WASHINGTON -- Just when first lady Hillary Clinton was making many Americans feel better about their country with her outspoken if unspecified blast in Beijing on human rights abuses against women in China, her husband felt it necessary to observe that she had not attempted "to single any country out" in her pointedly critical remarks.
"What she said," he remarked, raining on her parade, "is what we've both said many, many times on issues that affect China. Much of her speech pertained to conditions in other countries, not China, and some of it pertained to conditions in our country as well."
That may have been literally true, but the forcefulness and intensity with which Hillary Clinton delivered her observations, as reported by American correspondents present, were a notable contrast to the general pussyfooting of the Clinton administration toward the Chinese regime in recent weeks, in obvious fear of worsening U.S.-China relations.
Before the first lady's trip, the central issue as far as the White House and State Department were concerned seemed to be the tender feelings of Chinese officialdom. If Hillary didn't go, would it be a snub? If she did go and spoke her mind, would she give offense?
Ever since the United States committed the "unpardonable crime" of granting a visa to President Lee Teng-hui of Taiwan to attend his Cornell class reunion in June, the Beijing powers were in high dudgeon, leading them to cut off top diplomatic contacts with Washington. But the release and return to the United States of dissident Harry Wu two weeks ago led to the announcement that the first lady would go as honorary chair of the American delegation to the United Nations World Conference on Women.
Immediately, another round of speculation arose. Now that she was going, would she be muzzled by the State Department out of deference to the supersensitive Chinese? And if so, would American and other women's groups be up in arms? Before her && arrival, administration officials gave reporters assurances that she would not say anything that would upset the delicate efforts to improve U.S.-China relations. Some women's groups began to wonder why the first lady was bothering to go.
But when Mrs. Clinton finally took the platform, she swept such concerns away. While she did not, in fact, name China in her attacks on specific human rights abuses, it didn't take a genius to match the abuses with the offending countries, including China's notorious forced abortions and treatment of unwanted girl babies.
Also, the first lady was quite specific in criticizing the efforts of the Beijing regime to impede the ability of many women to attend the international conference, and to have free and unintimidated access to its sessions. "It is indefensible," she said at one point, that many women "have not been able to attend . . . [and others] have been prohibited from fully taking part." Indeed, many conference attendees were shut out from her speech, which was blacked out on official Chinese radio and television.
In Hillary Clinton's stormy tenure as first lady, what started out as a breakthrough performance as the new woman of the '90s soon disintegrated, casting her conduct in many minds as overreaching. She was not, after all, elected to anything, and her failed efforts to achieve President Clinton's health care reforms were widely regarded as her due comeuppance.
Since then, she has focused much more on issues of prime concern to women, including children's needs, and in so doing has been steadily rebuilding her stature in the country. The trip to China was a great opportunity to demonstrate her political and persuasive skills on another front, and she made the most of it in Beijing.
It was too bad, considering all that, that her husband felt compelled to give assurances to her conspicuously rude and hostile hosts that she wasn't saying anything new or more critical after all. The chances are, however, that American women are going to think a lot more of their first lady as a result of what she said and how she said it -- and possibly less of Bill Clinton for what he said about her performance.