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Jewish World Review Sept. 19, 2000 / 18 Elul, 5760

Chris Matthews

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Consumer Reports

Hillary goes legit -- HILLARY CLINTON is a politician. She may prefer a less modest job title -- "lifelong advocate for children" is one favorite -- but last Wednesday's TV debate with Rep. Rick Lazio ended all that.

Thanks to her hour of public inspection, shared with her New York rival, the first lady deserves the title of Democrat. Finally, after two decades of deriving power from her husband, she seeks it directly from the electorate. She asks not for applause for her good deeds, but for votes that will put her in the United States Senate.

To attain this higher elevation, Hillary has taken an extraordinary step for someone so personally and professional guarded. She has exposed herself.

Why did she mislead the country by saying her husband's relationship with a White House intern was cooked up by a "vast right-wing conspiracy"? NBC's Tim Russert asked.

"Obviously, I didn't mislead anyone," she answered with senatorial calm. "I didn't know the truth."

Why did she push a huge national health care plan that threatened New York's teaching hospitals? Russert demanded.

"We did attempt to reform our health care system," she answered, again with neither sweat nor squirm. "As everyone knows, that was not successful." She took specific blame for having failed to adequately help the teaching hospitals "six, seven years later."

And so it went for her share of the full 60 minutes. We saw a first lady acting anything but, taking on the moderator's tough questions, accompanied by the relentless jabs of a Republican opponent unafraid to let fly at every opening.

Isn't democracy great?! With all its flaws, it offers something unavailable from any other form of government: the occasional chance to demand a personal, public accounting of those who would rule us. For 20 years, beginning with Bill Clinton's election as Arkansas governor, Hillary avoided this reckoning. She refused to discuss her cases at the Rose Law firm while publicizing her selection as "one of America's top 100 lawyers." She refused to admit any role in the firing of White House travel office staffers while seeking the patronage their departure would make possible. She denied access to her national health care deliberations while demanding public adoption of their results.

Those desiring a damage report on the Hillary first ladyship should consult David Gergen's new book, "Eyewitness to Power." The top Clinton adviser describes in excruciating detail the national dysfunction that descends from a White House under divided command. Better than anyone before, Gergen illustrates how Hillary's political power would rise with each new episode of Bill's sexual weakness.

"It became obvious that the stories had privately humiliated Mrs. Clinton," he writes of the Paula Jones matter, "and her husband was deep in her doghouse. I sensed he was in no mood -- and no position -- to challenge her on anything. We were heading into the most important months of the health care fight with a president who was tiptoeing around the person in charge."

This is no way to run a presidency. It is certainly no way to build a new national health care system for the country. Had Clinton tapped a cabinet member, such as the seasoned professional Donna Shalala, secretary of Health and Human Services, to ramrod the top domestic mission of his presidency, the debacle of 1993 and 1994 might have been avoided. He did not, the insider Gergen reports, because his wife wanted the job.

Now Hillary is seeking power the right way: from the ballot. On Tuesday she won the Democratic nomination. On Wednesday, she tested her wits, brains and passion for public service in the primetime arena. You don't have to believe everything Hillary said, especially her claim to be a committed disciple of fiscal conservatism, a "New Democrat," to believe that her current pursuit of power is far more savory, and certainly more honest, than her last.

Win or lose, both Mrs. Clinton and the country will be better for her gutsy quest to win power over public policy openly and legitimately: not from a morally weakened spouse but from a democratically empowered electorate.

JWR contributor Chris Matthews is the author of Hardball. and hosts a CNBC show of the same name. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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