Paging Mrs. Roosevelt : Hillary Has Eleanor's Sense of Mission-And Both Overcame Private Pain with Public Service

By Alter, Jonathan | Newsweek, March 1, 1999 | Go to article overview

Paging Mrs. Roosevelt : Hillary Has Eleanor's Sense of Mission-And Both Overcame Private Pain with Public Service


Alter, Jonathan, Newsweek


Remember those seances in the

White House solarium? In 1996 Bob Woodward published a book claiming that Hillary Clinton tried to make contact with the spirit of Eleanor Roosevelt. Well, she apparently succeeded. Eleanor and Hillary are now thoroughly enmeshed, and living large among 20th-century First Ladies. By channeling some of that classy Roosevelt spirit, Hillary helped bring her poor excuse for a husband back from the dead. And Hillary's careful study of Eleanor may help her with her own decisions ahead.

While Bill Clinton is no FDR, their wives have a surprising amount in common. After learning that FDR died in the company of his onetime mistress, Eleanor never spoke of the matter again. Barbara Walters or Katie Couric will do no better with Hillary, who has never heard a cigar joke (she watches little TV) and is highly unlikely to ever publicly explore her own feelings about her husband's infidelities. Hillary's new popularity is often ascribed to resurgent traditionalism; isn't it ironic, we're told, that this feminist was elevated by classic sympathy for a victim. But that's too pat. Like Eleanor, Hillary has gracefully reconciled public service with private humiliation. The dignity is timeless, and harnessed to purpose. Contrary to her reputation, Hillary is a supreme pragmatist and lacks Eleanor's passionate commitment to liberal principles. But their mutual sense of mission is unmistakable.

The question Hillary is asking herself is how to channel that old- fashioned notion of service. The Senate is appealing because "it's a forum not just to talk but to actually do" something constructive, says one close aide. Eleanor Roosevelt felt the same way about the United Nations, and what she did 50 years ago-championing the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights-helped bring more freedom around the world than any document since the Declaration of Independence. Hillary's problem is twofold: first, the Senate is a lot more talk than action; second, this whole talk-versus-action issue is precisely what might prevent her from getting elected in the first place.

Who wouldn't love to see her toe-to-toe with Rudy Giuliani? Columnist Jack Newfield calls it "Viagra for the press." But I'd argue that most of the handicappers predicting an especially ugly campaign have it wrong. Sure, the New York Post would carp about billing records and cattle futures. So what? Hillary can handle that. Her public support for a Palestinian state is fair game, but if Giuliani hits her with old scandal stuff, it will backfire. Giuliani is too mean to go negative; you have to seem nice to get rough in politics.

The real problem for Hillary is her record. She doesn't have one. With health care a failure, she has nothing solid to show for her years as First Lady. And she lacks the political instincts to make it seem as if she does. All talk, no action. …

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