New First Ladies, in 1960 and Today
NOW it's Bill and Hillary Clinton. Thirty-two years ago the public was getting to know Jack and Jackie Kennedy. Young, energetic, attractive, intriguing: The parallels are apparent.
But while President-elect Clinton's personal style may remind many of JFK, there are vast differences between the Kennedy administration's first lady and the first-lady-to-be.
To begin, Hillary Clinton isn't likely to become the glamorous figure that Jackie became. That doesn't mean that Mrs. Kennedy didn't make an important contribution to her husband's presidency. She brought highly acclaimed good taste to the redecoration of the White House. She saw to it that the nation's top artistic talents were frequent White House guests - and entertainers.
Publicly, she was elegant and queenly - playing a role that helped keep the Camelot myth alive.
But during the transition period in 1960 there was none of the speculation that now surrounds Mrs. Clinton as to how the first lady's immense talents could be used in the administration.
Indeed, the conventional wisdom of that period came down to this: At best, the new first lady's contribution would be minimal, and she would fade into the background.
At worst, her disinterest in politics and crowds, so evident during the campaign, would persist and she would become a drag on her husband.
Mrs. Kennedy hated campaigning. Her aloofness (or was it perhaps shyness?) did little to draw voters to her husband's side.
At political gatherings she often arrived late and made little effort to apologize. Then, too, she frequently gave the impression of looking down on the throngs of people gathered there to meet the first lady and shake her hand.
One time, when I was sitting next to presidential candidate Kennedy on his primary campaign plane, a reporter who was standing nearby asked him who the best campaigning wives were, in his estimation. After thinking for a while, Mr. Kennedy replied that he considered Lady Bird Johnson to be the best. He also mentioned Muriel Humphrey and a few others. And then, after a long pause, he said, rather apologetically: "Jackie just doesn't like to campaign."
Once, too, near South Bend, Ind., I was interviewing Senator Kennedy in the back seat of a limousine. Mrs. Kennedy was in the front next to the driver. After hearing me mention that I had just come from Wisconsin where I had observed the skillful and energetic campaigning of Muriel Humphrey, the senator called up to Mrs. Kennedy, saying, "Hear that, Jackie... Do you hear what Muriel is doing for Hubert in Wisconsin?" To this Mrs. Kennedy replied, cooly: "You have your brothers and your sisters."
So the candidate and those around him came to view Mrs. Kennedy as of little help - and perhaps a liability. At any rate, she was quickly moved to the background of the campaign.
Mrs. Kennedy came to the White House with the reputation of being a rather uncooperative political wife and one who seemed to have little interest in what the presidency was all about.
Few people realized that she was very much interested in winning the election and in carrying out the social and honorary role of first lady.
No one spoke excitedly (or fearfully) about Mrs. Kennedy's possible influence on President-elect Kennedy. And certainly no one speculated that she would, or should, be appointed to a high place in government.
In contrast, it is clear that, in the end, Mrs. Clinton was a big asset to her husband during the campaign. At first she couldn't do anything right. She seemed too intensely cerebral for many voters' tastes. She appeared to be too much of an influence on her husband. More than anything else, her apparent derision of homemakers (most notably with her comment about baking cookies) irritated millions of women.
But Mrs. Clinton, with words and a change in attire, was able to mute the appearance of being a radical, outspoken feminist. And while remaining the darling of career women, she also became acceptable to the homemakers.
Thus, Mrs. Clinton comes to Washington as a powerful political figure in her own right.
Her reputation as an outstanding lawyer is well known. And the question is not what she will do as first lady, but how this knowledgeable woman can best be used in her new role - without overstepping the Constitution, which makes no provision for power sharing in the presidency.