First lady's missed chance for new role

Thursday, May 14, 1998

BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

"My husband always wants to know what we talked about," a friend said at a birthday party attended only by women. The birthday was just an excuse to get together to eat and laugh, which we do regularly whether anybody blows out candles or not.

We talked about medicine. (Liposuction.)

We talked about science. (Viagra.)

And politics. (Bob Dole on Viagra.)

And philosophy. (Elizabeth Dole talking about Bob Dole on Viagra.) And scandal. (Bill Clinton.)

Another woman said she just tells her husband who was there and what they do for a living, "and he assumes we talk about important things."

It's true that with the notable exception of me, they are a very fancy group of women indeed. Business, politics, education, social work, medicine, law -- all working women, all feminists, all ambitious. We've known each other for a long time, long enough to argue peaceably, long enough to call each other "girls."

Hopes for Hillary

Some of us are Democrats, some Republicans. When Hillary Clinton came here during her husband's first presidential campaign, several of us went to hear her speech.

She was very impressive, we agreed. Speaking for 30 minutes or so without notes, she fluently and intelligently covered a variety of national and international topics. "If he's elected, she'll be a wonderful asset to him," one friend said.

"And maybe to us," said another. "She will play a big role in his administration if he's elected."

Women helped elect Bill Clinton, and I do not believe it is because we were seduced by his wavy gray hair. Some of us liked his politics. And some of us liked his wife.

One woman told me in '92 that although she is a lifelong Republican, she planned to vote for Bill Clinton because "he understands contemporary women, and he is secure enough to have married a smart one."

Well, I pointed out to her, Marilyn Quayle is smart and accomplished. "All she talks about is family values. She doesn't act like a full political partner." And it's true, one didn't really imagine that Marilyn Quayle, an attorney, might be put in charge of health care reform.

Incredible dignity

We imagined Hillary Rodham Clinton as a reformer, as a woman who would prove to be a good mother, good wife and a good leader. We imagined she would show people that feminism isn't dangerous. We -- not all of us, but many of us -- thought she was an example of a '90s woman.

She has behaved with incredible dignity as the world discusses her husband's infidelity. "At least," one friend sighed, "we can be thankful Hillary has spared us tears, recriminations, public spats. I think most people believe this should be private -- just between the two of them."

Yes, but how understanding would America have been if George Bush had put "Bar" through this public humiliation? We'd have been ready to string him up. Maybe people don't like Mrs. Clinton well enough to be outraged on her behalf.

"We always knew he was a skirt-chaser," a thrice-married, 50-ish woman said. "But we at least thought Hillary would slap him around for it."

Maybe she does. President Clinton has appointed 10 of the 21 women who have served in Cabinet-level positions. Do you suppose, as the clouds are gathering over a Paula Jones press conference, Mrs. Clinton exacts a price?

"OK, Big Shot, I'll hold your hand on the way to the helicopter. But only if you give Madeline Albright the job." And Janet Reno. And Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Queen Maker. That would be a powerful '90s role, a modern role for Hillary Rodham Clinton, contrasting with the role she appears to be playing: First Lady and Long-Suffering Wife.

But we were really hoping she'd become First Woman.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. E-mail her at laurapulfer@enquirer.com

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