First Lady Cloaks Herself in Mystery and Ambiguity

By Suzanne Fields Published: Monday, February 26, 1996

Fair's fair, and let's give the first lady kudos for chutzpah. When Hillary Rodham Clinton marched into the U.S. District Courthouse to answer questions from a grand jury, she wore a long black coat with what some observers took to be a gold dragon embroidered boldly across her back.

Her handlers put the microphones in a place where she couldn't easily be viewed against the courthouse facade (the newspaper photographers merely moved themselves for the angle they wanted), and when she turned around to walk through the front door, the dragon was the image that captured everyone's imagination.

She was subpoenaed to talk about the Rose Law Firm billing records that mysteriously - and suddenly - appeared in the residential quarters of the White House. The complicated web that comprises Whitewater carries serious legal questions for the first lady with familiar-sounding phrases: What did she know and when did she know it?

But it's the firing of the White House Travel Office employees that so far has hurt her the most. They go to the heart of who she is - her character - even though she did nothing illegal in pushing to dismiss the employees.

Whether it's Whitewater or "travelgate," we can be sure that "dragon lady" is not the image the first lady wants to project. She can sound more like Marie Antoinette in her insensitivity, speaking the gray language of the bureaucracy rather than the purple of the royal French: "We need our people in. We need the slots."

The White House is so sensitive about an aide's notes that portray Hillary's impatience to hand the travel office to her husband's chums that the president will sign without objection legislation moving through Congress to pay the half-million dollars in lawyers' bills for Billy Dale, the former director of the travel office who became the designated fall guy. Dale was acquitted of all charges by a jury that took less than two hours to make up its mind.

The first lady has not improved her image of noblesse oblige by having Dale's "mismanagement" constantly assailed. A new General Accounting Office report shows persistent travel-office mismanagement under its new staff, about which the first lady has not uttered a murmur.

When Bob Bennett, the Clintons' high-powered, high-priced, heavy-duty lawyer attacked Dale in a television interview after he was acquitted, the White House thought it wise to apologize. "We didn't put Bennett out to say anything bad about Billy Dale," said White House Press Secretary Michael McCurry. We made it pretty clear after that happened that we didn't appreciate that type of commentary."

What to do, what to do? The problem afflicting the Clintons is one that is common to liberals, who pretend to be morally superior in their fight for the underdog as long as that underdog is immersed in group victimhood. Fair play for individuals is not nearly as much fun, and it costs more in emotional investment, too.

The Clintons, for example, send their daughter to an expensive private school. Fair enough. Every parent is entitled to think of his or her own child first. But when it comes to giving school-choice vouchers to parents who don't have $15,000 a year for private school, liberal parents suddenly are dedicated to the public schools they otherwise shun.

"The 1980s were about acquiring - acquiring wealth, power and privilege," Hillary told the Washington Post during the 1992 campaign. Like so many pious liberals of her generation, she does not see herself as a partaker of that same greed. But how would she describe the phenomenal (some say impossible) killing she made in the commodities market with the help of the chief lawyer for Tyson Foods Inc., the Arkansas-based chicken-processing company.

In her book, It Takes a Village and Other Lessons Children Teach Us, Hillary makes the ritual noises in support of capitalism and the free market but warns against their excesses: "I also know that every human endeavor is vulnerable to error, incompetence, corruption and the abuse of power." Nor does she apply that verdict to big government, which she wants to make bigger.

The first lady was in good form when she answered the questions of reporters before and after she met with the grand jury. She conceded the obvious - that she would rather have been in a million other places than the U.S. District Courthouse where all the Watergate defendants were sentenced to prison a quarter-century ago. It's impossible not to feel sympathy for her ordeal as first lady. But neither we nor she should blame the office. Whatever she has done, she was the one who did it.

Maybe it was mere oversight or maybe it was a measure of forethought, but when she said goodbye to the reporters after she concluded her grand-jury testimony, she no longer was wearing the coat with the dragon on it.