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Jewish World Review Sept. 29 1999/ 19 Tishrei, 5760

Suzanne Fields

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Introducing Bill and
Hillary Bickerson -- LOTS OF MARRIED COUPLES and lovers quarrel and make-up, quarrel and make-up. It comes with the territory. But rarely do the rest of us quarrel and reconcile in the headlines.

We've had that with Hillary and Bill for years. It began with that famous "60 Minutes'' interview. Like Tammy Wynette, Hillary stood by her man by sitting by her man. When he put her in charge of health reform, it was generally assumed that she had struck a deal with him. We've seen them dancing by sea and snuggling by land. We've watched them separate like magnets that repel.

Hillary's gone from treating the president as "nothing but a hound dog,'' to making him heel like a puppy, raising money for her Senate campaign.

But as bad as the personal confrontations were, nothing's been quite as bad as their public differences on policy issues. The first lady calls Jerusalem the "eternal capital'' of Israel; the first man says its status should be decided through talks between Israelis and Palestinians. The president springs Puerto Rican terrorists from the pokey; the first lady flips and flops and finally stays flopped.

Obvious questions: Does the first lady pander to the Jewish vote? (She even found a Jewish step-grandfather in the family tree.) To the Puerto Rican vote? To the upstate New York vote? These are all legitimate concerns of a voting public but it's positively eerie to watch the first couple disagree.

There's simply no greater way to exacerbate Clinton fatigue than being an unwilling party to their policy feuds. Her listening tour has become our voyeur tour.

When Paula Zahn interviewed George Bush (the elder), on Fox, she asked what he thought about the first lady's campaign for the Senate. Mr. Bush said, "I couldn't take it.'' Simple as that: "I couldn't take it.''

This is not about male chauvinism or feminism, but a lot about the image of American leadership in the eyes of the world. It's tacky.

Can anyone imagine the first couple of any other nation acting this way?

Historians of first ladyhood suggest that the role of the wife of the president reflects the status of women in society. That's only partly true. The public scrutiny of a first lady has always magnified her persona, subjecting her to demonization by her husband's enemies, and idealization by his partisans. What's different for this first couple is that their policy disagreements have an impact on her candidacy and on his legacy, such as it may be.

It's very difficult to evaluate their motives. Is he trying to help her? Is she trying to show her independence? These are not your usual dinner table tiffs.

I have always had trouble envisioning the political odd couple Mary Matalin and James Carville in private. But they've carved a public image that "entertains'' through disagreement. That's show-biz. It's not dignified, but it's their shtick. They were on opposite sides when they met. Fair enough. Lots of Washington couples have sharp differences on certain subjects, including politics.

But the president and the first lady have always presented themselves to be in political sync. ("Buy one, get one free.'') Their recent political differences smack of expediency, or hypocrisy, or both. They give off among other things confusing signals.

Most of us respect presidents who consult with their wives. Many first ladies have had to carry their husband's message to specific groups outside the White House. They had to be informed. Eleanor Roosevelt was famous for getting her "friends'' to talk to the president or to use her influence to get their message to him.

In that interview in Talk magazine, Hillary says she was thrilled to be liberated to go off on her own after having served as first lady. She should have waited until after she had served as first lady. But that would mean giving up the perks of her husband's power.

Eleanor Roosevelt said that her relationship with FDR ultimately "served his purposes'' more than he served hers. Hillary Clinton upstages her favorite first lady by turning that equation around. Like so much about the Clintons, that's tacky, too.


09/27/99: Must we wait for the next massacre?
09/24/99: Miss America meets Miss'd America
09/21/99: Princeton's 'professor death'
09/16/99: The Cisneros lesson
09/13/99: No clemency for personal politics
09/08/99: M-M-M is for manhood
08/30/99: Blocking the schoolhouse door
08/27/99: No kick from cocaine
08/23/99: Movies don't kill people
08/19/99: A rude awakening
08/16/99: Dubyah and that 'language' thing
08/09/99: Chauvinist sows -- oink oink

©1999, Suzanne Fields. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate