their time visiting orphanages, kissing babies, and cutting ceremonial ribbons.

This is a different Hillary from the one who, during her husband's 1992 election campaign, had deliberately set out to cultivate a non-traditional image of a First Lady. On one occasion, she had said in an interview that she could have stayed home, baked cookies and made tea, but that she chose to have a career instead. Housewives were miffed with her implied criticism of their decision to stay home and Republicans pounced gleefully on her infelicitous choice of words.

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Today Hillary is veering between both roles—non-traditional and traditional. She has said repeatedly that she "will do what it takes" to clear up the controversies, even if it means testifying before Congress. The next few months will determine whether she succeeds or not in clearing her name and in proving to her detractors that she is not a liability to the president. It appears certain, however, that the Clintons will tone down their "two for the price of one" cry of the last campaign.

But is Hillary really the chink in her husband's armour? She might be the cultural stereotype of a liberal feminist with little tolerance or patience for those with contrasting points of view. But in the end, her impact is limited. People don't vote for First Ladies, or Cabinet officials, or vice presidential candidates—they vote for the man running for president and the party he represents.

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