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First Lady: No Shades of Grey

By Erica S. Schacter

How is the average rational but open-minded American to resist the opinion-framing tendencies of the media and to evaluate individually and fairly the First Lady of the United States? The real problem for suspect political figures in general and for Hillary Rodham Clinton in particular is that more often than not, suspicion equals guilt. Once the media casts its shadow of doubt across one's political resume, the practical verdict--namely, how that individual will now be viewed--is sealed.

In the case of Hillary Rodham Clinton, glimpses of the shadow appeared the moment Jeff Gerth's article in The New York Times was printed on March 8, 1992, the first investigative report questioning the Clintons' involvement with Madison Guaranty Savings & Loan and the Whitewater Development Company. This report marked the beginning of the end for Mrs. Clinton, during which she would gradually be subjected to the grueling fate of a suspect politician. Her political competence, integrity and trustworthiness were instantly colored by the doubt the media channeled to the public.

And so, the public scrutiny she continues to undergo (but far more intensely than before) three-and-a-half years later recalls the extensive and ultimately destructive power of the press, of its ability to blur the distinction between questionable and condemnable behavior. Mrs. Clinton is yet another victim of an illness inherent in our media, namely its inability to tolerate and accurately convey "greyness". And it is in greyness, I'm afraid, where Mrs. Clinton stands today.

It is certain she participated in some sketchy interactions, but the extent of her malpractice remains unclear. Unfortunately for the public, but far more unfortunate for Mrs. Clinton, the media and the press, our noble filterers of political, social and economic information, do not know greyness but only extreme colorations. The media cannot patiently await the resolution of her investigation and the possible certainty of her guilt; instead it must decide today what will only be known for sure in several months.

The result of this inaccurate portrayal is the difficulty with which the public struggles against media-induced extremity, and attempts to formulate its own rational opinion of these "condemned prior to judged" politicians. How can we fairly assess Hillary Rodham Clinton's status without falling into one of the two media-produced camps? These days, it seems one must either join the majority in condemning Mrs. Clinton as a corrupt, adversarial Jezebel leading her husband into ruin or fight with the underdogs as a staunch Hillary Rodham Clinton supporter. These are the two ends of the spectrum, carefully constructed for us by the press.

The problem with extremes, however, is the omission of data. While the predominant public opinion fails to recognize the holes in the attacks on the First Lady, Hillary Clinton's minority of unconditional fans are oblivious to some clear grounds for suspecting and questioning her behavior. Again, Mrs. Clinton lies in a grey zone, a color to which the media is blind.

So what have her many political predecessors done when their own suspicion rapidly flowed into guilt? They resigned. Political officials who have found themselves in a quagmire similar to that of Mrs. Clinton got out of office. Gary Hart, Zoe Baird, Lani Guinier--a diverse handful of politicians who withdrew from the spotlight in which they were being stripped of their political integrity. Our political system makes it too ugly for them to suck it up and stick it out. They need to get out quickly and unscathed. For the politicians who came before Mrs. Clinton, exit was the most common form of alleviating the public disgrace perpetuated and exacerbated by the media's disease.

The problem for our First Lady is that hers is not an office from which one resigns. Hers is not even an office. She is not an official but a spouse, leaving her in an unenviable position. Residing in a grey realm, miscolored by the press, but unable to leave through the emergency exit door to which her predecessors turned, Hillary Clinton is forced to stick around and endure the verdict, for all intents and purposes already delivered.

So while the First Lady will remain before our eyes for a bit longer, we might wish to detach ourselves from the opinion-imposing tendencies of the media and to formulate our own assessment of her. Since the investigation is incomplete and the facts of her actions unclear, it is premature to decide what she did do in the Whitewater case or how instrumental she actually was in convincing her husband to replace portions of "Republican" White House Staff. Instead, there are two main issues which are crucial to evaluating her fairly during the upcoming weeks in which she will be investigated.

The first began the moment her husband was elected and the public realized this was no Barbara Bush. Hillary Rodham Clinton has revolutionized the role of the First Lady into one which makes use of the word "lady" seem very politically incorrect. While legal malpractice and financial corruption are indeed condemnable behavior, asserting oneself as an intelligent, controlled and determined woman is not. One must be careful not to confuse Hillary Clinton's "unfeminine," agressive nature with a complete usurpation of her husband's power. We must not condemn her simply for having a greater influence over her husband than did the Barbara Bushes of the White House.

While many may be uncomfortable with a woman who has created a real sphere of power and influence in what was once merely a spousal position, such discomfort must not be the source of accusation. Her role, like that of women in general over the past few decades, has been greatly expanded. Let us not impede the First Lady from joining, and ideally leading, American women towards their long awaited sexual equality.

And yet, this first issue, one which encourages us to be lenient toward the growing power of the First Lady, must be kept in check by the inevitable reality that she is an unelected official. We did not elect her but her husband. As Robert F. Kennedy '48 illustrated during the Cuban Missile crisis, unelected officials often prove decisive in guiding United States policy. While Mrs. Clinton clearly cannot help being a source of advice to her husband, the American people have not only the right but the duty to watch her closely. Unelected power is a frightening tool, for it empowers without prescribing a means of disempowering. If Hillary Clinton has no job to lose, but only a reputation to tarnish, the public justifiably has cause for alarm.

In the next few weeks, we must remember Hillary Rodham Clinton in each of these two roles. We must not allow the innovative style with which she has been First Lady to translate an increasingly loud female voice and influence in the White House into an Eve or Jezebel persuading the innocent man of the house to do evil. Putting the issue of gender aside, however, we must observe her closely. An unelected official who has wielded as much power as she must know that with the seizing of such

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