Walking in Eleanor Roosevelt's footsteps


WASHINGTON -- Moments before Hillary Rodham Clinton walked into a congressional hearing room to be grilled on health care reform in the fall of her first year in the White House, an aide whispered in her ear:

"This is Eleanor Roosevelt time."

And so it is again. As she moves about in the very public, not very policy oriented, role she has carved out for herself in the wake of the health care debacle, Mrs. Clinton is looking more and more Rooseveltian.

She has made a number of foreign trips, as her predecessor did. She has moved from inside policy-maker to outside "advocate," as Mrs. Roosevelt did after encountering public scorn for her more direct involvement in government.

And in her latest move, Mrs. Clinton has lifted a page out of the former first lady's life with her announcement last week that she will write a syndicated newspaper column.

"Obviously, she's absorbed Eleanor quite fully," says Doris Kearns Goodwin, a historian and author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the Roosevelts, "No Ordinary Time," who has talked with Mrs. Clinton on several occasions about the trailblazing first lady.

Mrs. Clinton said that her column -- to be written weekly, as compared with Mrs. Roosevelt's dazzling six times a week -- will provide "an opportunity for me to communicate more directly with people about matters that I know are on their mind."

In a speech to the American News Women's Club last week, she said she hoped to share "some of what goes on here, some of the funny stories and some of the momentous events, some of the human stories, the kinds of stories about people who come here that nobody would know otherwise."

She said she would write about everything from visits of foreign dignitaries to what it's like having to start planning the White House Christmas festivities in July.

Mrs. Clinton's deputy press secretary, Neel Lattimore, said the first lady also would write frequently on issues important to her -- namely women, children and families.

Not since Mrs. Roosevelt -- whose "My Day" column was a popular feature in hundreds of newspapers for 27 years, continuing well beyond her husband's presidency -- has a first lady sought such a visible, and regular, platform for herself.

"It's a very, very shrewd move," says Paul Costello, former press secretary to Rosalynn Carter. "It's a great way for someone like Hillary Clinton to get her message out, to touch and reach out to constituencies in an unfettered way. Because of her potency and currency, there will be a lot of interest."

Ms. Goodwin, who has stayed at the White House as a guest of the Clintons, says she talked with Mrs. Clinton last fall about the benefits of writing a "My Day"-type column. "It gives you a direct voice to the people that is not filtered through someone else's interpretation," the author told the first lady.

What's more, Ms. Goodwin says, such a vehicle, if used to document what the first lady does, could help quash the constant ruminations about Mrs. Clinton's role: Is she withdrawing from the spotlight? Banished to flower-arranging and a more ceremonial role? Out of the loop?

"The best way to prove she's still doing a lot of activist things is to be able to describe them," Ms. Goodwin says.

Dulled criticism

Eleanor Roosevelt's column, the historian says, went a long way toward dulling criticism of her activism.

"It allowed the public to know the range of her commitments and convictions, whether she was climbing into a mine or meeting with black groups in the South," Ms. Goodwin says. "It allowed more people to know what she was all about -- and to see her indefatigableness. You got tired just reading what she was doing every day."

Indeed, by her husband's third term, more than three-quarters of the voters, even if they didn't agree with Mrs. Roosevelt's views, approved of her activist first ladyship.

Her column also was used to launch "trial balloons" for the administration, a way to float ideas and gauge public opinion, says Lewis Gould, a professor at the University of Texas who is a historian of first ladies. "If the reaction was bad," Mr. Gould says, "Roosevelt could say: 'That's my wife. That's Eleanor.' "

Mrs. Roosevelt wrote about the need for government-backed child day-care during the war before President Roosevelt committed to it, and was far ahead of the government on civil rights issues -- which was fine with the president.

When she differed from her husband, as when she championed the United Mine Workers' right to strike more than did Mr. Roosevelt, it allowed the administration to win constituencies on both sides of an issue.

"Sometimes it was very politically helpful," Ms. Goodwin says. "It helped solidify his support in particular areas, such as with women and blacks."

"Soft and gentle"

The political benefit is not lost on strategists of both parties who say such a vehicle could become a significant campaign tool, by raising Mrs. Clinton's, and thus Mr. Clinton's, popularity, and promoting the administration's positions through a folksy, personalized soft-sell.

"It's a risk-free, direct pipeline to voters," says Sheila Tate, former press secretary to Nancy Reagan. "I suspect it will be used to humanize, to be soft and gentle."

Ms. Tate points out that Mrs. Clinton's column -- which will be distributed by Creators Syndicate beginning July 23 and has already been sold to close to 100 papers -- is starting just as President Clinton is gearing up for re-election.

Mrs. Clinton said she was asked by the syndicate to do the column soon after her husband's inauguration but didn't have time, until now, to take on the weekly obligation.

Mrs. Roosevelt wrote her columns herself -- sometimes dictating them to her secretary, sometimes, if she was out of town, sitting on a park bench by herself to compose them.

Many assume that Mrs. Clinton, whose staff is reported to be larger than FDR's entire presidential staff during World War II, will have help writing the column. Mr. Lattimore says the first lady is likely to receive "help from sources" with the editing, but adds: "I imagine she'll do most of the writing herself. Mrs. Clinton is a good writer, and she likes to write."

On a radio show last week, Mrs. Clinton said she did not expect her columns to be vetted by White House officials. "I'm speaking for myself," she said. "I don't expect to ask for clearance from anybody."

Advocate's role

Ms. Goodwin says it makes sense that Mrs. Clinton looks to the first lady of the New Deal as a role model and inspiration because of the similarities between the two.

After being given a high-level Civil Defense post by her husband in 1941, Mrs. Roosevelt resigned the next year, under attack from critics, and vowed never to take another government job. Refashioning herself, she began to work as an advocate for women, minorities, immigrants -- an outside agitator for those who needed a voice.

Similarly, when asked by a caller on the radio show last week about her "leadership role," Mrs. Clinton, who retreated from official policy-making after the collapse of the health care reform effort she spearheaded, said, "I really think it's more along the lines of just trying to be an advocate, not leading so much."

Mrs. Clinton has taken cues from Mrs. Roosevelt before. She said she decided to hold her news conference last year to answer questions about the Whitewater affair after reading that Mrs. Roosevelt had held such conferences on a regular basis.

And earlier this year, at a dedication ceremony for the University of California's Eleanor Roosevelt College in San Diego, Mrs. Clinton acknowledged having "imaginary conversations" with her predecessor. "When confronted with a particular situation, I might say, 'Oh, Mrs. Roosevelt, what do I do now?' " she said.

But, perhaps cognizant that her role model was thought to be a failure as a mother and, largely, a wife of political convenience, Mrs. Clinton shies away from too pointed an analysis of their similarities.

"I really hesitate to draw any comparisons," the first lady said last week, "because I don't think there will ever be anyone like her."

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