Chastened Hillary faces down her critics

HEALTH CARE reform may be dead, but political obituaries of its most celebrated architect are decidedly premature. Hillary Clinton, make no mistake, is a chastened, saddened and perhaps wiser woman in the wake of the most crushing failure of her husband's presidency. But she is not about to turn to a life of cookie-baking.

Not long ago, when the health bill's demise was a foregone conclusion, she was portrayed as being in a state of clinical depression. But the most influential First Lady since Eleanor Roosevelt is as resilient as she is controversial. This week, in a rare series of interviews, she suugested that while her role in the second half of Bill Clinton's term may be different, it will not be that of a shrinking violet.

The last 18 months have been rough for Mrs Clinton. They have seen the death of her father, the suicide of Vince Foster, the ousting of old friends from Arkansas from the White House inner circle, Whitewater, and the embarrassment over her prowess at cattle futures trading. Then came the debacle over health care, where her political instincts, supposedly keener than her husband's, failed to tell her that without bi-partisan support, an attempt at reform was doomed. Worst of all, her chemistry with the public is working against her.

Once, she was more popular than the President, lauded as Saint Hillary on the cover of the New York Times magazine. But, according to a Wall Street Journal-NBC poll yesterday, her approval rating has dropped to 39 per cent, lower even than Mr Clinton's 41 per cent.

'It's not been easy but we've learned a lot,' she told the Washington Post. 'Boy, have we learned a lot.' She had not yet thought through how she intended to tackle the next two years, Mrs Clinton told the Wall Street Journal. 'But I want to be as effective as possible.'

Mrs Clinton will not abandon the cause of health care. On Thursday she was on national television, addressing students at George Washington University. 'Health care reform is not a boxing match that goes 15 rounds and suddenly it's over,' she said, but 'a journey we must keep making together'.

Two days before, she played the traditional First Lady, as she accompanied Nina Yeltsin around Washington, talking about 'food and flowers and children and husbands'. But that display of wifely meekness came on the heels of her return from vigorous campaigning for Kathleen Brown as California's Governor.

Hillary Mark Two may not be that different from the orginal version, perhaps a mite more attentive to her official role, but still a highly visible spokeswoman for the administration and for Democratic candidates, especially women, in this autumn's mid- term elections.

She must disarm her critics, not just conservatives and the virulent radio hosts, but feminists, who accuse her of not doing enough to keep women in high positions.

She finds solace in biographies of Eleanor Roosevelt. One of Ms Roosevelt's aphorisms is a special favourite. 'A woman is like a teabag. When she is in hot water she just gets stronger.'