May 10, 1993 12:00 PM

ONE MONTH INTO HER JOB AS FIRST LADY HILLARY Rodham Clinton took a Metroliner through a snowstorm to New York City, where she was due at a Lincoln Center tribute to Eleanor Roosevelt. In a black dress, with her hair swept into a French twist, Hillary, 45, looked a bit weary. Ever the pro, however, she delivered a wry speech in which she confessed that since the election she had relied on the outspoken Eleanor as her guiding spirit. Hounded by charges that she was too aggressive, Hillary said, “I’ve had conversations with her in my head and would ask, ‘How did you put up with this?’ She said, ‘You’re just going to have to get out there and do it, and don’t make any excuses.'”

By all appearances, Hillary has done just that. In the wake of heated postelection speculation about how she would use her newfound power, she resurfaced as the woman she has always been: a political pragmatist driven by a deep sense of spiritual mission. Along the way, she has defused the controversies her foes foretold—while resisting the temptation to please all of the people all the time. “I don’t think she’s moved one inch away from who she was before,” says producer Linda Blood worth-Thomason, a friend since the early 1980s.

What no one expected, however, was the family crisis that gave Hillary’s first 100 days a bittersweet character and lent a special poignancy to her stewardship of the Administration’s health-care task force. While overseeing an army of more than 500 policy analysts and flying everywhere from Boston, Mass., to Billings, Mont., to hear from industry experts as well as from families struggling with medical bills, she received the news that her 82-year-old father, Hugh Rodham, had suffered a severe stroke. She dropped her work to spend the next 16 days at his bedside, along with her mother, Dorothy, Bill and Chelsea and her brothers, Tony and Hugh.

Although she rarely displays emotion in public, Hillary was deeply affected by the experience. On April 6, the day before her father died, she spoke at the University of Texas, where she talked about the nation’s “crisis of meaning and spiritual vacuum” and about the need for “a new ethos of individual responsibility and caring.” Said Hillary: “When does life start? When does it end? Who makes these decisions?…Every day, in hospitals and homes and hospices…people are struggling with those profound issues…..”

That sort of reflectiveness, it seems, is playing well with the public: In a recent Gallup survey, 61 percent of the respondents gave her a favorable rating, up from 49 percent in November, and nearly even with her husband’s 63 percent rating. And according to an NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll, 74 percent saw Hillary as a positive role model.

Supporters including feminist author Susan Faludi are thrilled. “Despite the enormous effort from the media to denounce her,” says Faludi, “her popularity has risen. Even though after the election she stopped lading into the background, people liked her for that. It’s the Washington media that feel threatened.”

Of course, some feel that the First Lady has come too far too fast. Talk show host Rush Limbaugh plays a bar of “Hail to the Chief” when he mentions her name. In February, Spy featured a doctored cover photo depicting her as a dominatrix. Radio stations in Washington and Chicago are playing a parody of Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman” that includes the line, “I am Hillary, hear me roar, I’m more important than Al Gore.”

Publicly at least, Hillary seems most comfortable in her role as working woman—not surprising, given her professional success as a corporate lawyer. (In 1992 she reported an income of $203,172 versus her husband’s take-home pay of $34,527.) At the White House she broke precedent by setting up an office in the West Wing, where the President’s staff is headquartered, rather than in the East Wing, the traditional pink ghetto for First Ladies. Impatient with inquiries about her private life (“If we ever want to gel Bosnia off the front page,” she once said, “all I have to do is to change my hair”), she has told her staff not to answer questions she finds overly personal. She has more senior-grade aides than Al Gore, and she has made at least one trip in Air Force Two—the aircraft assigned to the Vice President.

Hillary also seems at ease in situations where no First Lady has gone before. On Feb. 4 she made an indelible impression with her first visit to Capitol Hill, where she huddled with Democratic senators. Reporters lined up five deep, and legislators were quietly astonished. “I suppose Lady Bird might have come up to ask for funding for flowers,” one senator said, “but I don’t think there’s ever been anything like this.”

Washington is convinced that Hillary’s involvement with health-care reform represents only the tip of the political iceberg. Longtime friends of hers, including former University of Wisconsin (Chancellor Donna

Shalala, found places in the Cabinet. Hillary reportedly drew on corporate-law contacts to vet nominees for Justice Department posts, and one of her Little Rock law partners, Web Hubbell, was nominated as Associate Attorney General. And after Bill interviewed U.S. District Judge Kimba Wood for the Attorney General’s job, Hillary talked with her for 50 minutes.

So visible is her clout that at her April 6 appearance in Austin, Tex., where she shared the stage with Texas’ Gov. Ann Richards, journalist Bill Moyers asked Hillary, “What is it like to govern?” Without missing a beat, she answered, “It’s been exhilarating, frustrating, eye-opening….”

Minutes later, Moyers asked Richards the same question. “Hillary’s not in a position to be as frank as I am,” began the governor.

“Just to set the record straight, I’m not really governing either,” Hillary hastily interjected.

“If you believe that,” Richards said, “I’ve got a bridge I’d like to show you.” The audience cheered.

Behind the scenes, Hillary admits that adjusting from Arkansas scale to life at the White House has been a challenge. Nine days after moving in, she confessed that the 132-room Executive Mansion was “overwhelming.” Said the new First Lady: “Bill and I just wander around, kind of gawking.”

Not that she lost time putting her stamp on the place: She quickly banned smoking, added more vegetables to the White House menu and, with Little Rock decorator Kaki Hockersmith, began revamping the family quarters. (Although the project is top secret, Hockersmith reportedly favors bold florals.)

Determined to stick to familiar routines, the Clintons often sit down to dinner with Chelsea by 8 p.m. The fare is simple—broiled chicken, steamed vegetables, rice and salad—and meals are taken in the solarium rather than in the dining room. The talk is lively, according to friend and political-science professor Diane Blair, a regular guest. “It’s like what’s going on all over America at dinnertime,” says Blair. “Everyone talks about what they’ve done that day.”

Hillary’s informality has met with some resistance. “It caused a little bit of a stir,” she said, when she decided to go into the kitchen and make scrambled eggs for Chelsea. “You would have thought I asked for an extraordinary event to occur. After all the reverberations, we sat down in the upstairs kitchen and had a great meal.”

The First Lady’s working day starts at 9 a.m., when she reports to her office—which features two Cézannes from the White House collection, as well as photos of Chelsea and Bill. The first person she sees is her chief of staff, Maggie Williams, 38, a brisk, loyal sort who was a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania before joining the Clinton campaign. Hillary often lunches at her desk; tomato bouillon is a favorite.

While she hasn’t had time to jog regularly, Hillary does go out for walks. “One day,” says Blair, “we put on warm-ups and walked for miles around Washington. The security people lagged behind. I think she’s anxious not to get sealed off.”

Hillary has abandoned the thick, black stockings she wore during the campaign, but she still favors off-the-rack suits and bold costume jewelry. She wore a $1,300 Donna Karan sheath for a While House dinner on Jan. 31, but she seems most comfortable in less formal gear. On casual jaunts, she favors black stirrup pants and oversize sweaters.

While beauty isn’t her biggest concern, Hillary doesn’t skip the occasional indulgence. Maria Colda, a facialist at Georgette Klinger’s Manhattan salon, has flown to Washington to deep-clean the First Lady’s pores, and stylist Gabriel DeBakey does her hair for gala parties.

Although Hillary has gone clothes shopping incognito, she had a problem when she slipped out to buy groceries: The store manager refused to accept her check, insisting that she take the food as a gift. Politely declining, she left empty-handed.

The Clintons have entertained show-business pals like TriStar CEO Mike Medavoy and his activist wife, Patricia, actress Mary Steenburgen and MGM executive Kathie Berlin in the White House, where they screen three or four movies a week (recent selections: A Few Good Men and Howards End). When old friends are on hand, the two are openly affectionate, according to Bloodworth-Thomason. “Hillary rubs Hill’s shoulders while he talks to people,” she says.

The First Lady makes it a point to turn out for Chelsea’s soccer games at Sidwell Friends School in northwest Washington. Bill hasn’t been seen on the sidelines, but he and Chelsea, 13, are as close as they were when she was younger: On April 6 he appeared at a photo op with a scratch on his face—a souvenir, he said, of a wrestling match. And it says something about Beltway gossip that the town’s most often repeated tale had it that when a school nurse purportedly told Chelsea that she needed permission to give her an aspirin, Chelsea supposedly replied. “Don’t call my mom—she’s too busy. Ask my dad.”

In fact, Hillary is a fiercely dedicated parent: She leaves her office to see her daughter in the afternoons and slipped away from a party to giggle with Chelsea over a story she was writing as a school assignment. Like Hugh and Dorothy Rodham, Hillary believes in homework and curfews (11:30 p.m. on weekends). Says Bloodworth-Thomason: “She’s the most traditional mother I know.”

Determined to cushion Chelsea from public life, Hillary was appalled last December when Saturday Night Live spoofed her daughter-braces and hair. Afterward, she forbade aides to answer queries about Chelsea and said, “It’s sad that people don’t have anything better to do than be mean to a child.”

Shutting out the press, however, has raised the stakes for gossipmongers. On March 30 The Washington Post passed along an unsubstantiated rumor that the Clintons had sparred in the family quarters and hurled “books, lamps and punches.” Other rumors had it that the First Couple slept in separate beds. (The Post itself included denials: Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers called the first story “ludicrous,” while Clinton said of the sleeping-arrangement tale, “I can tell you that’s not true.”)

While Hillary occasionally discusses policy matters, she has parceled out more interviews about house-and-hearth subjects: On Feb. 2, she posed with her silver place settings in The New York Times. Saying she was surprised to be pegged as an überwoman, she told Marian Burros, “[I’m just like] every woman who gets up in the morning and gets breakfast for her family and goes off to a job…where she assumes a different role for the hours she’s at work, who runs out at lunch to buy material for a costume for her daughter or to buy invitations for a party…. Our lives are a mixture of these different roles.”

Since the election, Hillary has looked to her predecessors for inspiration—visiting with Rosalynn Carter before the Inauguration and dropping in on Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis during a visit to Manhattan. At the Austin symposium on April 6, she told Lady Bird Johnson, “Every day I am more impressed by the kind of qualities that you [displayed] in taking care of…your family and your husband and also trying to make your contribution to your country.”

On April 12, Hillary tackled one of the most traditional—and, some say, most dreaded—First Lady duties by presiding over the annual Easier egg roll on the South Lawn of the White House. Wearing a cheerful green suit, she plunged into a sea of giddy kids and parents, smiling and shaking hands. It was an impressive and disciplined effort from a woman who 48 hours earlier had been at her father’s funeral in his hometown of Scranton, Pa.

As Sarah Weddington notes, Hillary is learning her job under combat conditions. A friend who argued Roe v. Wade before the Supreme Court in 1971, Weddington says, “I’ve been there—my mother died in January. As a lawyer, especially as a female lawyer, when there’s a problem, you’re used to fixing it. There’s a real frustration when you can’t do anything. You wonder, ‘Where’s my life going, and what do I really want to do?’ ”

For a perpetual A-student like Hillary, of course, that sort of existential question is a constant. (In Austin, she spoke of her concern that Americans “lack meaning in our individual lives and meaning collectively.”) Not that she’s likely to let such spiritual concerns slow her down; while she’s pondering the larger issues, she’s also plowing ahead, as Eleanor Roosevelt would have done. And according to Roosevelt’s biographer, at least, Hillary’s doing a pretty good job of it.

“Eleanor said that women in public life need to develop skin like a rhinoceros hide,” says Blanche Wiesen Cook, author of 1992’s Eleanor Roosevelt. “A woman in her position needs courage. I think we can expect Hillary to have the courage to do what needs to be done.”


NINA BURLEIGH in Washington

Additional reporting by JANE SUGDEN in New York City

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