WASHINGTON -- Hillary Rodham Clinton, sounding confident and unbowed, vowed last night not to retreat into any shell as first lady despite setbacks to her and her husband. Instead, she said, she'll continue to work on health care reform and other issues that affect America's poor and disadvantaged.
"I don't think a nation can be great that turns its back on the poor or the less fortunate -- or its children," Mrs. Clinton told an audience of about 650 last night at the Mayflower Hotel. "Health care still needs to be addressed. The president will continue to work on it. So will I."
'To get out more'
She also said she wants to do volunteer work in Washington. "There's no substitute for that kind of personal contact," she said. "I am going to get out more."
Mrs. Clinton's comments came at a George Washington University symposium on the roles of first ladies in American history. Nancy Reagan previously addressed the class, as did Rosalynn Carter and Barbara Bush.
Last night, Mrs. Clinton took questions about her own role and that of her predecessors in a friendly atmosphere dominated by polite questions and applause.
She smiled a lot, told a few warm stories about the president and made a point of complimenting past first ladies, from Jacqueline Kennedy, who advised her about raising children in the White House, to Betty Ford, who inspired her by backing the proposed Equal Rights Amendment many years ago -- and supporting health care reform last year.
'A great comfort'
"For me, that was a great comfort," Mrs. Clinton said.
Mrs. Clinton acknowledged that the health care legislation she helped craft turned into a "big government" program.
She said that had not been her intention, and acknowledged that the "incremental" kind of health insurance reform she opposed just a few short months ago would now be the approach taken by the new Republican-controlled Congress.
But she insisted that she wants to be a part of those negotiations, thus answering the question Hillary-watchers have wanted to know: Would she retreat into the hostess role that first ladies have played, or would she keep fighting?
One close friend who asked not to be named said that since the collapse of the health care legislation, Mrs. Clinton has fretted over what she could have done differently.
Within the White House, questions have been raised about precisely what role she should now play in the administration.
She is less popular than previous first ladies, opinion polls show. The high proportion of Americans who say they have a negative impression of her -- 40 percent -- is more typical of an ambitious elected official than of a political spouse.
Mrs. Clinton suggested last night that she can handle that; what's tougher is the out-and-out hatred expressed openly toward her when she travels. On a health care trip last summer, she was met by protesters who shouted, "Heil Hillary," and carried signs saying, "Go Home!"
1992 cookie slur
But Mrs. Clinton, like her husband, has mounted comebacks before. During the 1992 presidential campaign, she became an issue when she raised the prospect of a co-presidency in some people's minds and when she seemed to slur stay-at-home-moms by saying sarcastically, "I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas."
Just a year later, however, as the wife of the president, she gave a stiring commencement speech at Wellesley College. There, she emphasized the importance of family and told the graduates that they could succeed both "by making policy or by making cookies."
Last night, Mrs. Clinton was asked by Carl Sferrazza Anthony, the instructor in the class and the author of an authoritative history, "The Saga of the Presidents' Wives and Their Power," whether it might have been better for her to behave like "a 19th-century" first lady -- to wield power, but discreetly.
"My husband's friends probably would have had me committed," she responded with a laugh. "That would not have been in my nature or my background."
"It's probably better to be yourself," she added. "If I'd never left Little Rock or if I'd never met Bill Clinton and went back to Chicago [after law school], I would be expressing my opinions over coffee or around the water cooler somewhere."
New first lady
Mr. Anthony's class was a striking venue for Mrs. Clinton to be providing her vision of what a first lady ought to do.
In her first two years in the White House, Mrs. Clinton has been roundly denounced by critics -- and given much credit by supporters -- for being some sort of prototype of a new, independent and powerful first lady.
It is Mr. Anthony's view, however, that those who demonize Mrs. Clinton -- and those who lionize her -- lack historical perspective. Mrs. Clinton, he believes, is more like her predecessors than even she realizes.
It was Abigail Adams who was first ridiculed as "Mrs. President." It was Edith Wilson who was first denounced as being the real power in the White House.
And it was Eleanor Roosevelt, to whom Mrs. Clinton often compares herself, who first endured cruel slurs on her marriage and her femininity.
One student in the class pointed out that when Mrs. Clinton testified last year on Capitol Hill in favor of health care legislation, it was widely reported that this was a historic first.
But in fact, Eleanor Roosevelt testified before Congress. And the distinction of being the first to testify in favor of specific legislation belonged to Mrs. Carter.
In their lectures, Mrs. Carter and Mrs. Reagan also alluded to the controversies that attended their perceived meddling.
Mrs. Carter said she had argued against her husband's push for a Panama Canal treaty. "If Jimmy had done what I advised him to do," she said, "he would have gone down in history as a do-nothing president.
Husbands were elected
All four first ladies, Mrs. Clinton included, alluded to the important distinction between them and their husbands -- their husbands were elected and they were not.
Both Mrs. Reagan and Mrs. Bush used the lecture to express their private opposition to their husbands' stances against legal abortion.
Mrs. Clinton, too, sounded, if not deferential, certainly first ladylike. Asked if she ever disagreed with her husband, she said, "Oh yes, absolutely," adding quickly that what they disagreed about is between the two of them.
And to the cosmic question of what a first lady should do these days, perhaps Mrs. Carter put it best.
"There's so much a first lady can do," she told the class Oct. 25. "I don't think there will ever be a first lady again who just pours tea."
Maybe there never was.