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Hillary Rodham Clinton: Turning Fifty
Older and wiser, America's first baby boom first lady wrestles with career, family and how to leave a mark
By Karen Tumulty
(TIME, October 20) -- How do you take the measure of a woman's life at 50, when her generation--or at least its passionate front line--has broken all the rules? "There is no formula that I'm aware of for being a successful or fulfilled woman today," Hillary Rodham Clinton once said. "Perhaps it would be easier...if we could be handed a pattern and cut it out, just as our mothers and grandmothers and foremothers were. But that is not the way it is today, and I'm glad it is not."
On Oct. 26, Hillary turns 50, which is a birthday that compels almost any woman to step back and examine whether the drape and line of her life fit the woman she once dreamed of becoming. The cutting edge of female Baby Boomers, of whom Hillary is the most famous, approached adulthood with a wild, subversive earnestness. These women would change the world, have careers, build strong marriages, raise good children and keep their sense of humor. Hillary has been a beneficiary of these expectations, and as First Lady also their most conspicuous victim. Her Wellesley education and Yale law degree put her onstage (as the student speaker at her college commencement and later as one of the nation's "most influential" lawyers), but they also moved her to the side when her husband's Arkansas constituency chafed at her insistence on being called Ms. Rodham. They put her in a new kind of spotlight as the victorious spouse of this nation's first Baby Boomer President, but she stepped off the stage again when her mishandling of health-care reform almost crippled his presidency.
Now she is getting ready to come onstage again, into some treacherous politics. For the first time since her health-care debacle, the First Lady is preparing to assume a leading role on a policy issue that sweeps every corner of American life, opening questions of government's role, corporate responsibilities and even the very nature of family. As Hillary wrote in her best-selling book It Takes a Village, "If you want to open the floodgates of guilt and dissension anywhere in America, start talking about child care."
To begin her moderation of the issue, the First Lady will lead a major White House conference on child care next week; she promises to lay out the problem's complexities with her customary intellectual rigor. "You have to put the issue in front of the American people and get them to look at it honestly," she told TIME last week in a late-night interview at her hotel suite in Panama City, Panama, where she spoke at a conference of First Ladies of the Americas. But already the ideological lines on child care are forming, bracing for confrontation. "It's very clear," says Hillary's old ally, children's advocate Marian Wright Edelman, "that child care is going to have a private-sector piece, a state piece, a community piece and a Federal Government piece." In other words, retorts conservative guru Paul Weyrich, child care is going to be "the new entitlement of the next century."
The prospect of this kind of clash helps explain why White House officials, who grow exceedingly sensitive in discussing anything that involves the First Lady, are vague about what will come out of her latest endeavor. Hillary herself raises a wide range of possibilities: policy recommendations that might be carried out by Executive Order or regulation (like a national registry of day-care workers who have been credibly accused of abuse), new legislation, new state and local programs, better enforcement of the laws already on the books. But the President, in his own interview with TIME, set an ambitious goal for his wife: "I see it as sort of a last big hurdle we need to clear, to create a kind of 21st century social compact that will enable people to be good parents and still succeed at work."
A New Approach
Hillary's approach this time bears little resemblance to her health-care crusade. The woman who once traded put-downs with House majority leader Dick Armey on Capitol Hill now makes her point by tousling the curls of a toddler in a day-care center for hospital workers in Florida, or cooing over a sock dog made for her by children in an after-school program at the Marine base in Quantico, Va. Even her wardrobe has been transformed: the powerful teals and reds of her health-care days have been replaced by Oscar de la Renta pastels, with pumps to match.
Her message has a new look as well. Hillary now preaches the virtues of small steps rather than big ones, of incentives rather than mandates. She strives to find what others consider doable, rather than struggling to get them to embrace her view of the ideal. "I'm not wedded to any particular way," she says. "I think it's important to raise a lot of options and...include people at all levels." Most significantly, her formal role begins and ends at advocating changes, not pushing them through. It was she, along with then Housing Secretary Henry Cisneros, who pressed the President to get more deeply involved in the crisis beleaguering the District of Columbia. "She was a very strong advocate for the district and hammered [the President] on this thing, because she gets out in the community more than he does," says White House spokesman Mike McCurry. But when it came time to put forward a specific plan and launch a fight for it on Capitol Hill, the job fell to Budget Director Franklin Raines. Says Cisneros: "She's found a new way to get things done."
White House staff members say that after a two-year, self-imposed exile from the West Wing, Hillary is putting in an occasional appearance there again, expressing her views on everything from race relations to an initiative grandly titled the Millennium Program, a series of events designed to celebrate the new millennium. The First Lady insists that there was no retreat and no comeback--and that her generation's ambivalence about her role has not changed her in the least. "I continue to do what I want to do and what I consider important," she told TIME. "These questions I don't really find are ones I can respond to. Somebody else will have to analyze that. I don't think of my life like that. I never thought I was living anybody else's role or anybody else's expectation."
But to some who have watched her in the past three years, her child-care initiative represents a new attempt at public redemption after wandering more or less by herself in the political wilderness. She tried "reflective meditation" sessions with New Age psychic philosopher Jean Houston, who persuaded her to enact conversations with Eleanor Roosevelt and Mahatma Gandhi; she talked about tracking the progress of welfare reform for her husband but has done so only from the sidelines in an unofficial capacity; facing the empty nest, she thought of adopting a baby. Says longtime friend Diane Blair, a member of Hillary's inner circle: "She was trying to figure out how she could be who she is--a thinker, a doer--without arousing hostility from those who felt she was overstepping her bounds. I think she's figured it out." A former White House official puts it more bluntly: "Fundamentally, Hillary was seared, and seared badly. She's trying to carve her niche so she can be remembered."
Hillary has learned the perverse Washington lesson that a First Lady succeeds in public at her husband's peril. Presidential power being a zero-sum equation, it was impossible for her to look strong without the President's looking weak. She learned the hard way what First Ladies before her had assumed: that her influence was better felt than seen. So late in 1994 she vanished from the West Wing. She sent her chief of staff at the time, Maggie Williams, to meetings. If she needed to make a point, she did it one on one with such trusted aides as deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes and political director Doug Sosnik. And she became the covert campaigner, keeping the national media off her plane as she stumped from city to city. Save for her star turn at the Democratic Convention, the First Lady hovered below radar.
It was in her stealth phase, for instance, that she recruited political consultant Dick Morris to craft the move-to-the-center strategy that kept Bill Clinton in the White House. She and Morris were the earliest to press the President into adopting the consultant's campaign of bite-sized, family-oriented initiatives. And after the election, she was one of the most important forces behind the first major decision of his second term: to balance the budget. She did not stay out of personnel decisions either. She backed Erskine Bowles as chief of staff, putting pragmatism over friendship by passing over her ally Ickes, and she put her old pal Ann Lewis in charge of White House communication operations.
But she cut back in the size of her public role. Her causes became Gulf War syndrome, the need for more micro-lending by banks in poor areas, the troubles of American couples trying to adopt 90 babies from Paraguay, and Naina Yeltsin's crusade for Russian children suffering from a metabolic disorder called phenylketonuria. In the White House she moved back into the safety of a world that even its denizens call Hillaryland, a world made up of ferociously protective aides and a collection of friends from Arkansas like television producer Linda Bloodworth-Thomason. (Just two weeks ago, in fact, Hillary called with suggestions for a title for Bloodworth-Thomason's latest sitcom pilot. Bloodworth-Thomason was startled. She says with a laugh, "You want to say, 'Shouldn't you be off inspecting meat somewhere?'")
The Rehabilitation of Hillary
Among her circle, a former top White House official says, the rehabilitation of Hillary became Topic A. They held meetings on the subject. "Unlike the President, Hillary is very disciplined," the former official says. "She kept the meetings on point, which was how to reposition her." But while Hillary Clinton may seek advice, says former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, "she feels her way by herself. Undoubtedly she did withdraw."
What made Hillary pull back was that by late 1994 her record was a ledger of error and miscalculation. Beyond the health-care disaster, she became the first First Lady to be subpoenaed by a federal grand jury, this one looking into the mysterious reappearance of her Rose Law Firm billing records, of interest in the Whitewater investigation. Earlier in the term, there had been an uproar over her involvement in the firings at the White House travel office, and later over her possible hand in the gathering of FBI files on Republicans who had worked in the White House. By Election Day 1996, every word and deed of this entirely novel First Lady was shadowed by an entirely novel question: Would she be indicted? Hillary had stood by her husband through Gennifer Flowers and Paula Jones, through questions about the draft and whether he inhaled, but to see her own moral standards attacked was something new. "That stung her really hard, put her in shock," says a long-standing ally. "Hillary Rodham Clinton never recovered from that, in a profound way."
Reich, an old friend, sees it differently. "She bounces back easily. She really does," he says. "Except in the one domain of trust." Nowhere does that show more than in her tortured relationship with the media. In the rare instances when she allows reporters on her plane or dines with them on the road, Hillary is charming and revealing. She is a wicked mimic, her repertoire ranging from witty stories of wandering the White House (she and Bill still haven't seen every room) to the migration patterns of screwworms. But the First Lady enforces an almost inviolable rule that these very human encounters are to be off the record. For this article, it was easier to get an interview with her husband than with her. When she finally agreed to talk, near midnight after a punishing day of travel and official events, Hillary turned testy on even softball questions if they approached anything personal. She engaged only when the topic turned to policy, and insisted on approving even the most boilerplate quotes before they could be published.
Public scrutiny, personal loss
Hillary's sense of fragility comes not only from her public beatings but also from the deep personal losses she has suffered since entering the White House. Her father died, then the President's mother. Deputy White House counsel Vince Foster, her close friend and law partner from Arkansas, committed suicide, under circumstances that continue to nourish the dark theology of the Clinton haters. Others from the Little Rock circle left in disgrace. "I could see in her eyes a real hurt and a loss of bearings," says Cisneros.
As she foundered, Hillary largely shut out overtures from the Beltway's Democratic intelligentsia, including women who had joined the Administration in large part because of her. A top Administration woman says of the First Lady, "She doesn't travel with her peers." Says Morris: "She's very headstrong and very stubborn, and ultimately very brittle." Her bitterness would occasionally seep out. At the Democratic Convention she told the Arkansas delegation that a friend had told her she would have everything but the kitchen sink thrown at her. "Well," she said, "I just saw it go by."
It is not surprising that Hillary began to regain her voice and her footing far from home, on the other side of the world, at the U.N.'s Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in September 1995. That was a delicate time in U.S.-Chinese relations, so tense that some in Washington had argued she should not even attend. When Hillary took the podium, she unleashed the most stinging human-rights rebuke ever by a prominent American speaking for this government on Chinese soil. "It is time to break our silence," she declared. "It is time for us to say here in Beijing, and the world to hear, that it is no longer acceptable to discuss women's rights as separate from human rights." Without mentioning China by name, the First Lady offered an unsparing litany of abuses there and elsewhere: forced abortion and sterilization, denial of political rights, suppression of speech. The address had an odd, disjointed rhythm, losing bits here and there in translation as it made its way to the headphones of women from more than 180 countries. But if at times her words took a moment or two to register, Hillary's message got through clearly enough. Delegates cheered, others leaped from their seats and pounded the tables. The applause lasted more than 20 minutes after she left the stage. Women she has met since in Soweto, Budapest and Manila can recite the lines she delivered that day.
Support From Abroad
The freedom she feels abroad may explain why Hillary spends so much time there. She is by far the U.S.'s most traveled First Lady. Last week's trip to Panama was her 14th solo journey. In Senegal she was called "Sister Hillary." In Bangladesh an entire village was named for her. But whatever affirmation they offered, those trips did little to help her come to terms with her skeptical audience at home. That was why, on the plane back from Beijing, in Ireland and in Latin America, the computer-illiterate First Lady curled up with a legal pad on her lap to produce, in her semilegible longhand, It Takes a Village. The book, subtitled And Other Lessons Children Teach Us, took most of 1995 to complete. "The writing of the book was important because it gave her another major project to be involved in," President Clinton told TIME. "She's never comfortable unless she's working on something big that she thinks will have an impact." For Hillary it was also a chance to redefine herself, to return to the causes that had given shape to her entire adult life. As her critics might have expected, she wrote glowingly of expensive social programs, such as France's child-care system. But the book also provided glimpses of a surprisingly conservative Hillary. She advocated school uniforms long before her husband's campaign discovered the issue. She praised the "heartening efforts" of Promise Keepers to strengthen marriage and found common cause with virtuecrat William Bennett on divorce and rap music. She even opened the shutters a crack on the most speculated-upon marriage in America: "My strong feelings about divorce and its effects on children have caused me to bite my tongue more than a few times." The book stayed on the best-seller lists for 20 weeks.
The Years Ahead
As she contemplates the years ahead, Hillary, like her husband, can't help fretting over her legacy. (She's already started to fret about the birthday and the hoopla it has engendered: friends plan a round of parties; her hometown Chicago has considered fireworks; and the Democratic Party--no surprise--has found in it another occasion for a fund raiser.) For one thing, her most tangible gift to the future, Chelsea, is on her own now. "I'm looking for ways to divert myself from my empty nest, and I'll take just about any dinner invitation I can get," the First Lady joked recently. Bill too misses having the other night owl in the family around when he is up late working, and he even misses Hillary's nagging them both to get some sleep. "The phone doesn't ring as much--not nearly as much," the President laments. "And every now and then, we ease into her room and look around." With Chelsea's departure, the First Lady who mastered Game Boy has resolved to overcome her phobia of computers. Her chief of staff, Melanne Verveer, lately caught her thumbing through a book called Internet E-Mail for Dummies.
But there are other forces besides the empty nest compelling Hillary to move on to the next project. Unlike those of her most recent predecessors, who were nearer retirement age when they left the White House, Hillary's chance to make a mark doesn't end when the helicopter rises from the South Lawn for the last time. A few months ago, she mused to her friend actress Mary Steenburgen that she and Bill might be itinerant college professors for a while, taking stints at various campuses as they sort out their future. On the other hand, says Steenburgen, the idea of putting down roots has more than a little appeal to a woman who has spent most of her adult life in government housing, with each election bringing the prospect of eviction. The President's vision has them sitting on a bench somewhere, "old people laughing about our lives and not begrudging young people having more time than we did."
Chances are, none of those fantasies will completely satisfy Hillary, who says, "I'll go on to do something else that I find challenging and interesting." Last Friday, Hillary and her entourage hiked a slick, muddy trail outside the remote Panamanian village of Chica, where a dozen peasant women were waiting at their nursery of guavas, peppermint and poinsettias. On a dilapidated bamboo bench, Faustina Nunez told the First Lady in Spanish of the dream they had also harvested from the soil. "Our community could see we were a society of strong-willed women, and we were not going to step backward," Nunez said. For Hillary and her generation, that is a yearning that needs no translation.
--With reporting by Ann Blackman/Washington
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