First Lady puts on a presidential persona: Every US leader's wife is a force to reckon with, but the whole country will look for Hillary's hand in her husband's political decisions, writes Rupert Cornwell in Washington

FORGET THE catty remarks about the absence of a crown. In her violet gown, resplendent with lace and sequins, Hillary Clinton was quite the queen of proceedings in the whirl of balls on inauguration night. For a woman once so famously uninterested in clothes that she bought her wedding dress off the peg on the very morning of her marriage, she had come a long way.

But as the gaudy thrill of America's coronation week fades, the real Hillary will emerge - and with this persona, what will surely become a riveting case study in the workings of ultimate power. There have been influential first ladies before: Nancy Reagan, the capricious scourge of White House staff; Rosalynn Carter, the 'Steel Magnolia'; and, most controversial of all, Eleanor Roosevelt, whose crusading social zeal made her partnership with Franklin one of the great family duos in US political history.

Even by those standards, Mrs Clinton is in a different league. Sheer domestic proximity means that every presidential spouse is a figure to be reckoned with. But there is a special dimension to her relationship with the man which official documents, for the time being at least, have as William J Clinton. It is as much professional as personal. In a business as well as a nuptial sense, they are a team.

They are alike; of similar education, of equal academic accomplishment and - despite the talk that Hillary is the radical to Bill the pragmatist - of shared, broadly liberal views. While he governed Arkansas, she was a prime mover in reform of the state's education and child care policies. Where one begins and the other ends, even their best friends are pressed to say. Tom Brokaw of NBC interviewed them during the final bus trip to Washington last Sunday: questions addressed to Bill would be answered by Hillary and vice versa. What everyone acknowledges, however, is that she is his closest, most trusted adviser. In the selection of Cabinet appointees, Mrs Clinton was one of the 'Gang of Five', (along with her husband, Vice- President Al Gore, the transition director, Warren Christopher, and Mr Clinton's closest friend, Bruce Lindsey, now to be White House personnel director), who made the final decisions.

In Washington it will not be very different. Former first ladies' offices were in the private quarters of the White House proper. The word is that Mrs Clinton will be installed in the West Wing itself, the real engine room which houses the Oval Office, the offices of most senior staff, and the press room. Indeed, and only half in jest, Mr Clinton recently mused aloud about tearing down a wall or two so that his wife could be right next door. In fact, she will probably have to settle for the floor above. But that will make her no less easy to demonise. In this city's ever febrile political brew, mere perception of a power behind the throne is a potent ingredient. Cartoonists have had a field day, from depiction of a dragon Mrs Clinton, barging her husband aside to take the Oath of Office, to a wife triumphant, carrying her husband across the threshhold of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Memories of her campaign crack about cookie-baking and her sassy defence of her husband during the Gennifer Flowers episode ('If you don't like him, don't vote for him') linger. No one is more aware of the danger than she. There has been hardly an interview since 3 November; during inauguration week, apart from the NBC programme, she has been seen and not heard.

Behind the scenes, though, she will be heard a great deal. How she combines the inescapable ceremonial role of First Lady, with her duties as a mother and her inevitable hand in policy-making, only time will tell. But the latter element looms large. According to the Wall Street Journal, Mrs Clinton will head a task force to elaborate the new administration's health care proposals, arguably its toughest domestic task in the four years ahead.

The response of Mr Clinton's press secretary, Dee Dee Myers, spoke volumes by omission. She was 'not aware' of the scheme. But she did not rule it out. A classic case, in short, of the Hillary of always, there at her husband's elbow, but in an often undefined, informal guise. And the function can be hugely beneficial. Bill Clinton is notoriously prone to rambling discussion. 'Hillary is a perfect complement. Not only does she know how to call a meeting and run it,' says an Arkansas friend, 'she knows how to end one too.'

The relationship will be crucial to her husband's success. It will also feed into the subtle balances and power structures that emerge in any administration. Already there is whispering (denied, of course) that behind his good-trooper facade, Al Gore is chafing at the circumscribed role of the vice-presidency. 'Yes, this may be a de facto co-presidency,' someone said. 'But Al Gore will have to accept he is not one of the co-es.'

(Photograph omitted)

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