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MRS. WONK GOES TO WASHINGTON : If Hillary Clinton Succeeds, She Could Revolutionize the Role of First Lady. If She Fails, She Could Take the Whole Administration Down With Her.

May 23, 1993|DAVID LAUTER | David Lauter covers the White House for The Times. His last article for this magazine, which he wrote with James Gerstenzang, was "The Clutch President," a profile of George Bush

The aide protested, as others routinely do, telling stories of Clinton's kindnesses to friends and her staff. Nonetheless, for comedians, Hillary stories have replaced the Dan Quayle jokes, and, almost invariably, her toughness and aggressiveness translate into the hoarily sexist humor figure of a woman who "wears the pants in the family." Even Bill Clinton political adviser James Carville has gotten into the act, joking in after-dinner speeches that the Leader of the Free World has settled smoothly into Washington and the priority now is to "figure out what to do with her husband."

Much of the tale-telling about Hillary, of course, has to do with the state of the Clinton marriage--a topic that has been the subject of more rumor and innuendo in Washington than any White House matter since Lt. Col. Oliver L. North stopped feeding Iran-Contra documents into his office shredder.

Their friends have long maintained, as one would expect them to, that despite the rumors and cocktail-party chatter and their acknowledged difficulties in the past, the Clintons now have an affectionate marriage. The available public evidence suggests that the friends' accounts are closer to the truth than those of the gossips.

On the campaign trail--and now in the White House--the Clintons could be glimpsed sitting together, holding hands or sharing an intimate moment of conversation. Watching Hillary take a phone call from her husband can be enlightening as well. Standing for a moment with the phone at her ear, she waits, and when she speaks, her voice noticeably softens into a playful, bantering tone. Chelsea, she says, just returned from an overnight camping trip and was happily sunburned and full of stories to tell. The warm tone seems genuine. "I love you, too," she signs off.

Still, the negative image dies hard. It's not only at work that Hillary hangs tough. "She can," says one Clinton confidant, "ride his butt pretty well." For many Washington observers, particularly men, that is enough to color in the caricature.

"Some sort of Lady Macbeth" is the way several exasperated White House aides describe the perception that has run through Washington most of the spring. And it gets worse. Wildfire rumors have declared repeatedly that the First Lady threw an ashtray or a lamp at the President (she didn't), that the couple sleep in separate beds (they don't) and that a major national magazine plans to publish a story labeling her a lesbian (it doesn't).

Polls, including those taken privately for the White House, indicate that the stories find a receptive audience among a signficant share of the public. Consistently, for example, pollsters find they receive more positive responses to questions about the First Lady if they ask about "Hillary Clinton" than if they ask about "Hillary Rodham Clinton."

"I'm sure it does have some impact (on the public)," Clinton concedes when asked about tales such as the ashtray story. "Hopefully not much, because it's a lie.

"But I learned a long time ago that I couldn't control anybody else, let alone somebody I don't even know, that I have no personal relationship with. I just can't worry about that kind of stuff."

In part, the image persists as a perverse result of Clinton's insistence on maintaining her privacy even as she enthusiastically boosts her husband's most public of careers. Where hard information is hard to get, the grapevine will always fill in the gaps with guesses. But partly, too, Clinton has complicated her situation by antagonizing many of the self-appointed social, political, image-making arbiters of Washington.

In a show of what the less-mellow Hillary must have been like, there is steely idealist zeal--and no irony--in her critique of the manipulations of others in the capital's political community. "It's such an incestuous set of relations here," she says, "people who make their living off the government, off of feeding at the government trough, (or) off of opposing the government by bringing in millions of dollars from frightened citizens out in the countryside so that the government can be stopped from doing something.

"I get very frustrated when I feel that every part of it, whether we're talking about members of government or journalists or lawyers and lobbyists, contractors, whoever it is, see this as a game," she says. "Real people's lives are at stake in a lot of these decisions."

She has little hesitation, as well, about making clear her disdain for much of the media.

"What bothers me are people who I view as serious journalists, who, because of the nature of journalism today or because of their own personal feeling, jump to conclusions or allow themselves to be used, or print things that they doubt are true because somebody else will go with it first."

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