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First Ladies: speak up.

In March of 1992 I was interviewing Hillary Rodham Clinton for a U.S. News & World Report cover story, the first of what would be many newsweekly cover stories on the First Lady. As the car drove through the outer boroughs of New York City, wending the way from Queens to the Bronx, I asked her repeatedly about her views on different policy issues and how she, as an attorney and a children's advocate, had viewed things like the legal reasoning of Roe v. Wade and assorted civil liberties cases. My goal was to write a story about her worldview. Eager to "stay on message", as it were, her answers to my questions grew terse, as if I was asking about Gennifer Flowers and the draft rather than the intellectual vineyards in which she had toiled. At a certain point, an aide, sensing Mrs. Clinton's irritability, signaled to me that the interview was over even though we still had a good 15 minutes left to our ride.

We would all benefit from knowing more about our First Ladies before they take office. Each candidate should be pressured into saying exactly what the First Lady will do when in office. (I use the term First Lady to include the long overdue First Gentleman we are sure to see in the next century. No more surprises. No vague generalities. No sudden discovery that the First Lady will be responsible for revamping health care. Full disclosure, nothing less.

No campaign, of course, wants to get boxed in by saying what the spouse's role would be in the event of a victory. Better to keep it vague than to shift the focus away from the candidate himself. But while that sentiment is understandable, it's not sufficient to duck the question. The history of First Ladies suggests that we should get it all on the table before voters go to the polls.

That's especially true this year. Barring something totally unforeseen, the next First Lady will be something of a powerhouse. If President Clinton is re-elected we'll have another four years of Hillary. Of the GOP candidates, it's hard to see anyone but Dole, Gramm, or Alexander getting the nomination, and each of their spouses is Hillary-esque in their accomplishments. Liddy Dole has headed two federal cabinet agencies; Wendy Gramm is, like her husband, an economist. Much of Ronald Reagan's regulatory agenda was accomplished under her leadership of the Commodities Futures Trading Commission and a little-known but important division of the Office of Management and Budget that has vast power over federal regulations. And "Honey" Alexander has a career as a major fundraiser and holds a seat on the board of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting for which she was nominated by Reagan. We should be told now what kind of role all of these potential First Ladies will play in the next administration. The willingness of Liddy Dole to say that she might well take a paying job outside the White House while in office represents a good first step towards clarity. Let's hear more.

Why is it so important to know what the First Lady will do? First, it forces the campaign to take this issue more seriously, which is good for the campaign and the country. Mrs. Clinton's role was still a matter of dispute right through the transition following her husband's election in the fall of 1992. Had there been more time to get a consensus from the country, the Clinton health-care plan might have had a happier ending. Instead, the idea of her running the health-care reform effort was hatched in secret. Had the idea for a task force come out during the campaign, it quickly would have become apparent that the administration would have been better off giving health care to, say, a bipartisan commission, and we might have avoided the health-care calamity of 1994. 1 suspect the Gramms are quietly thinking about what Wendy could do with her vast knowledge of regulation. We should find out now.

Of course, some First Ladies will naturally gravitate to the more ceremonial functions of the job. But it's important to know what they will pursue. Nancy Reagan, of course, was known for her interest in refurbishing the White House china, but she played a huge role in policy making, as several Reagan-era memoirs make clear. Only investigative reporting could have revealed her bizarre reliance on astrology. But if our campaigns focused more on the First Lady, we might have learned pre-1980 that Nancy was a social moderate and a good check on her husband's right-wing leanings.

Because it is unlike any other position in the government, the First Lady's position demands special mechanisms of accountability. She is not on the government payroll; yet she influences the President. (This, by the way, should be changed. Post Kennedy-era, Congress barred the appointment of presidential family to cabinet jobs. Why hinder a President's power that way? There's nothing wrong with a Bobby Kennedy or a Wendy Gramm serving in the cabinet.) During the Clinton health-care debacle, there was a dispute over whether the First Lady was a federal employee. If she was, then the work of Mrs. Clinton's healthcare task force was required to abide by various sunshine laws. Eventually it was ruled that she was not such an employee. But that does not mean that we should not scrutinize a First Lady as if she were. She is, after all, the President's first and most important hire.

Matthew Cooper is a senior editor at The New Republic, where he writes the "White House Watch" column.
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Title Annotation:The Missing Issues
Author:Cooper, Matthew
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Jan 1, 1996
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