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A Powerful First Lady? Surely, That's Not Allowed : Hillary: Last week's court case may have gone against the White House, but it was a win for the First Lady. She is not breaking anti-nepotism laws.

March 14, 1993|Suzanne Garment | Suzanne Garment, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of "Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics" (Times Books)

WASHINGTON — In the current debate over the proper role of the nation's First Lady, the Clinton White House won a big one this week. The Administration had been sued by citizens claiming that because Hillary Rodham Clinton is not a government employee, the meetings of her health-care reform task force must be open to the public. A federal judge agreed with them.

You say, this doesn't sound like a Clinton victory? Ah, but consider the alternative: If White House lawyers had won, and Hillary Clinton had been declared a government employee, she and they would have been forced to face up to a legal issue far more serious than sunshine laws: nepotism, the first of several problems dogging the First Lady's current public activities.

It sounds silly to talk of nepotism and Hillary Clinton in the same breath. When we hear "nepotism," we think of corrupt public officials steering contracts to their brothers or putting ne'er-do-well nephews on the payroll. Clinton, by contrast, is a lawyer of immense competence.

But there is a federal law against nepotism. It was prompted by President John F. Kennedy's appointment of his brother, Robert F. Kennedy, as his attorney general. No previous President had placed such a close relative in such a high position. Robert Kennedy proved to be a very good attorney general. Yet, after the Kennedy years, Congress forbade Presidents to appoint close relatives to jobs under presidential supervision.

With this law, Congress reaffirmed America's deep and longstanding aversion to nepotism in public life.

Nepotism is not always terribly destructive: Many businesses are strong precisely because they are family-run. Hereditary monarchies transmit power through blood lines.

But in democracies, nepotism always rankles. Relatives in high places are living proof that not everyone has an equal chance at life's rewards. Because these relatives have a specially close relationship with the boss, they can get around the normal lines of authority and accountability. Nepotism thumbs its nose at the democratic ideal and breeds corrosive resentment.

We all know the world does not really work according to public pieties. People get jobs and good treatment for all sorts of sinister and irrational reasons. Yet, there is no American public place so visible as the presidency, and no office so obliged to uphold democratic practices. It is enough that the U.S. presidency sometimes comes perilously close to being a monarchy. The last thing we need is a queen or any other members of a royal court. The anti-nepotism rule is not an irrational one.

There is a serious argument to be made that anti-nepotism laws are unfair to women. Because women have been denied fair opportunities, they are especially likely to have gained professional experience as helpmates to their husbands. It follows that the law should make an exception to correct past inequity.

This is a question we should debate. But the Clinton people have not brought this up to the public for discussion--and that is their second problem. Hillary Clinton, by grace of last week's court judgment, is not a federal employee and thus not technically subject to anti-nepotism rules. Yet, there is no doubt she is doing a large government job.

She is not promoting literacy or beautifying highways or doing any of those non-controversial jobs that other First Ladies have undertaken. She is not pursuing her principles and causes largely outside government, as her model, Eleanor Roosevelt did. She is not an advisory board member in the normal sense.

Instead, she is manager of a 500-member organization engaged in formulating a policy absolutely central to the program of the Clinton Administration. The law did not allow her to do this job as a regular employee, so the health task force is being run as an evasion--off the books.

Not so long ago, during the presidential campaign, Bill Clinton's supporters decried the behavior of the Competitiveness Council, an executive-branch body that monitored the regulatory burdens created by government. The Clintonites claimed it was scandalous that the council made decisions without letting consumer groups and other members of the public attend its meetings.

Why are the same practices OK when Hillary Clinton engages in them? If they are not, the First Lady and the whole health-care reform project run the risk of appearing dangerously arrogant.

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