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Supportive spouse or activist ally?

The year 1992 may well be remembered as the "Year of the Woman" in politics _ at least 189 women candidates entered Senate, House and gubernatorial primary races.

Paradoxically, though, this intensified political activity seems to have heightened, rather than diminished, the confusion and controversy surrounding what is still the country's most powerful (if non-elective) female political position: first lady.

As a result, notes Democratic Party activist Ann Lewis, 1992 may be "a great year for women in politics, but a difficult year for political wives."

And it would be hard to find two women who more clearly exemplify the debate over the "proper" role of the first lady than Barbara Bush and Hillary Clinton.

Nothing in American life has changed as dramatically over the past two decades as the status of women. About 60 percent of American families now include two wage earners. Women have moved into top jobs in law, medicine and business.

But Americans are still deeply ambivalent about a first lady with too much clout.

"The presidency is an "I'; Americans do not expect to elect a couple to run the government," says Paul Costello, a former press spokesman for Rosalynn Carter and Kitty Dukakis. "They don't want a co-president."

Or as Richard Nixon put it more succinctly to the New York Times last February (referring to Hillary Clinton): "If the wife comes through as being too strong and too intelligent it makes the husband look like a wimp."

Almost as if sent by central casting, Barbara Bush and Hillary Clinton epitomize sharply different generational values and contrasting lifestyles.

Barbara Bush, 67, is a full-time homemaker and Smith College dropout who has never worked outside the home. Despite her reportedly tart tongue, she has never publicly appeared to be at odds with the president, especially on controversial topics (although Newsweek reported that the president's advisers said the first lady is privately pro-choice).

"I don't fool around in the U.S. government," she said after her husband's first 100 days in office. "I leave that to other people."

She is every American's favorite grandmother _ the equivalent of England's beloved Queen Mother.

Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, is a 44-year-old Yale-educated lawyer with a distinguished career who earns roughly four times her husband's salary. She's a working mother and has been an active partner in her husband's political career. An expert on legal issues affecting children, she is familiar with nitty-gritty details about day-care costs and education reform.

"If you vote for him, you get me too," she has said.

But while Barbara Bush and Hillary Clinton may come from different ends of the political spectrum, it is not their political views per se that have set them apart.

The divide is not one between liberal and conservative; it is between a woman who seeks a powerful, activist role for herself and one who envisions herself primarily as her husband's supportive helpmate.

First ladies with wildly divergent views on issues have found themselves in hot water for having too much power and influence.

Two hundred years ago Abigail Adams, wife of the nation's second president, was mockingly referred to as "Mrs. President" because of her influence. She wrote newspaper articles, reviewed federal troops and recommended federal appointees.

More than a century later, in 1919, Edith Wilson shielded her husband Woodrow from the public when he was incapacitated by a stroke. She studied every paper and screened every visitor, prompting one senator to complain, "We have (a) petticoat government!"

Similarly, Eleanor Roosevelt's travels and her championing of the impoverished angered her husband's foes _ and even some of his friends. Franklin D. Roosevelt's Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, for one, urged her to "stick to her knitting."

More recently, Rosalynn Carter, dubbed "the Steel Magnolia," created a furor when it was revealed that she attended Cabinet meetings.

Even Nancy Reagan _ despite her famous "adoring stare" _ was pilloried for meddling too much in White House affairs.

"What people resented in Nancy was that her influence was shown to have an effect," says Edith Mayo, curator of "First Ladies: Political Role and Public Image," an exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution.

"Large segments of the American public are still deeply ambivalent about, and sometimes hostile to, power in the hands of women."

Hillary Clinton has recently tried to dispel notions that she'd wield too much power as first lady, saying that the "we" she often uses does not refer to the Clintons as a couple but rather to the "hundreds of thousands of people who have tried very hard to change conditions."

Perhaps curiously, Nancy Reagan was excoriated most harshly by fellow conservatives.

New York Times columnist (and Ronald Reagan supporter) William Safire charged in 1987 that the president was "being made to appear wimpish and helpless by the political interference of his wife" and accused the first lady of "extraordinary vindictiveness."

Marilyn Quayle _ who might be considered a first lady-in-waiting _ also has been criticized for being too outspoken, too driven, too domineering. And she knows the pitfalls of being perceived as too smart.

The brainy 43-year-old lawyer and mother of three long ago abandoned a promising legal practice in favor of supporting (some would say masterminding) her husband's political career.

But when she criticized Texas businessman Ross Perot earlier this year for his willingness to spend a large chunk of his personal fortune on his independent presidential campaign, he quickly exploited the widespread perception that Marilyn is the tougher of the two Quayles.

"I find it fascinating that grown men are hiding behind their women," Perot charged, adding, "If they have anything to say, why don't they step out front and say it themselves?"

Great expectations

The first lady's job, which is full-time, unpaid and, in the words of Safire, "the only federal office from which the holder can neither be fired nor impeached," may be so difficult because Americans have such contradictory expectations of it.

The country's best-known "wife of" must be both a consort and a woman of independent views, down-to-earth and worldly, sassy but not snobby.

In the popular imagination the first lady has been required both to reflect contemporary ideas about how a wife (and mother) should behave and to set an example for others to follow. She is expected to be exemplary _ but not elitist or too unusual.

Few have been as wildly successful as Barbara Bush in fulfilling these great expectations. Polls show that the current first lady's popularity far exceeds her husband's.

"I've known them all since Eleanor Roosevelt and I think Barbara Bush is an ideal first lady," says Hope Miller, a former society editor of the Washington Post.

"She's the mother of all mankind, she's a well-integrated person."

Despite her wealthy background, American women identify with Barbara Bush. She appears strong but not too assertive, dignified but down-home and her pet cause _ literacy _ is impossible to criticize.

Says Mayo, "She's packaged herself brilliantly."

Betty Ford was another successful first lady. "Mrs. Ford knew the limits of the role but spoke her mind," says Ruth Mandel, director of the Center for Women in Politics at Rutgers University.

Americans liked her streak of independence and she earned praise for her openness about her breast cancer and, later, her drug dependency. And she didn't hesitate to air her political views, openly supporting abortion rights and the Equal Rights Amendment.

But many Americans are still leery of an outspoken first lady _ as Hillary Clinton has learned the hard way. Her decisiveness on the campaign trail has been viewed admiringly by some voters, prompting the question, "Why isn't she running for president?"

But she offended homemakers with her remark, "I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas"; she irritated country-music lovers by declaring herself dissimilar to the stand-by-your-man woman Tammy Wynette sang about; and she astounded TV viewers by grabbing the microphone and launching into a political speech at her husband's Illinois-primary victory party.

In fact, she has become such a lightning rod that Safire has written about what he calls "the Hillary Problem."

Perhaps in response, like Marilyn Quayle before her, Hillary Clinton recently has embarked on a campaign to play down her independent nature.

"I think I'll just have to be more . . . careful in the way I express my feelings so I don't inadvertently hurt anybody," she told writer Gail Sheehy after the cookies-and-teas controversy.

Democratic campaign spokesman Richard Mintz takes pains to compare Hillary Clinton with Barbara Bush in their mutual commitment to families, children and volunteerism. But Hillary Clinton's challenge, Mintz admits, is walking the "fine line between being perceived as an ombudsman and as a policymaker."

Political insiders are divided over whether she is an asset to her husband's campaign. Republican National Committee chairman Richard Bond has branded her "too aggressive" and some Republicans would surely love to campaign against her on "values" issues.

But GOP consultant Roger Stone admits that she appeals to a "definite socioeconomic group. To some younger, professional and working women she is a heroine."

Sooner or later, in all probability, Americans will elect a two-career, baby-boomer couple _ whether liberal or conservative. Perhaps they will work together as a political team (shades of Jack Kennedy and his brothers?). Perhaps the spouse will continue to work in his or her own profession.

But either way, Barbara Bush _ who views her role primarily as being an extension of her husband _ may be the last of a vanishing breed, popular though she may be.

Joan Mower is a Washington-based political reporter. This commentary is excerpted from the September issue of McCall's magazine.

1992 New York Times Co. Distributed by New York Times Special Features