Poison pens and an Uppity Little Woman

Reggie Nadelson
Thursday 28 January 1993 00:02 GMT

Support truly
independent journalism

Our mission is to deliver unbiased, fact-based reporting that holds power to account and exposes the truth.

Whether $5 or $50, every contribution counts.

Support us to deliver journalism without an agenda.

Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


BILL CLINTON appoints his wife to head a task force on health care and the pundits break out in boils. The discharge of poison pus drips on Hillary. Or Billary, as the phrase-makers have it, suggesting that, as a political entity, the President and his wife are one.

You know what really got the Billaryphobes going? Even before the inaugural, the couple were interviewed on the campaign plane in adjoining seats; when the questions were asked, as Andrew Sullivan noted in this week's Sunday Times, 'she answered about half of them with no prompting from her husband'. As Mammy would have said to Scarlett in Gone with the Wind: 'Gadlmighty, Miz Clinton, it ain't fittin', it jest ain't fittin'.'

Me, I'm a Billaryist (or a Hillbillyite). I prefer a First Lady who operates openly in tandem with her husband to one who does it behind closed doors. Every First Lady has had influence and power; most made their husbands better, most took plenty of stick. Edith Wilson ran the White House after Woodrow had a stroke in 1919; Eleanor Roosevelt stood up for civil rights and was reviled for it. She often travelled as much as 250 days a year; letters would pour in: 'Why don't you stay home and tend to your knitting and your man?' Rosalynn Carter attended Cabinet meetings and people said 'Who elected her?'

Sure there are problems implicit in Hillary Clinton playing an official role, but if she's applying a first-class brain to one of the country's worst problems, it's better than pulling hubby's strings the way Nancy Reagan did - based on advice from her astrologer.

Nothing is more important politically to Mr Clinton than the resolution of America's staggering health-care crisis. His wife is certainly qualified to lead the assault on this monumental task. Even so, there is a valid objection to her appointment: it is nepotism. In Hollywood, they would call Mrs Clinton a Nepot. For some people it is an absolute principle that nepotism is always bad, but I'm willing to put up with a spot of nepotism if it means the First Lady working a real job.

The drip of pus from the pundit- hacks, however, isn't just about principle; insinuation posing as editorial information has made me wonder . . . what the hell is going on here? What is going on, I think, is the case of the Uppity Little Woman.

For instance, many have denounced Hillary Clinton as a creature of the liberals (of 'palaeo-liberals', even]) and, therefore, given her influence, destined to taint her husband's presidency. Hillary is a liberal (the bad L-word) and a feminist (the bad F-word); the two, it seems, are now synonymous. In this paper on Monday, Bruce Anderson wrote: 'If he wants to govern America successfully, Mr Clinton will have to ensure that he remains master in his own household.' Flex those pecs, Billy Jeff.

Other critics are busy biting their nails over the 'hypocrisy' of Hillary. For Andrew Sullivan, if 'the most shocking apsect' of Bill Clinton's assumption of the presidency was the way in which he allegedly reversed so many campaign promises, 'the starkest reversal came in the position and person of Hillary Rodham Clinton'.

Aha] Hillary is not the woman she said she was] First she said she and Bill were a 'twofer' (elect him and you get me, too). Said she did not bake cookies. As the Republicans focused brutally on her as the demon feminist, she pulled back. Baked some cookies, took off the headband.

With Bill elected, she has reclaimed her brains and her headgear. Seen as a stripper for sale then, now she's a hypocrite in a headband. In every political campaign since Boudicca was a girl, politicians and their mates have worn funny hats, kissed drooling babies and boogied to the music of the PR man and the spin doctor. They get elected, they get back to business. Hillary never exactly presented herself as a dim bimbo; give or take a few chocolate chips, everyone knew she would exert power in a Clinton administration.

What makes the Billaryphobes come out in carbuncles most of all, however, is the maiden-name thing: in order to help her husband win the election as Governor of Arkansas, she took his name. Now Hillary Clinton, First Lady, has become Hillary Rodham Clinton. Is it payback time? Maybe, and if so why not? More than most political wives, Hillary stood by her man during a brutal campaign; more than most she has been a political partner. Every First Lady cuts her own deal. Jackie Kennedy kept quiet about J F K's philandering but used her position to redecorate the White House, dine there with Andre Malraux, and spend ten grand a year on underwear. She also gave America a sense of its own style, its own culture. For Hillary Clinton, payback time means a powerful job; if it also means reclaiming her maiden name, so be it.

Mr Sullivan and his ilk may not like Mrs Clinton's pals or her politicking. Still, there's something pretty high- handed in his assertion that 'this is as much Hillary's administration as it is Bill's'. How does he know? As editor of the New Republic, a political weekly, Mr Sullivan, although British, is a Washington insider - but if he has the real dish, I wish he'd stand and deliver.

Something out there does not love a Hillary or, for that matter, a Billary; something out there rejects marriage as partnership, especially if the woman is sassy, smart, tough, pushy, and self- possessed and not, as Mr Sullivan points out, a 'beauty queen'.

As for me, I'd rather have Mrs Clinton put to use. I'm paying her keep - let her work for it, this woman with considerable brains and plenty of energy. By Tuesday, instead of ordering new wallpaper or pearls, she was already on the road, visiting New York schools; she paid for her seat on a commercial flight. Around town people were loving it, you could feel that everyone was up for something new.

It's a new age. Things change. As the best feminists say: 'Context is all', and this is a First Lady who may just have talent to do the job she's been given. What's more, she will be accountable. As her husband has said: 'Hillary will have to share the heat.'

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in