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First Lady Fine Line

On the campaign trail in Indiana, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton likes to talk about Magnequench, a manufacturer of high-tech magnets used in precision-guided missiles, and how a Chinese company bought the Indiana business.

“The president of the United States has the authority to veto that kind of a move,” Clinton said when she brought it up in Princeton, Ind., on Tuesday. But, she complained, the Bush administration had done nothing to stop the deal, and all those Indiana jobs went to China.

(Matt Mahurin)
(Matt Mahurin)

Trouble is, the deal was actually approved during her husband’s administration – the latest in a string of episodes in which Clinton’s campaign for the White House has been complicated by events that happened when she was first lady.

For some, seeing Clinton on the stump talking about health care is an unwelcome reminder of the failure of health care reform put forward during the early days of the Clinton administration. For others, disputed accounts of Clinton’s position on the North American Free Trade Agreement and overstated claims of her role in the Northern Ireland peace process revive questions about just how active a first lady she was.

But taken together, these and other episodes mark a shift in how Clinton’s eight years in the White House are coming to be seen as she continues her campaign to take the Oval Office for herself.

Just months ago, the idea of a first lady becoming the president provoked plenty of head scratching. In an Oct. 2007 piece in The Washington Post titled “Who Made Hillary Queen?” author Geoffrey Wheatcroft asked, “How could a country that prides itself on its spirit of equality and opportunity possibly be led by someone whose ascent owes more to her marriage than to her merits?”

These days, Clinton easily deflects another early critique — that she is too polarizing a figure — instead using her past to argue that she has already come under the kind of harsh scrutiny a general election candidate can expect. “I have a lot of baggage and everybody has rummaged through it for years,” Clinton said during a debate with Obama last month in Pennsylvania.

Now, after a vigorous, months-long campaign has shown Clinton to be a strong candidate and a forceful advocate, able to raise millions of dollars and win millions of votes, questions about her fundamental fitness for the office have largely been erased. What remains, though, is a tricky path to navigate, as Clinton tries to claim credit for her experience in the West Wing without shouldering blame for any errors of the period.

“In true Clintonist style, she is trying to have it both ways,” said Gil Troy, author of “Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady,” and a history professor at McGill University in Montreal. “When it’s convenient, she wants to say she was involved. And when it’s not, she wants to be able to wash her hands and say, ‘Well, it’s not me.’”

Marie Wilson, founder of The White House Project, which promotes women’s leadership, said Clinton would have a better time claiming credit for her White House years if voters better understood the role she played. “It wasn’t a co-presidency,” Wilson said. “But she was the one with the most contact with him and the one he trusted most in the world.”

Image has not been found. URL: /files/washingtonindependent/the-first-lady-fine/clintonfirstlady.jpg Myra Gutin, a professor at Rider University who specializes in first ladies, agrees that Clinton’s problem stems from the changing nature of the role. “Part of what many of us are feeling with regard to her time as first lady and her claims of experience have to do with the ambiguous nature of being first lady,” Gutin said. “There’s no job description, and most first ladies carve out their own niche. In Hillary’s case, that was quite a niche.”

Clinton set herself apart upon arriving at the White House. While first ladies had worked from the East Wing since the Truman era, Clinton’s office was on the second floor of the West Wing, down the hall from the domestic policy staff. She quickly took the lead in the Clinton administration’s push for universal health care. While that effort failed, and her tactics were criticized for being secretive and confrontational, Clinton maintained a strong influence over many issues. She pushed for more federal funding for child care and improved early childhood education. In foreign policy, her top accomplishment was her appearance at the 1995 United Nations Conference on Women in Beijing, where she declared, "Women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights."

Clinton is open to other pitfalls because of her years as first lady, most important, a kind of “Clinton fatigue” and wariness among some voters of returning to the scandals of the first Clinton administration.

But as Clinton and Obama vie for an electorate that is increasingly concerned about the economy, she carries with her one big advantage that her opponent can’t get close to matching: happy memories of the 1990s.

“When Bill Clinton was in office, was the price of gas $3.50 a gallon for regular?” is how one of her supporters put it, confident that another Clinton administration would mean a return to those good economic times. Clinton seems happy for that refracted glory, often mentioning the 22 million jobs created when her husband was president and the shift “from deficits and debt to a balanced budget and a surplus.”

While Obama’s campaign has been forceful in speaking out against Clinton’s apparent conflicts on issues like NAFTA and Bosnia, he has tread carefully in questioning the experience she gained as first lady.

“I think there’s no doubt that there were good things that happened during those eight years of the Clinton administration. I think that’s undeniable,” he said during their Jan. 31 debate. “So I don’t want to diminish some of the accomplishments that occurred during those eight years. And I absolutely agree with Sen. Clinton, that ultimately each of us have to be judged on our own merits.”

But a more direct attack on her role in that era is complicated by many factors.

“It’s very hard to fight the legacy of Clintonism, especially when Democrats think so fondly of those years,” said Troy.

At the same time, Troy said, there is a “no-fly zone” over the whole issue of judging first ladies. Its occupants have filled the role in very different ways, from more traditional, supportive first ladies like Laura Bush to more independent activists like Clinton.

Dianne Bystrom, director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University, said Clinton faces a difficult dilemma. “The media criticized her in the 90s for having too much power,” Bystrom said. “And now they’re criticizing her for exaggerating the power she had.”

But, she warned, Obama should be careful about trying to exploit it. “To dismiss that experience as somehow serving tea and coffee in the afternoon is to ignore the long history of powerful first ladies,” Bystrom said. And, there is another risk: “He could be setting up his wife, who I think would play a rather activist role.”

Robert Dallek, a historian who supports Obama, said voters would base their decision more on what the presidential candidates are saying today than their past experiences. “Nobody thinks of the first lady as having huge responsibility for major decisions on foreign policy or domestic policy.”

Clinton’s past does bring one significant advantage. “She has had tremendous visibility," Dallek pointed out, "people know her name, and that gave her a real leg up, a fast start.”

Gutin wondered why Clinton didn’t just take that lead and run with it. “I don’t know why she didn’t focus on her experience as a senator,” she said. “She has been a very good senator. I would have said, just go with that, rather than get involved with all of the stuff as first lady.”

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