By Corcoran, Katherine
Washington Journalism Review , Vol. 15, No. 1
Does attorney James Schroeder, spouse of U.S. Rep. Patricia Schroeder, pay enough attention to his family? Does investment banker Richard Blum gaze adoringly when his wife, newly elected U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, makes a speech? Does developer John Zaccaro, husband of the 1984 Democratic candidate for vice president, Geraldine Ferraro, bake cookies? These were issues the press never raised about the men behind the women running for high political office - even when Schroeder ran a trial campaign for president in 1987.
Yet for Hillary Clinton, a high-powered attorney and the first wife of a presidential candidate to have her own career, media scrutiny about her devotion to her husband and family was just the beginning. As the campaign progressed, the coverage dealt less with her career and more with her hair, her clothes, her "gaffes," her "aggressive" style and her chocolate chip cookies.
Many of the stories were full of loaded language conjuring up images of an "acerbic," "take-no-prisoners," "off-putting" Lady Macbeth. There was the "Wronged Woman Hillary," "Feminist Crusader Hillary" and, finally, "Sorority Sister Hillary," complete with adoring gaze and frozen smile.
No doubt, Hillary was news. Serious questions were raised about her influence as the first spouse of a presidential candidate openly acknowledged to be a key adviser to her husband. There was also the possibility that she could play an official role in a Clinton administration.
But for every serious look at Hillary's views there was a host of stories on the "overbearing yuppie wife from hell" who learned the hard way how to act meekly and wear pastels. Ironically, most of those stories were written by women journalists, presumably as career-minded as their subject.
The media were confused by Hillary Clinton. Reporters simply didn't know how to write about a postwomen's movement, professional baby boomer in line to become first lady, a position "framed by the expectations of the 19th century," as the New York Times put it.
"This is a new phenomenon for the media and they're feeling their way, figuring out how to appropriately cover her; whether or not Hillary coverage should go in the A section or in the style pages," says Ann Grimes, a Washington Post assistant national editor and author of the 1990 book, "Running Mates: The Making of a First Lady."
Others say it's simply the nature of the press to oversimplify.
"I think with Hillary Clinton there is a record to be looked at," says Marjorie Williams, a Vanity Fair contributing editor who profiled Barbara Bush in August. "A lot of reporters didn't want to do the homework probably because it involves writing about ideas.... So what we got instead was, Does America like her, does America not like her? Does she spend enough time with her family?'"
Grimes says that the 1988 campaign foreshadowed the media's treatment of Hillary. There was talk during the primaries that year of whether the first lady role might be too insignificant for the likes of Elizabeth Dole, whose husband Robert was seeking the Republican nomination. There were also some musings later about whether the outspoken Kitty Dukakis had been toned down for the campaign. But much more was written about Hillary.
The press approached her almost immediately from a traditional perspective, says Grimes, because that's how she first appeared - as the wronged woman responding last January to allegations of her husband's infidelity on "60 Minutes." "She came into the public awareness...," Grimes says, "as a podium prop and a character witness for her husband."
While the couple's performance under fire was credited with saving Bill Clinton's campaign, that night Hillary also made what became known as the Tammy Wynette slur. "I'm not some little woman standing by her man like Tammy Wynette,' she said.
Only a public opinion poll could show whether it was a gaffe, says Grimes, but no national polls were taken. …