IF ELIZABETH DOLE'S stroll through a friendly audience in San Diego charmed television audiences and convinced many skeptics that her stiff-upper-lip husband does indeed have a warm and fuzzy side, Hillary Clinton's address to a partisan Democratic convention served an equally useful purpose. It gave Mrs. Clinton a chance to showcase her long-standing policy interests in children and families, exposure which Democrats hope will help the embattled First Lady shore up her beleaguered reputation.
Each accomplished her mission. But that should surprise no one. Neither of these women would settle for anything less. Mrs. Dole and Mrs. Clinton differ as sharply on politics as they do in their speaking styles. Yet the qualities they share may be more revealing.
Both are devoted to their husbands' careers. Each is also a lawyer with a resume that could inspire speculation about her own ambitions for high office. Yet, despite their own considerable abilities and ambitions, each has made sacrifices in seeking personal success to help her spouse achieve his dreams. In yet another coincidence, the two women share a devotion to the Methodist Church, and they talk easily and openly about their religious faith.
Most important of all, they are both full partners in the policy-making process. True, Mrs. Clinton dared greatly with health care reform, only to fall flat in the administration's most conspicuous failure. Yet despite her lowered profile in recent months, especially in the wake of special prosecutor probings, no one doubts that President Clinton seeks and values his wife's counsel. That would be equally true in a Dole administration. After all, these men did not marry high-powered, accomplished women in order to ignore them.
Commentators have correctly noted that Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Dole are not running for president and that voters cast their ballots for a president, not for a First Lady.
But their presence in these campaigns marks a significant shift in American political history. Since Bess Truman returned the job of president's wife to its traditional role of silent spouse, First Ladies have been notable more for their style than for their substance. Sure, Rosalynn Carter attended Cabinet meetings and Nancy Reagan wielded considerable influence in personnel matters, but the roles played by Mrs. Clinton and Mrs. Dole represent power of a different order of magnitude.
The women's movement has not yet produced a major candidate for president. But it has already transformed the role of First Lady.
Pub Date: 8/29/96