Out of America: Exit 'Madame Mao', enter St Hillary

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The Independent Online
WASHINGTON - She wants, we are told, 'her emotional life and physical life, her spiritual life and political life all to fit together, in sync, an orchestra sitting down to play the same song'. Later in a Washington Post profile last week that might have been an extract from Lives of the Saints, we learn that she is 'pragmatic about tomorrow, idealistic about the future' as she 'floats comfortably above the fray of day-to-day Washington'. Who is this celestial being? Old hands in deciphering the irrational mood swings of this city will have guessed. She is none other than Hillary Clinton.

As the world knows, reviews of husband Bill's first 100 days in office have not exactly been glowing: 'clever, hard-working but needs to discipline himself' is the most flattering verdict to be found. Hillary, by contrast, has passed the landmark in style. As the Post ran its miniature hagiography, Time magazine weighed in with a cover story entitled 'Ascent Of A Woman - Hillary Rodham Clinton Is The Most Powerful First Lady In History. Does Anyone Have A Problem With That?'

The answer seems to be: surprisingly few. Her approval rating these days is at least as high as her husband's. According to a Time poll, two-thirds of the public approve of her role in health- care reform and general influence in domestic policy- making. Almost three-quarters consider her 'a good role model for girls'.

At this point you rub your eyes in some bewilderment. Is this not the woman recently supposed to be a White House reincarnation of Madame Mao, a scheming ultra-liberal and champion of Big Government, in whose hands William Jefferson Clinton, the elected 42nd President of the United States, was soft clay? And what about those rumours of the imperious Hillary who threw a lamp, a bible, or a briefing book (the third variant always sounded most plausible) at her husband in a fit of pique?

The Republicans of course still peddle such stuff, and right-wing newspapers and talkshow hosts continue to rail at 'President Rodham'. The truth, though, is that, as a result of personal tragedy and some deft media management, Hillary's public stock has never been higher.

The tragedy was the death of her father in April. Images of her 16-day vigil in Little Rock and her obvious grief did more than any speech to banish the notion of the icy lawyer. But the White House marketing operation is far too professional to waste such an opportunity. The relaunch of Hillary had in fact started a couple of months earlier, with an interview in Parade, a sugary, nationally syndicated newspaper supplement. In the past fortnight, however, a First Lady whose mere face sells as many millions of magazines as the Princess of Wales, has suddenly become 'available' - as they say - to a few select media outlets. (Newsweek, which ran the bible-throwing rumour, was not among them.)

To find the reason for the image-makers' flurry of activity, look no further than the health- care plan which Hillary is to deliver soon. It was always going to be a tough sell; so tough indeed that its publication has just been put off a second time, until June at the earliest. When it does appear, it is crucial that the public sees its prime author, not as an IBM mainframe made flesh, but as a caring, loving materfamilias.

The revised media strategy has come up trumps. Time started its profile of Hillary with a tale of how Chelsea Clinton fell ill one night last February, and her mother dropped health-care reform and everything else to prepare scrambled eggs and apple sauce for her daughter. The anecdote is already entering First Lady lore.

Why, you may ask, if feeling a mite cynical, do we journalists fall for this sort of stuff? One explanation, of course, is that it might be true. But the impact would be less were it not for something else: Hillary's virtues so often seem the mirror of her husband's vices. Bill is notoriously unpunctual, prone to being sidetracked by unimportant detail, and rarely able to make up his mind until the eleventhhour is long past.

Hillary is acknowledged, even by her foes, as a brilliant administrator; crisp and decisive, capable not least of actually ending a meeting on time. The President came to office promising he would 'focus like a laser beam' on the economy. The only laser visible around the White House these days has been his wife with health reform in her sights. Even Hillary's faults, such as her obsession with 'diversity' in administration appointments, are mere sticks for Bill-bashing. If hundreds of key posts are still empty, presidential procrastination rather than uxorial nagging is to blame.

It will, of course, not always be like this, as Hillary Clinton the politician knows full well. But when Time burbles on about you being the 'icon of American womanhood', why not enjoy it?

(Photograph omitted)