Nifty At 50

TUESDAY, OCT. 21, 1997

She wickedly mimics an old law client and his spittoon. She’s got a knack with Game Boy that many kids would envy. And friends say her interest in people’s lives makes her a terrific gal-pal.

Meet the other Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Five years into her turn as America’s first lady, with her 50th birthday arriving Sunday, Clinton is letting down her guard a little, even as she raises her profile once more in an activist role.

After too many image makeovers even to count, Clinton remains a White House force not to be trifled with, earnest as ever in her advocacy for women and children. But friends see a woman less burdened by the weight of her policy passions.

“She now looks at ways to get things done and is much more relaxed about her role,” said Ann Stock, her former social secretary. “She’s really enjoying where she is and this stage in life.”

Some lessons along the way have been rough.

She once stubbornly held out against an independent counsel investigation of the Clintons’ financial dealings that everyone else - her husband included - seemed to think was inevitable.

Now she’s the woman pushing for an out-of-court settlement in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case against her husband to avoid an embarrassing trial.

The woman who wanted to overhaul the economy with a sweeping health care reform plan has become the woman who plugs away at bite-sized steps to expand Americans’ access to medical care.

Once openly defensive, she’s now quietly pragmatic.

“She’s learned a lot about how to just let things roll off of her,” said Lisa Caputo, and her former press secretary. “She’s learned a lot about herself and her limitations.”

And if Clinton is more comfortable with her role these days, so are the American people.

The first lady’s poll ratings are at their highest levels since 1993, even though people remain divided on whether she should be shaping policy or simply using her stature to spotlight problems that need attention.

Her 50th birthday - along with her husband’s a year ago - is seen by some as a national turning point of sorts, a rite of passage for a generation of aging baby boomers.

“What we see in her is a heightened, intensified image of a struggle and a transition and a challenge and an opportunity that women are encountering at this moment in history,” said Ruth Mandel, director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University.

To mark this landmark, longtime friends stretching back to grammar school plan a weekend of celebratory events in Washington, then a trip Monday to her home turf in the Chicago suburbs.

“We’ve all gotten older and mellowed, but I think we’re all basically the same as we always were,” said Rick Ricketts, who walked Hillary Rodham to Field Elementary in middle-class Park Ridge and dated her in high school. “The years just seem to kind of melt away.”

The first lady says she feels awkward about all the hubbub and mental musings surrounding her birthday; the bigger milestone to her lies in the departure of her only child, Chelsea, for college this year.

Forsaking the empty nest at home, Clinton is throwing herself into a stepped-up round of international travel and a spate of domestic policy projects such as this week’s White House conference on child care.

She barnstormed Latin America last week with the president, making headlines with an impassioned defense of women’s rights. She rejected any culture that tries to “objectify women and make girls believe that only their appearances - not their hearts, minds or souls - are important.”

During a solo trip to Panama a week earlier, Clinton said of women around the world, “There’s more of a willingness to be identified with issues that five or 10 years ago were viewed as kind of radical.”

From the first lady, there’s also more of a willingness to open up.

Once carefully scripted when she met with reporters, she’s not afraid to think out loud. She tells jokes at her own expense, spices up impersonations with body motions and flourishes, throws her head back in a raucous laugh.

“The biggest belly-laugh of all my friends,” is how actress Mary Steenburgen described it. “She came to one of my plays once and it was almost distracting because I could hear her laugh from the audience.”

Harold Ickes, former White House deputy chief of staff and a longtime ally of Clinton, described her two sides: “She is wickedly funny; she is loyal beyond belief and she is a wonderful friend,” he said. But also this: “She is tough; she is very incisive and analytical. If you go in and disagree with her, you better know what the hell you’re talking about. If you don’t, she’ll roll you in a minute and you’ll know it. She doesn’t suffer fools easily.”

She also can withdraw behind the curtain.

“She’s funny, but I don’t know if the public is ever going to get to see this side of her because she is such a private person,” said Hollywood producer and longtime friend Linda Bloodworth Thomason. “Some of the most positive stuff about her, she doesn’t let out.”

Part of that reticence is a defense against a stream of criticism, scandal and investigation that has run from Gennifer Flowers’ 1992 claims of an affair with President Clinton to the ongoing Whitewater and Paula Jones probes. Clinton also has suffered a string of personal losses over the past five years, including the suicide of friend Vincent Foster and the deaths of her father and mother-in-law.

It was during the long hours at her father’s sickbed that Clinton picked up the Game Boy habit as a diversion from her worries.

Tired of others parsing her psyche, she adopts people as projects.

Jane Condon, a stand-up comic from Greenwich, Conn., who knows the Clintons from New Year’s retreats at Hilton Head, S.C., tells of Clinton sitting her down at the White House for a pep talk.

Clinton didn’t stop at giving Condon career advice; she called Thomason to personally hawk the comic’s scripts.

“She’ll be a fun a person to grow old with,” Thomason said. “She’s doing it very well.”


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