1. Archive

First columnist: Hillary Clinton gets her day

Dear Hillary:

Welcome to the scribblers' corner. I hope you will like being a Washington columnist. I'm not presuming to tell you how to go about it, but you will learn, if you don't already know, that offering unsolicited advice is a columnist's reflex.

You've been on the receiving end of tons of it _ your husband, too. Now, on a slow day, you will be telling Congress, the American Medical Association, the American Association of Retired Persons or even the District of Columbia what to do.

First of all, brace yourself for floods of mail. As a political wife, you've had your share of abusive letters. You give the impression you're still not hardened to it. When you were still smarting after the November defeat, you were complaining about what people said and wrote about you and how they fixated on your hair. Don't give your critics the satisfaction. Remember always how the only previous White House columnist, Eleanor Roosevelt, handled hecklers. She lived Jane Austen's great line. She did not believe they deserved "the compliment of rational opposition."

About the writing, there's no worry: You're used to speaking your mind. But you must, if I may say so, guard against "wonkism." As you said yourself, you have a tendency to "get a little wonky." Suppress it. Enough people in this city are writing unintelligible accounts of recisions in the reconciliation bill. You should concentrate, if you don't mind my saying so, on people, not policies.

Mrs. R. was never abstract. Real folks and specific situations were her meat. Once when she asked her husband if she should pipe down, he replied: "Certainly not. You ought to say whatever you want. And I will simply tell people, 'Well, that's my wife .




It would be grand if you had such an understanding with your Himself and could steal away from the official line, so that people would know you weren't just flakking for him.

Now I come to the tricky part. My conflict of interest is apparent. You could put all your new colleagues out of work. If you were to write what you know, we're history. And you know: You were there. You heard the arguments pro and con on the president's whirl-around on the balanced budget.

We haven't the faintest idea how it all happened. We race up to Capitol Hill and grab a senator and buff his vanity by saying we know he knows. They give us bits and scraps and fragments, and we construct these little cathedrals of conjecture, speculation and gossip that would fall into rubble at the first word from you.

So you have the nukes, and we're telling ourselves you won't use them.

You'll be spared the worst indignities of your new calling. You won't have to go to the Roosevelt Room and listen to self-important young men tell you what is behind the latest, faintest nuance of Bosnian policy, or the impact of the balanced budget on the consumer price index. And you won't, as Russell Baker once immortally put it, be "sitting on marble floors waiting for somebody to come out and lie to me." You'll be spared the spinners.

Your real function is to validate the ideas of people who have nobody to speak for them, who can't get to where the action is and need someone to interpret the guff. No one is better qualified to speak for women who are baffled or outraged over some new insurance company medical practice, like the brutal business of kicking new mothers out of the hospital 24 hours after they have delivered a baby.

Do a little investigative reporting: It spruces up a column. Check out the District of Columbia schools and solve the mystery of why they cost so much and produce so little.

Don't let anybody tell you writing is easy. Even once a week is a drag. As the deadline approaches, there always is something you would rather do, such as rearrange your glove drawer or estimate your taxes. "Better go down upon your marrow-bones," William Butler Yeats said of writing.

Some weeks you will draw a blank. You simply will have nothing to say. Ask the president; ask Chelsea; ask the cook or the driver. Or just write about Socks. Readers love animals, and cat lovers are more fervent than the Christian right. Socks is a political cat if ever there was one, and you can tell readers how he strains on his leash to greet people he doesn't even know.

Good luck.

Universal Press Syndicate