Miller Center

Hillary Clinton - First Lady

[cite this]

↑Bill Clinton Home Page

Before her husband ran for President in 1992, Hillary Clinton had become an accomplished attorney and was widely known in Democratic policymaking circles as a successful children's advocate. She was a Yale-trained lawyer who had made partner in one of Arkansas's most prestigious law firms. But most Americans became acquainted with Hillary Rodham Clinton in 1992 as she defended her husband, Arkansas governor and Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton, on the television show 60 Minutes. Amidst charges of Bill's infidelity, Hillary accompanied her husband and announced to the nation that she was "not sitting here because I'm some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette. I'm sitting here because I love him and I respect him, and I honor what he's been through and what we've been through together." She further declared, "If that's not enough for people, then heck, don't vote for him."But Americans did vote him, and in some respects, they voted for her as well. For throughout the campaign, Bill Clinton had assured the nation that if they elected him, they would essentially get "two for the price of one." While Americans might have liked the gregarious, smooth-talking Bill Clinton, they were less sure about Hillary. Though her performance on 60 Minutes had saved her husband's candidacy, it placed her at the center of a national firestorm; supporters praised her strength and frankness, while detractors criticized her harshness and insensitivity to women who had "stood by their men." Hillary Clinton further polarized public opinion during the 1992 campaign when she remarked, "I've done the best I can to lead my life. I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas." Though Hillary's comments are reminiscent of Sarah Polk's 1845 assertion that she would "neither keep house, nor make butter," Americans seemed less tolerant of such statements than their countryfolk some 150 years earlier. Indeed, the press and Republicans accused her of belittling those women who had decided to stay home to bake cookies and have teas. Despite the best efforts of political opponents, Hillary's comments did not sink her husband's candidacy. Instead, they resonated with many women who, like Hillary, were trying to balance their own careers, that of their husbands', and family life. To these women, Hillary was not a militant feminist who should be attacked but a visible and vocal representative of the new American woman who was emerging in the financial and political worlds as a potent force.

The controversy surrounding Hillary Clinton during the 1992 presidential campaign was only the beginning of her run-ins with the media and her antagonists. Within days of moving into the White House, Hillary claimed an office in the West Wing, announced that she would be known as Hillary Rodham Clinton, and emerged as head of a task force looking into the feasibility of a nationalized health care system. Although Eleanor Roosevelt and Rosalynn Carter had also tried to take on substantive roles in their husbands' governments, neither assumed a role as public and as central to policy development as did Hillary. This made her a political lightening rod, and many observers believe it was a strategic mistake to have place her in such a politically charged situation.

But the health care issue was not the only contentious matter in which Hillary would involve herself. Even as political opponents decried the First Lady's policy-making role, Hillary became embroiled in a number of other controversies. "Travelgate," Whitewater, the suicide of close friend and administration official Vince Foster, profits earned from a particular financial deal, the Paula Jones sex scandal, and dubious contacts between the White House and Treasury Department -- all of these involved Hillary, in one way or another, and placed her in a hot seat that never seemed to cool off.

Hillary was not blind to the criticism and began to retool both her image and her role in her husband's administration. By 1995, she had moved out of the policymaking spotlight of major domestic reform, choosing instead to focus on the rights of women and children. She discussed parenting in her book It Takes a Village: And Other Lessons Children Teach Us. She addressed the importance of education in improving the lives of women in the developing world during a 12-day trip to Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. Believing that "where women prosper, countries prosper," she discussed the benefits of female-run small businesses in Chile and Nicaragua. But it was at the 1995 United Nations Conference on Women, held in Beijing, that Hillary asserted herself as an advocate for the world's women and children. She attacked the policies of certain countries -- including those of host nation China -- that violated the human rights of women and children. These efforts brought her international acclaim.

At home, however, controversy continued to swirl. In 1996, missing records from Hillary's law firm, which had been subpoenaed by a special prosecutor, were discovered in a storage area of the White House living quarters. Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr, suspecting a cover-up, subpoenaed Hillary to discuss the recently found records before a grand jury -- making her the first First Lady to testify before such a body. Hillary's problems would continue to mount; by January 1998, she was telling the world that the Monica Lewinsky scandal was simply the work of a "vast right-wing conspiracy" that had opposed her "husband since the day he announced for president." Ultimately, however, it became clear that the President had lied about his relationship with Lewinsky not only to his lawyers, administration officials, and to the nation, but to his wife and child as well. As further charges about Bill's sexual licentiousness became public and impeachment proceedings became a grim reality, Hillary endured the scandal and again "stood by her man" -- although from several steps away.

Even as Hillary worked to save her husband's presidency and his legacy, she was carving out a future for herself, becoming the first First Lady to run for and win public office. In 1999, she explained her reason for wanting to become a United States Senator from New York: "I want independence. I want to be judged on my own merits. Now for the first time I am making my own decisions. I can feel the difference. It's a great relief." Although Hillary courted further controversy when announcing her candidacy, the job of senator, unlike the position of First Lady, involved responsibilities that were more clearly defined. Indeed, in 1997, she commented on the amorphous nature of the role she had held for five years: "Being first lady is a very different position than I've ever had before....I've always had jobs and worked for a living. I'm here, as everyone else in the White House is here, because of one person, the president. It was bewildering to me and has taken a while to get used to." Though she may have "gotten used to" becoming First Lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton never embraced the role in quite the same way as her predecessors. Her love of policy planning and her desire to be a major government player were qualities that Americans had seen in First Ladies before, but never to the depth and breadth exhibited by Hillary Rodham Clinton. While there were those who welcomed her decision to break new ground as a First Lady, others abhorred the idea and wanted her to pursue the more traditional duties and obligations associated with being the President's wife.

Citation Information

Consulting Editor

Russell L. Riley

Professor Riley is co-chair of the Presidential Oral History Program and project director of the William J. Clinton Presidential History Project. His writings include:

The Presidency and the Politics of Racial Inequality: Nation-Keeping from 1831–1965 (Columbia University Press, 1999)