The two Hillary Clintons

WASHINGTON — TO READ Hillary Rodham Clinton's new column, you would think everything was peachy keen.

She writes about the letters she gets asking about Socks' feeding schedule. She writes about jumping behind the wheel of car in Little Rock, Ark., to freshen her driving skills. She writes about the "anxious mom" phenomenon -- mothers calling home to make sure their children have arrived safely from school.


"Whatever minor inconveniences my situation presents, I wouldn't trade it for the world," she said in her first column. "I could never have imagined the range of activities that are part of my life today, such as defending public television, planning state dinners and visiting the CIA with the president."

Mrs. Clinton used the driving anecdote to illustrate "the odd duality of my role as First Lady."


But she could have used a more vivid example:

Here you are at the White House, churning out bright copy about being a helpmeet, while just up the road the Republicans are using the Whitewater hearings to drag out all the dark, horrible things that have happened since you came to this town without pity.

One close friend dead. Another put in jail this week. A third, forced to resign for doing what he thought you wanted, defending himself once more against accusations that he blocked a police investigation for political reasons. Your legal fief and policy role shattered. And your best girlfriend and brass-knuckles enforcer having to get a makeover and act like Dr. Joyce Brothers.

Now there's a duality Picasso would appreciate. Like the artist's "Girl Before a Mirror," Mrs. Clinton's reflection is cubed and surreal. She has a talent for taking on the aspects of those she once scorned: Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and the women who bake cookies.

Mrs. Clinton and Bernard Nussbaum became friends when they worked as Democratic lawyers for the House Judiciary Committee that voted to recommend the impeachment of President Nixon.

They helped define the lessons of Watergate: Executive privilege and federal agencies cannot be manipulated to protect a president's political and personal interests. Once you achieve ultimate power, you cannot be trusted to investigate yourself.

How mind-boggling, then, that Mr. Nussbaum should rely on Nixon to defend his outrageous behavior in holding police at bay after Foster's death. When he considered asserting executive privilege to keep the Justice Department out of Foster's files, he used as precedent the 1974 Supreme Court case of United States v. Nixon.

Mrs. Clinton set the tone of resisting Whitewater disclosures, conveying the attitude: Why should we waste time on personal accountability when we could be changing the world?


As Roger Altman summed it up in his diary, "HRC doesn't want [the independent counsel] poking into 20 years of public life in Arkansas."

She also agrees with the Nixon credo reiterated by the strategist Paul Begala: "The press is the enemy."

Although the Clintons ran against Reaganite greed, the House Whitewater hearing produced a letter showing that Mrs. Clinton was quite comfortable with the master-of-the-universe ethic of the 1980s. She wrote to James McDougal in 1981: "If Reaganomics works at all, Whitewater could become the Western Hemisphere's mecca." (As if!)

As with Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, the landscape is littered with aides taking the fall. As Joe Klein wrote of the Clintons in Newsweek: "They are the Tom and Daisy Buchanan of the Baby Boom Political Elite. . . . They smashed up lives and didn't notice. . . . How could the First Lady allow her chief of staff to spend $140,000 on legal fees? Why hasn't she come forward and said . . . 'I'll testify.'"

One of the smartest, strongest, most complicated women in Washington history is retreating behind a white-glove femininity, just as she did when she explained last year how she made a killing in cattle futures by relying on the kindness of a big, strong man.

"I trusted Jim Blair and it worked out for me," she said.


Even she cannot make sense out of the Picasso puzzle: "Sometimes," she wrote in a column, "it is hard even for me to recognize the Hillary Clinton that other people see."

Maureen Dowd is a columnist for the New York Times.