Tradition With A Twist
It looked like a First Lady-like journey to promote historic preservation, but Hillary gave it an edge
By Karen Tumulty/Pittsfield
(TIME, July 27) -- The last time Hillary Rodham Clinton launched a cross-country bus caravan--during her disastrous 1994 effort to transform health care--she met catcalls at every stop. An airplane overhead towed a banner: BEWARE THE PHONY EXPRESS. In Seattle, protesters mobbed her limousine. "I had not seen faces like that since the segregation battles of the '60s," she later said. "They had such hatred."
Last week Hillary hit the road again, and the view from her bus window could hardly have been more different. In picturesque villages and grimy towns along the way, tens of thousands braved hours of midsummer heat just to catch a glimpse of her. "Come back as President, Hillary!" a man shouted in Pittsfield, Mass. When she made an unscheduled stop for a chocolate-and-vanilla ice cream cone at a roadside stand in tiny Weedsport, N.Y., the owner put up a sign urging passersby to TRY THE HILLARY TWIST.
Perhaps the mood was so much rosier this time because there was so much less at stake. The First Lady's latest mission was, well, First Lady-like: to train the spotlight on what the White House calls "America's Treasures"--historic and cultural sites that have been so neglected that many could be lost. She began her trip at the Smithsonian, where the flag that in 1814 inspired Francis Scott Key to write The Star-Spangled Banner is faded and deteriorating. Other stops ranged from the New Jersey laboratory where Thomas Edison came up with more than half of his 1,093 patented inventions, and where 5 million documents, including lab notes and letters, are rotting, to a Pittsfield theater that once saw performances by Sarah Bernhardt and John Philip Sousa but now houses a funky paint store.
The bus tour was Hillary's most public moment since last January, when scandal enveloped the White House and the nation saw a darkly defiant First Lady rising to her husband's defense against a "vast, right-wing conspiracy." The reception she received last week confirmed what the polls are showing: that her popularity is near its all-time high, with approval ratings almost equaling those of the President.
Back in Washington, health care was again on the front burner. But as her husband was rallying the American Medical Association and lobbying for managed-care reform on Capitol Hill, the First Lady was at Harriet Tubman's home, lamenting the disappearance of its artifacts. Hillary says she is not bothered by the obvious point that she is stepping back into the unobjectionable pursuits that have traditionally defined the role of First Lady. As she put it in an interview with TIME, "I just do what I think I'm interested in and what I believe is important as a contribution to the country, and I really don't think about how other people characterize it."
And when her caravan rolled to its final stop, a 150th anniversary celebration of the birth of the women's movement at Seneca Falls, N.Y., it again became apparent that Hillary Clinton will never be an old-fashioned First Lady. To the 14,000 people who came out to see her--filling a football field from end zone to end zone--she gave a speech that she had been up writing most of the night. It touched on many of the causes she has long advocated: equal pay for women, affordable child care, gun control, guaranteed pensions and--yes--universal health care. Noting that the leaders of Seneca Falls had been called "mannish women, old maids, fanatics," Hillary said, "If it sounds familiar, it's the same thing that's always said when women keep going forward for true equality and justice."
The Monica Matter, of course, was never mentioned. "It is both invigorating and very reassuring to see that most Americans are really focused on how they can make their own lives better and strengthen their own families," she told TIME. But a day later, at her rally in Troy, N.Y., one of those pesky little airplanes passed overhead, towing another of those impertinent banners. This one asked, WHO'S WATCHING BILL?
--With reporting by Ginia Bellafante/Seneca Falls and Jay Branegan/Troy