She' s back!

A vote for Bill was a vote for Hillary. And whatever you may have heard, that is what a lot of people wanted.

Hillary Clinton, the most powerful woman in the White House since Eleanor Roosevelt, has been handed a second term as First Lady, and she returns to Washington with more clout than ever. The Republican candidate Bob Dole lost this election, in large part, because he failed to close a gender gap Hillary Clinton had worked hard to open. In many states Dole won as much of the male vote as Clinton, but the President swept the female vote and the First Lady was a key factor in his success.

In opinion polls taken throughout October and November, the First Lady's approval rating amongst women was consistently higher than that of her husband. Bill Clinton could not have won without the female vote and Hillary helped to lead it home. It would be simplistic to say that this was because she is a woman: the principal reason is that she is a force in the White House and will continue to be so.

There is no doubt that when Hillary Clinton talks, Bill listens. Republicans and some portions of the US media have always resented that, just as they resent her grace under fire. The problem for them is that she projects something that many men find unsettling. Call it a lack of need. She also demonstrates an ease with power that many find arrogant and off-putting.

Hillary Clinton is not malleable and that tends to irritate political operatives used to a compliant First Lady. "Hillary pounds the piano too loudly," said the former president Richard Nixon, speaking for a generation of older American men. "You want a wife who's intelligent but not too intelligent."

Fortunately for them both, Bill Clinton has rarely shown any signs that he supports the Nixon school of thought. He gave Hillary her head when he first won the White House, allocating her the tough task of reforming health care. Her efforts were clumsy and foundered on intransigent opposition from Republicans and the medical establishment. Now he may be ready to give her another chance. He has nothing to lose and he could help cement his place in history by giving his wife room to establish hers.

In a rational world Mrs Clinton, a talented lawyer with a keen intellect, might be rewarded with an official position in the new White House. That will not happen. She remains at the centre of two inquiries into the Whitewater scandal and still risks an indictment on charges that she deceived Congress. Even if that were not the case, the First Lady would probably decide to stay just where she has been for the past four years. Her office in the west wing of the White House has become the official headquarters of the president's unofficial chief of staff and it will be a policy powerhouse for the next four years.

That much is acknowledged by senior members of the President's staff including the key Hillary-ally Harold Ickes, deputy chief of the White House staff. "She is not reluctant to make her views known," he says. "She can talk to any of the senior staff. The First Lady doesn't need to have a title or attend meetings. She has direct access to the President."

Hillary Clinton has stayed true to a wider range of liberal policies than her husband. At her insistence the President pushed for legislation that helped to support families and working mothers. Without her influence on domestic policy it would have been easy for the Republican-dominated Congress to push Bill Clinton even further to the right. That would have lost him many votes among the nation's women, who demonstrate repeatedly in polls that they care far more about social issues than male voters.

"Hillary is a constant reminder that we need to care for disenfranchised people in our country - for those who are on welfare to children who need a hand," says Ohio Congressman Robert Hagan, a liberal Democrat. "If I want some things done, I lobby Mrs Clinton first."

With an ear that may be more open than her husband's to the Democrats' core constituency, Mrs Clinton can expect more Congressmen such as Hagan to seek her support. If they win her endorsement they can anticipate substantial influence with the President, and his senior staff think that's right. "There is no reason why that should not take place," says Ickes. "She is a person in her own right, her own standing, who has worked hard to develop expertise in areas like the family, health care, Medicaid and the role of women. Her voice will be heard."

There is another set of reasons for Hillary's influence. She seems to have far more emotional strength than her husband and when she speaks there appears to be much more conviction. Throughout the dark days of her husband's alleged infidelities, the Whitewater scandal, the Travelgate allegations and deaths in her family, she has maintained an apparent inner calm that many insiders say gives the President a backbone he might otherwise lack. When he made his victory speech in Arkansas on Tuesday night, his wife appeared to be the one with the real inner strength to carry the fight for four more years.

For somebody who had to learn the job under combat conditions Hillary Clinton has done remarkably well. "Despite the enormous effort of the media to denounce her, her popularity has risen," says the feminist author Susan Faludi. "People like her for taking a stand. It's the Washington media who feel threatened by that." Along with every big money vested interest that has tried to dismantle what's left of America's welfare system. They know Hillary Clinton stands firm against them when her husband might buckle, and for that she earns their eternal hatred.

As she heads back to the White House for four more years, Hillary Clinton is probably thinking of this, maybe holding another one of those invisible conversations in her head with Eleanor Roosevelt that won her such flak from America's right wing. There is no doubt she will be wondering how to keep going, doing a job where she must be supportive but not too assertive yet knowing that the first quality often requires the second.

In 1992 Hillary was criticised for saying, "Buy one, get one free" in describing Bill and herself as a team. The American public never believed her subsequent retraction and, in voting for the Clintons again, they know the slogan still holds true. Those who voted for Bill Clinton probably know his wife is one of his best assets. In the next four years they will get a chance to see just how good she can be.

Hillary Clinton will see the 1996 election as a vindication and one that gives her an opportunity to develop her influence in the way she thinks best. Maybe Al Gore should start to worry. With Hillary's sway over the women's vote he may not be the obvious choice for the year 2000 after alln

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