UNDER A BROAD EXPANSE OF PRAIRIE SKY, THE bright spring sun shines down onto the neatly swept streets of Lincoln, Neb. It sparkles off the man-made lakes, glinting from the dome of the state Capitol, casting small, sharp-edged shadows around the crowd gathering near the side door to the University of Nebraska's Johnny Carson Theater.
Later in the day, this theater will host a conference on the nation's health-care crisis, an event that has drawn front-page attention from local newspapers. But for now, all the action is preparation. Secret Service agents, instantly recognizable in their tailored suits and dark sunglasses, with plastic receivers in their ears, stand in the middle of the quiet street talking earnestly into wrist microphones. A half-dozen local police officers anxiously check the yellow plastic tape carefully strung along two parallel lines of sawhorses--makeshift crowd barriers isolating a bare stretch of sidewalk running from the curb 30 feet to the stage door. Hillary Rodham Clinton is about to arrive.
Along one line of sawhorses, television crews, elbowing each other for the best angle, begin lining up, training their cameras on the empty space. Along the other line, students bearing welcome signs practice waving them, point at the cameras, then fall to giggling among themselves. Near the curb, pressed against the sawhorses, Angie King, a 15-year-old high school student, stands with her friends, bouncing excitedly on the balls of her feet and talking about her idol, the President's wife.
A few yards behind the crowd, out of sight of the cameras but well within earshot, a young, pale-faced man in a dark suit clambers up on a low wall. Surrounded by a small group of people carrying anti-abortion placards, he stretches out his arms and, holding a Bible in one hand, begins to shout.
"She did not take her husband's name," the preacher's voice booms.
"She speaks out for women," Angie King beams to a reporter.
"She justifies the killing of the innocent," the man's voice echoes in the background.
"She's just so exciting," King says.
"She even insists on being called a co-President," the preacher shouts.
"She's making a point by what she's doing," King says.
A siren's wail, the flash of lights from two police cruisers, and a nine-car motorcade wheels around the corner. The preacher intensifies his jeremiad. King and her companions cheer: "HILL-a-ry, HILL-a-ry." The limousine pulls up to the curb. The object of the admiration and the vilification steps out, waves, reaches over the yellow tape to shake hands, receives a small gift and is gone.
In a few moments, all is silence. The officers wind up their yellow tape and dismantle their sawhorse barriers. Angie King and her friends drift away to their cars, faces flush with the excitement of having shaken hands with their heroine. The preacher climbs down off the wall and slowly walks away, fiercely clutching his Bible to his chest.
And so it goes, not just in Nebraska, but in Boston and New Orleans, Iowa and Florida, Arkansas and Montana, and, especially, in Washington, D.C. In these first 100-plus days, not just the President but his wife as well have been under scrutiny. The most controversial, and probably most powerful, First Lady in recent history is surrounded by polarized conflict--loved and hated, feared and admired. Millions, particularly young women, tell pollsters and interviewers she is a role model and exemplar of all that a modern woman can accomplish--a latter-day Joan of Arc. At the same time, conservative opponents of the Administration see her as the embodiment of American decline, a "feminazi," a symbol of abortion and gay rights, a '90s version of the biblical Witch of Endor.
The crescendo on both sides of the Hillary Clinton question has risen to a level almost certainly beyond what any one woman should reasonably be expected to bear. But for Clinton, who revels in the influence her post brings while ruing the ceaseless attention the job entails, there is no relief in sight, no escape from the gilded cage of others' expectations.
In an Administration that likes to talk grandly about change, she is change incarnate. As the first First Lady in modern times to come into the White House having had an independent career and as the first to openly take a formal, high-profile role in policy-making, Clinton has dramatically forced Americans to confront their deeply held ambivalence about the proper roles of women in public life. As the most influential of her husband's advisers, she is cheered and booed for his policies. And as a deeply private woman, she rarely allows the public to see beneath the armor of certainty that clothes her in public or to glimpse the person behind the symbol.