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
"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
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. …