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Jewish World Review July 8, 1999 /24 Tamuz 5759

Michael Barone

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Taking Hillary seriously --
Hillary Rodham Clinton is running for senator in 2000 but is surely thinking about running for president in 2004 or 2008.

So it's fair to ask what her record tells us about how she would govern in her own right. She has been a national public figure for 30 years, since her speech at the 1969 Wellesley commencement was quoted and her picture run in Life magazine. She may have grown up among the several hundred thousand orange brick bungalows neatly lining grid streets in metro Chicago.

But the course of her public career was set only when she reached the leafy campus of Wellesley College ("My mind exploded when I got to Wellesley," she once said) and the Gothic quadrangle of Yale Law School, at a special moment in history. In her years on campus, 1965 to 1974, crime and welfare rolls tripled and the nation lost its first war. The nation's leaders seemed to lose their legitimacy, and the high-test-score, self-admiring elite students at places like Wellesley and Yale Law felt entitled to step immediately into their places even as they insouciantly disobeyed laws (against marijuana, for the draft) they found inconvenient.

At Wellesley and at Yale Law, Hillary Rodham found her role: as an elite decision maker, operating through large institutions, trying to impose policies unlikely to win support on their own, and in the process disregarding rules and laws that bind everyone else.

Grass-roots protest was not her choice. Saul Alinsky, the neighborhood protest organizer and subject of Rodham's senior thesis, offered her a job, but she turned it down to go to Yale Law. "Organizing the poor for community actions to improve their own lives may have, in certain circumstances, short-term benefits for the poor but would never solve their major problems," she wrote in her thesis. "You need much more than that. You need leadership, programs, constitutional doctrines." The place to find those was Yale Law School, where Rodham found her constitutional doctrine (children's rights), programs (legal services), and political leader (Bill Clinton).

Cosmetic lawsuits. Her advocacy of children's rights was cast mostly in the stilted language of law reviews, where ordinary citizens were unlikely to notice what most would consider absurd arguments. Rodham argued that teenagers should be represented by lawyers to sue parents over the right to have or abstain from having cosmetic surgery; argued that self-appointed children's advocates should be able to sue the nuclear power industry or the manufacturers of junk food. Perhaps she has changed her mind about these things (although she told Garry Wills in 1992 that she hadn't), but at least for a long time she believed that family life would be improved by thousands of freelance lawsuits brought under no clear rules.

At different points in her career, she had a chance to put her ideas into practice. In 1978 Jimmy Carter appointed her chairman of the Legal Services Corp. The lawyers running the LSC disdained their assigned task of providing poor people with free lawyers in routine cases and set out to make public policy through class-action lawsuits–an attempt to avoid the democratic process. When Rodham was chairman, Legal Services affiliates brought lawsuits to force New York's Transit Authority to hire heroin users and to require racial quotas in school suspensions in Newburgh, N.Y. The LSC broke its own rules by organizing campaigns against a state referendum and against Ronald Reagan.

There is an obvious resemblance between this heavily lawyered regime and the one she sought to impose through her health care plan a dozen years later, or the centralized day care she plugged in her book, It Takes a Village. There is a resemblance as well to her penchant for cutting corners and disobeying rules in the White House. It was while her husband was the Democratic nominee for attorney general of Arkansas, with no opposition, that Rodham allowed a leading Arkansas businessman and his broker to guide her to, if not allocate to her, $100,000 of commodity trading profits. In 1980, when her husband was under attack for raising license-plate fees, it turned out Rodham had not bothered to pay hers in 1977 and 1978. It is a straight line from here to the illegally secret health care task force meetings and the Rose Law Firm billing records, out of sight for months and then found in the White House family quarters. The pattern is clear: rule making for others, rule breaking for herself.

Another approach comes from Yale Law contemporary Richard Epstein, now at the University of Chicago. In his book Simple Rules, he argues that a complex society works best not through centralization and complex rules but through decentralization and simple rules. Recent progress has followed from his approach, not hers. Crime and welfare rolls are now falling on as steep a curve as they were rising in 1965-74, not because of complex centralized legislation but because local politicians, like New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, came up with innovative programs based on simple rules.

The economy thrives not because of central planning but because of simple rules that keep the currency hard, enforce contracts, and let people innovate. Does a decentralized nation need a centralizing leader, one eager to issue complex rules for others but unwilling to obey simple rules herself?

JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report and the author of the biennialAlmanac of American Politics. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


06/22/99: Trying the lawyers
06/07/99: Facts on the ground

©1999, Michael Barone