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White House adjusts to an absent first lady

Hillary Clinton remakes her job - again - to focus on New York Senate

In the beginning, Hillary Rodham Clinton swept into the White House as a powerful presidential adviser, expanding the role of first lady in ways her predecessors never dreamed.

Now, in another first, she is going part time with her White House job, moving to New York in the hope of pursuing a new career as a senator. As Mrs. Clinton puts it, she will be in Washington only "from time to time."

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It all goes to show that the first ladyship is defined almost exclusively by the woman who holds it - and can range from the highest prominence to the occasional gig, even within one administration.

But Clinton's scaling back also raises an interesting question for the near-term: Just what will be left of this unofficial post after she moves to her white, Dutch Colonial in Westchester County possibly as soon as early next year?

There are, of course, some obvious ramifications. Already, she has dropped from her schedule some ceremonial duties, such as last week's lighting of the national Christmas tree. And because she'll be in Washington less often, she'll be absent from events she would not have missed before.

For the White House, there will be an adjustment period. "We're just going to have to see how this all plays out," says Marsha Berry, the first lady's spokeswoman. "This is something that's never been done before."

There's likely to be some give and take. Although she missed the Christmas tree lighting, the first lady does plan to attend many other holiday events, including a celebrity-studded millennium bash.

Another schedule-buster likely to be cut back is foreign travel. Clinton has clocked more overseas miles than any other first lady, most of them trips focused on women and children. That won't be possible if she's running her New York campaign "to win," as Ms. Berry puts it.

History shows that the role of first lady is hardly indispensable to the American presidency: Other wives have spent months away from the White House.

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Ellen Axson Wilson, Woodrow Wilson's first wife and a painter, spent summers in an artist community in New Hampshire. Bess Truman, who referred to the White House as the "Great White Jail," would retreat to her home in Independence, Mo. Eleanor Roosevelt, this first lady's role model, spent stretches at her fieldstone cottage at the family estate in Hyde Park, N.Y.

But no first lady has expanded her role to the degree that Clinton has, and consequently, no first lady would have had as much to relinquish as she will.

That's why it will be hard for Clinton to scale back, predicts Gail Sheehy, author of a new biography, "Hillary's Choice."

"[Hillary] has always thought that mankind must be channeled and controlled, and politics is the means. So I think it's going to be hard for her to forfeit the crown of queen of the country and international first woman of the world," says Ms. Sheehy.

Most difficult for her, say analysts, will be curtailing her involvement in White House policy, which is her passion. While many Americans believe Clinton stepped back on this front after the colossal failure of health-care reform and the country's rejection of her as "co-president," that is not true, says Carl Sferrazza Anthony, author of "First Ladies."

For this policy do-bee, once dubbed "St. Hillary" because of her determination to cure America's social ills, suppressing her political interests would be akin to not breathing. After the 1994 health-care debacle, say Sheehy and Mr. Anthony, she simply moved from center stage to behind the scenes.

Other strong first ladies - Rosalyn Carter, Lady Bird Johnson, and Eleanor Roosevelt - were "small potatoes compared to the consistent role Hillary has had," says Anthony.

Some of the fruits of her labor: more federal money for the National Institutes of Health; the passage of the Adoption and Safe Families Act, which streamlined foster-child adoptions; and a program that extends health insurance to poor children.

"People won't know whether [her policy influence] is missing or not because they don't know it exists," says Anthony.

Her involvement has been masked to some degree by her willingness to adopt the outward signs of a "traditional" first lady - opening the first White House sculpture garden, restoring the Blue and Lincoln sitting rooms, and posing for Vogue magazine in Oscar de la Renta clothing.

The first lady's staff, meanwhile, insists they will carry on with a lot of her issues if she's not there to take care of them herself.

At the same time, "the issues she has ... worked on so long are ones she will likely be involved in on the campaign," says Berry.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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