The once and future Hillary
She is one of the most influential First Ladies, but none ever did what she's doing now
By Kati Marton
If Bill Clinton's predicament has but one historical precedent, Andrew Johnson's, Hillary Rodham Clinton's current position has none. After surviving the most painful year one could imagine, Hillary has begun to do something no other First Lady--not the second Mrs. Wilson, not Nancy Reagan, not even Eleanor Roosevelt--ever did: create a political base independent of her spouse's. In the new TIME/CNN poll, 70% view her favorably. And her popularity has caused talk, encouraged by New Jersey Senator Robert Torricelli, a close White House ally, that she may run for the Senate from New York in 2000. Though her friends call such a run unlikely--Washington, they say, is the last place she'll want to be in 2001--the First Lady's office has so far done nothing to squelch the idea, which seems to be gaining momentum.
The Clinton marriage is famously, ineffably complex. But presidential marriages are almost always about more than matters of the heart. By the time they enter the White House, a presidential couple have generally forged a partnership that is both political and personal. Once there the First Lady has a dual role to play: internal and external. Successful First Ladies must balance them; if one part overwhelms the other, the result can be disastrous. Take the Wilsons--Woodrow and his second wife Edith, whose 1915 courtship and marriage were the stuff of a romantic novel but catastrophic for the country. After Wilson was felled by a massive stroke in 1919, Edith kept him in office as a form of therapy--she thought a resignation would quicken his death--concealing the truth from the world. Half-paralyzed and nearly blind, Wilson became more rigid in a way that would affect history, refusing to compromise in order to gain Senate approval for American membership in his own creation, the League of Nations. Edith Wilson pulled off a masterful charade for the benefit of Congress and the country, becoming in the process what some called the "28th and a half" President. She skillfully arranged an early version of a photo op for a congressional delegation, propping up her inert, bedridden husband with pillows in a darkened sickroom. It was all to convince the public that the President was still in charge. Although she acted out of love, she damaged both the country and Wilson's legacy. "Woodrow Wilson was first my beloved husband whose life I was trying to save," she said with pride of what she called her stewardship; "after that he was the President of the United States." Theirs was a White House union based entirely--and tragically--on matters of the heart.
The Roosevelts represent the opposite pole. Their marriage had perhaps not enough heart. Eleanor was the "eyes and ears" of her wheelchair-bound husband, his pipeline to African Americans, Jews and other disfranchised people. Her middle-aged, maternal image gave the New Deal its most compassionate face. In 1940, F.D.R. dispatched Eleanor to the Democratic Convention to quell a revolt against his choice of political outsider Henry Wallace as running mate. "This," she told the convention, "is no ordinary time," and the force of her presence ended the crisis.
Comparisons between Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Clinton are unavoidable and sometimes startling, though inexact. Eleanor was famously insecure, and Hillary conveys quite the opposite impression. But like Mrs. Clinton, Mrs. Roosevelt needed time to assimilate her nearly impossible job description. She too wanted a "real job" and did not always accept the fact that being First Lady, however ill defined, is a job in itself. Eleanor took a position as assistant director of the Office of Civilian Defense. The press went after her, and F.D.R.'s enemies attacked too--calling her the O.C. Diva, forcing her to resign.
But Eleanor was unwilling to retreat to an inoffensive corner of the White House. Zealous in pushing her causes, she would interrupt Franklin's sacred cocktail hour with a sheaf of policy papers. When, in the last months of her husband's life, Eleanor still pursued her own agenda for good government--berating F.D.R. for the appointment of two Assistant Secretaries of State whom she considered reactionaries--his aides tried to limit contact between the sick, weary President and his wife. Of course she had her reasons for disengaging emotionally from the marriage--primarily the discovery in 1918 of Franklin's affair with her social secretary. Today we would call the Roosevelts a dysfunctional couple. Yet they constructed rich and varied lives for themselves, filling the void in their marriage with other relationships. But such a union would not be possible today. No present-day occupants of the White House could live as freely and creatively as the Roosevelts did during their 12-year tenure and keep their private life--and wounds--private until years after their death.
As an "external" First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy was in her own way almost as successful as Eleanor Roosevelt. Her sense of history and style captivated the nation and put a stamp on her husband's presidency. Her unforgettable performance as the nation's widow eased us through the nightmare of November 1963. It was only much later that we learned of the harsher truths behind the glittering facade of the Kennedy White House.
Every generation modifies its expectations of the First Lady to reflect its own cultural values. What was admired in Jackie did not work for Nancy Reagan. Criticized in public for her extravagance, Mrs. Reagan was a huge power inside her husband's Administration, a far greater influence on presidential policy than anyone since Mrs. Wilson. It was not until years later, when Ronald Reagan's Alzheimer's condition was disclosed, that the nation began to take Nancy Reagan to its heart. Lady Bird Johnson (still a beloved national figure), Rosalynn Carter and Barbara Bush all managed to balance the external and internal functions of First Lady. They were good performers, good wives and good political partners. All of them promoted important causes--but none was an independent political figure. Nor was Betty Ford, an ordinary political housewife catapulted into an extraordinary role. To her credit, Mrs. Ford spoke with therapeutic candor to a nation looking for relief from Vietnam and Watergate, showing that the First Family was, well, just like any other American family, with secrets and troubles of its own, from her children's experimenting with marijuana to her dependency on prescription drugs. Her exuberant nature--she once danced on the polished Cabinet table--helped chase away the Watergate blues. In fact, today Betty Ford's image--and the famed center for substance-abuse treatment that bears her name--is more sharply etched in our memory than her husband's.
Dutiful Pat Nixon is the pre-eminent example of the First Lady as victim. We remember her not for all her good works for children and the elderly, but as a lonely woman standing near her husband on his last day in office as he rambled on about his sainted mother, oblivious to his wife. Even her official White House portrait is sad.
Watching Pat Nixon made us feel bad. Not so with Hillary Clinton. Nor can we imagine Mrs. Clinton saying of her husband, as Eleanor Roosevelt did--with typical self-effacement and not entirely accurately--"I was one of those who served his purposes." Part of Mrs. Clinton's achievement last year was the way she reclaimed a measure of privacy for herself after her husband's public admission of infidelity--not by pulling back like Mamie Eisenhower but by refusing to play by the prevailing rules of the confessional age. Affirming her right to privacy, she focused on the issues, found her own voice and set her own boundaries. The nation seems willing to abide by them, a reaction without precedent in American history.
When Eleanor Roosevelt left the White House, she told the press, "The story is over." That prediction turned out to be far off the mark. No one would think it about Hillary Rodham Clinton. The next act will be, I suspect, even more fascinating for the woman who continues to change the rules and the role of the First Lady.
Kati Marton, an author, is working on a book about presidential marriages
MORE TIME STORIES:
Cover Date: January 18, 1999
And now it's her turn
Ready to rumble
The once and future Hillary
Throwing the book at Washington
Party of five