- The Washington Times - Monday, August 21, 2000

For at least six years, Hillary Rodham Clinton operated a complex legislative and lobbying apparatus in the White House, using federal employees, resources and influence for her legislative, political and social goals. Central to the operation has been keeping her involvement largely behind the scenes, unknown to public and press. The motive for the secretiveness was fear of infuriating voters who believe that in 1994 she had proved herself a disaster on health care reform and wanted no more of her policy and administrative talents.

The source of the information is Mrs. Clinton. She disclosed most of it to the New York Times some two weeks ago to counter the claims of her Republican opponent in the New York senatorial race that she did not have the experience for public office. Asked if she was worried that the public might be angry now that she had disclosed that she had been deep in the administration all these years, not standing aside as she and the administration had pretended, she gave a plain answer: "Well, that's why you never knew about it."

But Mrs. Clinton need not have worried. In the story, by reporter Elisabeth Bumiller, Democrats and Republicans who were told about the Hillary apparatus, or already had known about it, confirmed or belittled the sweep of Mrs. Clinton's hidden power. But none of them talked about the ethics of a camouflaged operation by the first lady, or any first lady. They did not discuss the manipulative election-time disclosure of this first lady's influence over legislation and lobbying.

Since then, as far as I know, politicians and journalists have ignored Mrs. Clinton's disclosures and motives. At the conventions, they mostly bellyached about how there were no good stories around.

The spokesman for Rep. Rick A. Lazio, Mrs. Clinton's opponent, said she never "lifted a finger" for New York. Maybe before Election Day, Mr. Lazio and his team will discover wider objections like how she played down her role in the administration to fool voters everywhere, not just New York.

President Clinton did not seem to get the point either. Mr. Clinton said she had an unprecedented level of activity during his two terms. Indeed she did, although she was neither elected nor appointed to office. She describes her own White House issues staff and its offices as part of the domestic policy operation in the White House. To push legislation she supports, she can draw not only on her staff but officials of the presidential office.

Many readers will agree with some of the legislation Mrs. Clinton developed and pushed foster care bills, small overseas loans to spur business in needy countries, health insurance for children. I do.

But will the American public passively accept the secretiveness, or that she hired Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy's expert on national service and now says "basically it was my staff that was involved in drafting that legislation," or that some assistants to the president supposed to report to his chief domestic policy adviser actually reported to Mrs. Clinton? If they do, Americans should get ready to accept the consequences.

One day pro-choice Americans, let's say, will confront the lobbying machinery of a presidential wife for the appointment of anti-abortions judges only. That is, if she lets them find out about it. They may have another first lady who will set up an extra office in the presidential wing of the White House, and drafts congressional employees to develop and promote legislation against affirmative action.

Mrs. Clinton is transparent about her motive for going public about her secretiveness. As election time approaches, she no longer wants voters to think that all these years she had not been doing important administration work. That is what the Clintons wanted the public to believe after their health plan collapsed in 1994.

Mrs. Clinton's imperial attitude about what should be in the legislation, which experts and legislators should be involved or allowed into which meetings, helped destroy the whole thing.

She does have a sense of humor. She laughed when asked whether being a "senior presidential adviser" to put it minimally was going beyond being a first lady. She was not going to have the job any more, she said, and the next first lady does not have to do it.

Most of what Mrs. Clinton told us about what she was doing behind the scenes had to do with helping children or the poor. Her adroit success in concealing the reach of her power in shaping action on such matters leads to a thought, a little chilly but unavoidable. Did she have any other projects over which she presided, but has not disclosed, because they would add no credibility at all to her favorite role of national nanny?

A.M. Rosenthal, the former executive editor of the New York Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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