Try Harder, Hillary Eleanor Roosevelt Set a High Standard for a First Lady's Newspaper Column. So Far, Mrs. Clinton Hasn't Reached It

Article excerpt

IF YOU could read somebody else's diary, in time you'd come to feel you know that person well. Seeing things from her perspective, you might grow to respect her, to like her, even to care about her.

That, says historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, is exactly how many Americans felt about Eleanor Roosevelt because of her newspaper column, My Day.

Now Hillary Rodham Clinton has become the second first lady to write a newspaper column, Talking It Over.

Like Mrs. Roosevelt, Mrs. Clinton is a first lady who went to the White House with her own accomplishments and strong opinions. Like Mrs. Roosevelt, Mrs. Clinton has been criticized personally, and viciously, by her political opponents. Like Mrs. Roosevelt, Mrs. Clinton is an educated, articulate woman who is doubtlessly capable of expressing herself on the printed page.

Can columnist Clinton, like columnist Roosevelt, make that almost personal connection with millions of Americans? In time, will Talking It Over make readers feel that they like her, respect her - or at least, that they recognize her voice?

Not unless the column improves, it won't.

Among journalists, reaction to the weekly column has been tepid, to put it generously:

Jeffrey Rosen of The New Republic, talking to the Washington Times, called it "relentlessly stentorian." In Fortune, Daniel Seligman and David C. Kaufman derided the column's clumsy sentence structure and its "determinedly noncontroversial" tone. In the Washington Post, Lloyd Grove described the column as "a combination of political calculation, message discipline and statistics . . . like a speech." Joanne Jacobs of the San Jose Mercury News dismissed columnist Clinton as "an amateur . . . selling her name and her fame, not her writing."

Worse is the charge that Mrs. Clinton does not really write the column herself. Alison Muscatine, a White House speechwriter, has been called an uncredited collaborator on the column and even the real writer. But Mike Santiago, executive vice president of Creators Syndicate, which distributes the column, denies that flatly.

"Her assistant may edit a draft and may provide some research; we will also do editing and research on our end," Santiago said. "But it is definitely the first lady's column. There is no collaboration, no ghost-writing. It is Mrs. Clinton's column. She unequivocally writes it, in the full sense."

If Mrs. Clinton were not writing it herself, there'd be no point in the column at all, observed Doris Goodwin. The historian, who won the Pulitzer Prize for "No Ordinary Time," a book about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt during World War II, said she encouraged the first lady to write a column last November, during a visit to the White House.

The Clintons had invited the Goodwins to a state dinner and then to stay the night, "so that I could see where everyone had slept 50 years before," Doris Goodwin recalled. "That night, we talked for hours. She did not need me to tell her about Eleanor - she already knew a lot about her. She had read everything.

"But we did talk about the importance of the column - in (Mrs. Roosevelt's) own voice, without intermediaries. Eleanor Roosevelt managed to write the way she spoke. It had a conversational tone."

Doris Goodwin said she has not been following the Clinton column but is concerned by criticism that it is too "speech-like," too processed. Informality and intimacy were precisely the qualities that made Mrs. Roosevelt's long-running column such a joy to read.

Originally, she notes, Mrs. Roosevelt had a different kind of column in mind, dealing with national policy. But her friend Lorena Hickok, a veteran reporter, convinced her that "the thing to do was just to write about her day," she said. …