MotherJones JF93: Hillary and Eleanor

Go on the offensive. there’s such a power base among women now that if you mobilize them, you will be stronger than Eleanor was.

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Dear Hillary,

Throughout your husband’s campaign, you pointed to Eleanor Roosevelt as evidence that an independent first lady can influence policy and still remain popular. I see many similarities between you and Eleanor, and I think you can learn from her approach to the job, not only from her successes but from her mistakes as well. With only a few days left before you and Bill move into the White House, I’d like to pass along some advice I’ve gleaned from studying the past.

Take this time before the inauguration to decide exactly what you want to make of the office. Otherwise you’ll have your days taken up by the requests that will flood you. Eleanor had a terribly difficult time turning anybody down. Late in life, she said that she wished she had been more selective. She answered every letter that came to her, and she spoke to every group that asked. Consequently she wasn’t focused enough on the issues that she could really do something about. You will have one of the best platforms in the country from which to advance your concerns, but you must have a plan beforehand – days go quickly, and time will slip away from you.

I assume you will remain an advocate for children’s rights. That’s a powerful cause because it acts as an umbrella for a whole rubric of concerns: minorities, women, child care, health care, refugee situations, even famine in Somalia. The more broadly you can define it, the more influence you can have. But make sure to stay within the realm you stake out and the issues close to your heart. Lady Bird Johnson was so successful with conservation and beautification because they genuinely interested her. To be honest, it’s hard to remember what Pat Nixon or even Barbara Bush did as first ladies. Sure, Barbara Bush made symbolic appearances for literacy every now and then, but she wasn’t a warrior on a contested battleground. That’s what I’m suggesting for you, Hillary. You will be in a position to mobilize a real power base on behalf of children’s rights.

As I write this, there’s been speculation – fear, on the part of some – that Bill might appoint you attorney general. While I think you would be entirely qualified (certainly more qualified than Bobby Kennedy was), serving as both first lady and attorney general would probably weaken both positions. I understand why you might want to be a cabinet officer. While Eleanor was first lady, she also had an abiding desire for a job of her own. Because her role as first lady was so loosely defined, she felt she couldn’t know at the end of the day whether she had really made a difference. Finally, in 1941, President Roosevelt appointed her assistant director of the Office of Civil Defense under Mayor La Guardia – and it turned out to be a disaster. The fact that she was now a government employee bollixed everything up: Everyone knew there were people working under her and people working above her, but, after all, she was married to the president. The whole chain of command was out of whack. Ultimately she had to resign the office.

As it turned out, Eleanor did much more as first lady than she ever could have done in any other one job. The first-ladyship doesn’t put you in conflict with the president in the same way a cabinet post would: you have more leeway to build a constituency; you can move the president beyond where he otherwise might go on some issues. It’s a rich power base if used correctly. On the other hand, there’s an immediate backlash waiting for anyone who uses it badly. As you know, you have to stay on your own turf and steer clear of the president’s, at least in public. Even though Eleanor often discussed a variety of issues with FDR, she never once said that she influenced him in making decisions. Nor did she ever sit in on a cabinet meeting, as Rosalynn Carter did. The advice Eleanor would give you is: Don’t talk openly about the influence you have on Bill Clinton.

I know it’s nuts, Hillary. You would think people would realize the great advantage in allowing a strong, popular, smart woman to advise the president. But there’s this craziness out there that fears that somehow she’s “running the show” or “wearing the pants.” We’re it a strange moment in our history now. There is still an unease about women assuming positions of power, even as women are more powerful and accomplished than ever before. The mere fact that you are so smart and outspoken is going to produce a backlash from certain elements of society.

Don’t try, to become something different than you are to avoid this backlash. Instead, organize a “frontlash” by making sure that the groups behind you are strong and supportive. Go on the offensive, There’s such a power base among women now that, if you mobilize them, you will be even stronger than Eleanor ever was. You’re already partway there, thanks, ironically. to the Republicans. Millions of women-sided with you when the GOP attacked you for being a working mother. The support you got after the convention was a demonstration of this “frontlash” approach I’m talking about. But you won’t be able to depend on the Republicans anymore.

It will be like a political campaign on behalf of your issues. You have to mobilize the constituency and the pressure to make something happen. That means going to Congress, fighting the cabinet members where it’s relevant, and utilizing the media. Although you’ve done all this in Arkansas, it’s going to be much more difficult on the national level. You might consider writing something like “My Day,” Eleanor’s daily column and diary. It gave ordinary people insight into what her day was like.

Get away from Washington as often as you can. To become a successful advocate for any issue, you’ll have to absorb what’s really happening in the country. It will help you, and Bill as well. Eleanor’s remarkable ramblings around the country brought FDR vivid, human, anecdotal details. Although Bill does not suffer from the physical paralysis that made FDR dependent on Eleanor’s eyes and ears, these days all presidents are paralyzed by Washington. I suspect that Bill’s campaign bus trips we’re a metaphor for his determination not to be imprisoned by the White House. But no matter how hard presidents try to escape, they get stuck. When you bring back those human details freshly and vividly to him, you’ll be playing a valuable role.

As you stake out your positions, some people will be angry with you. Thirty percent of the country probably thought Eleanor was the worst person ever to exist, a subversive agitator. Many southerners, for example, thought she was too far out on civil rights. They wrote letters to FDR, saying that she should be muzzled and kept on a chain. There were rumors (none of them true, of course) that Eleanor had created “Eleanor Clubs” for black maids who promised to get out of white people’s houses and go somewhere else to work. “Whenever you see a Negro wearing a wide-brimmed hat with a feather in it,” they said, “you know it’s a sign of the Eleanor Club.” There were warnings of “Eleanor Tuesdays,” when black women were supposed to bump into white women on the street in honor of Eleanor.

Although Eleanor engendered controversial feelings in some, at the same time she was an inspiration for others, particularly blacks but also young women, who saw her doing things women had never done before. The advice Eleanor would give you is: Don’t worry about your public-opinion polls. Know that you’re doing a good job when your friends respect you and your enemies are angry. One of the reasons Barbara Bush has had a 90 percent popularity rating is that she hasn’t done anything. She may be warm and affectionate, but she won’t leave any accomplishments behind. Don’t feel constrained by polls, and don’t worry about hurting your husband’s political standing. Whenever southerners got mad at Eleanor for taking down “Colored Only” signs, FDR could always say, “Well, it’s my missus and I can’t control her.” In the same way, Bill Clinton can simply say with a smile that you are your own person.

Finally, behind the incredibly powerful national platform of the first-ladyship lies an equally important family role. Eleanor traveled away from home too many days. She admitted this at the end of her life. As much as her ramblings around the country helped build her political base and allowed her to serve as FDR’s eyes and ears, she wasn’t there when he needed her. A wife and mother can allow a president to relax, to feel affectionate, and to have an oasis from the pressures of the White House. Eleanor would have been the first to admit that she wasn’t very good at that. At the end of the day, FDR would have his cocktail hour, where he had a rule that you could only talk about movies and gossip. He had to unwind, and he had an amazing capacity to do so, even without Eleanor. In the middle of the worst battles of the war, for example, he would sit there playing with his stamp collection. Much later, Eleanor said she wished she had learned to enjoy that with him, that she thought he needed somebody just so he could relax and play with stamps.

Whatever it is that the two of you do together for leisure – movies, sports, games – those are as important as sharing the partnership of presidency and first-ladyship. You seem to have found the right balance between activism, legal practice, and family in Arkansas, but it’s going to be much more difficult in the White House.

I’m not suggesting that you be a dependent wife in the traditional mold. One of the strengths of the Roosevelts’ relationship was that it was one of partnership, not dependence. You and Bill appear to have this strength as well. At least in part, this similarity may result from the rough patches both you and Eleanor worked through in your marriages. In Eleanor’s case, the partnership was born with the discovery of her husband’s affair with a young woman named Lucy Mercer. The affair rocked the marriage, but ultimately gave Eleanor the freedom to go outside her home to find fulfillment and even establish political power. In the years that followed, while Eleanor and Franklin each drew sustenance from other “friendships,” there’s no question there was great affection and a renewed respect between them. As a law-school graduate and a career woman, you brought independence to your marriage long before you hit the rough spots that you have acknowledged. I imagine that working out your difficulties has helped you and your husband to stand as equal partners. Like Eleanor and Franklin’s, this partnership you and Bill bring to the White House may be great for the country.

The critical thing is that you not feel a need to do anything that’s not authentic. If those advisers try to tell you to start off slow, don’t listen. If you feel confident and comfortable about what you’re doing, public acceptance will be far deeper than what you would gain by simply avoiding offensive acts. In the end, you have to find your own balance between how much time you want to give to your issues, to your daughter, and to your husband. You must shape the role for yourself, and, if you do it well, the people will ultimately support you.

Good luck.

Doris Kearns Goodwin is the author of the Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys and Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream. She’s currently at work on a book about the American home front during World War II, as told through the relationship of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. Her comments in this article were given through an interview with Josh Clark.


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