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A First Lady for the 1990s

WHEN Bill Clinton told the people of New Hampshire a year ago that if they elected him they'd get "two for one," he was honoring his wife's poise and intelligence, and making a shrewd calculation. Good politicians know their strengths and weaknesses, and Hillary Clinton is an obvious strength for Mr. Clinton.

Yet when Clinton became a serious candidate, Mrs. Clinton became a target. While we saw many "I'm voting for Hillary's husband" bumper stickers, the prospective first lady was also subject to some campaign defamation. Her strengths, it seemed, were redefined into weaknesses: Both a lawyer and a legal theorist, she was portrayed as cunning and power hungry, a radical liberal reformer at odds with middle-class family values. The country had never had a career-woman first lady, and mightn't that mean she wo uld become an unelected, unconfirmed Cabinet member?

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Helped by Mrs. Clinton's own silly tossed-off comment about baking cookies, the opposition did such a good job of scaring the public about her that it would have been politically dangerous for the nominee's wife to address the audience at the Democratic Convention in New York. By contrast, Marilyn Quayle and Barbara Bush both gave speeches at the GOP convention in Houston.

Today, on the eve of the inauguration, Hillary Clinton deserves to be liberated from the rhetoric thrown at her between March and November, and to make her own way. Most people know very little about her background (she came from a Republican home and was a "Goldwater Girl" in 1964). Now it is time to get acquainted.

As a past Monitor interview with Mrs. Clinton observes, she, like her husband, has a common touch and is familiar with the problems of common people.

After finishing at Yale she could have had her choice of jobs in New York or Washington. She chose to get married and follow her husband to Arkansas, where she practiced law. She suffered through marital problems, but endured. She is unfailingly loyal to friends dating back to childhood schoolteachers and her Methodist youth minister.

There may be adjustments to make in getting used to a career woman as first lady. There are lines not to cross: She should not, for instance, hold press briefings to push policy. And (unlike what we now know of Nancy Reagan) she should avoid setting up separate and competing centers of power in the White House.

As for her much-discussed "role," we hope it will be what it has been - as a valuable consultant and partner to her husband. He, and America, need all the help an intelligent and capable woman can bring.

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