Barbara Walters named her the most fascinating person of the year. She appears before a congressional committee without notes and she's brilliant. A newspaper article about her is entitled "Hillary, a Woman Who Does Her Job Well."
And therein lies the problem. Hillary doesn't have a job. Every time she makes an authoritative statement, she further clouds the chain of command and delegated responsibility. In so doing, she sends a message to everyone in the country.
What if every person in America brought his wife or her husband to work? Would it make your job easier if your boss' spouse told you, or even implied what you should do? Could you truthfully tell your boss your opinion of the situation, especially when you thought the spouse might be wrong? Who would get the pay raise? Who would be fired? Will government service get even worse, where it is already almost impossible to fire incompetent staff?
Well that's the way it is in the White House with Hillary today. Oh, we've had forceful presidential wives before. Abigail Adams and Dolley Madison were early activist wives. Edith Wilson guarded her husband's door while he was on his deathbed. Eleanor Roosevelt was caught up in many good causes. Jackie Kennedy often represented her husband at state affairs. Nancy Reagan was accused of influencing her husband regarding national policy. Barbara Bush frequently spoke her mind about important issues. And other presidential wives have used their role as "First Lady" to promote causes they considered worthwhile.
But all these spouses seemed at least to implicitly recognize that they were not elected by the people, that they were there only because they happened to be married to the president of the United States, and they played their roles accordingly and were careful to stay in the shadow of their husbands regarding the implementation of national policy. They seemed to know that their actions could be considered presidential, and they were very careful about crossing the line from presidential supporter to government official. Apparently, they knew or sensed that they couldn't be asked to do anything by ostensibly higher-ranking officials, that they couldn't be seriously debated, fired or even chastised; the worst they could expect was some strong pillow talk, and so they were rather thoughtful about what they said and did.
Things are different with Hillary. She is a major partner in the Clinton administration. Yes, Hillary Rodham Clinton is smart, educated, poised and good under fire, and in these characteristics she is an inspiration to the entire world. It is her spousal behavior that is potentially more destructive than Rush Limbaugh's impression of her husband's political philosophy. If her health plan fails, what's she going to say, "Gee honey, I'm sorry. Maybe I could do a better job with foreign policy or reorganizing the banking industry, and we could let Tipper Gore try health care."
But, why is her interpretation of the role of the president's spouse so threatening?
Her style is an anathema to any tested or logical management concept. No accepted theory of effective management or leadership even remotely supports her behavior, for it defies any principle of delegation, order, evaluation and accountability. Nor is there any historic precedent for such an arrangement in a democratic society. Proconsuls didn't even work in Rome.
A rational society, be it a corporation or a country, can only maintain itself if personal responsibility and accountability are at its core; that is, from top to bottom, every agent or citizen must be empowered to conduct her or his role and to be fully accountable for its performance. To the extent that this is done, there is order, freedom, efficiency and progress, but when personal accountability is diffused, the ultimate result is license, confusion, backbiting, and finally a frightening and destructive anarchy. As Plato wrote in the "Republic," in such a society "even the dogs become arrogant."
This, I fear, is the message the Clinton administration is sending across America: We are not individually responsible for our actions; the sum of what we are is the combined action of the unaccountable group rather than the unified action of accountable individuals.
If this message is not challenged, debated and reversed, our nation will falter from our own lack of discipline. Yet we fawn over this able woman who has the best of all worlds -- great power with no real consequences.
The first step toward reform: Let Mrs. Clinton do what she did in Arkansas, go out and get a real job.
James L. Fisher, president emeritus of Towson State University, is a professor of leadership studies at the Union Institute in Cincinnati.