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“First Lady of Fashion”

A Wall Street Journal editorial published in December 1998, on the eve of the impeachment vote and after Clinton’s participation in a Vogue cover story.

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Illustration by Tony Millionaire  

As Bill Clinton’s self-inflicted crisis draws to a denouement in the House of Representatives, Hillary Clinton adorns December’s Vogue, resplendent in oodles of burgundy velvet by Oscar de la Renta ($4,000, the magazine’s notes tell us, to order at Bergdorf Goodman, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Neiman Marcus). Also, Cartier earrings and Manolo Blahnik shoes; “Hair, Isabelle de Goetz for Cristophe Salon; on-set styling by Sally Hershberger for Sheer Blonde; makeup, Barbara Lacy; on-set makeup by Jeannie Lobell for Stila.” We don’t for a moment object, of course, to the First Lady upholding the highest standards of fashion. Nancy Reagan did precisely that back during, er, the Decade of Greed. That phrase kept running through our minds as we paged further into Vogue’s pages, past layouts titled “La Dolce Vita,” “She’s Gotta Have It,” “Haute Stuff,” and “Can Money Buy Beauty?”

The text that provided the excuse for Mrs. Clinton’s photos was by Ann Douglas, professor of Comparative Literature at Columbia University. Professor Douglas’s academic theme is associating the advent of new media with panics and trials. She argues that television’s appearance somehow brought us McCarthyism, the Rosenberg and Hiss trials, just as the Internet has now produced Ken Starr.

Mrs. Clinton has been the victim of “the supremely irresponsible instance of media madness in the 20th century,” Ms. Douglas argues in Vogue. The media paid insufficient attention to such matters as the First Lady’s Save America’s Treasures tour. The First Lady has been out campaigning to expose the dark truth that only 5 percent of our national historical sites are dedicated to women; now there is a scandal.

The author of this testimonial goes on to note that Eleanor Roosevelt is the predecessor to whom Mrs. Clinton is most often compared—but that Mrs. Roosevelt was “in no sense a trained intellect.” Whereas this First Lady is an intellectual and moreover “simply smarter than any press person she talks to.” We’d be among the first to agree that Hillary Clinton doesn’t have much in common with Eleanor Roosevelt, who lived in a heroic time and crisscrossed her way across one Pacific island after another to visit the wounded during the war.

Nearly any woman would enjoy a moment of glamour, and few would deny that solace to Mrs. Clinton, who has seen much trouble lately. Still, there is a certain incongruity between the De la Renta gown and, say, the pink suit she wore in defending her $100,000 commodities-market killing. It was her Rose Law Firm that brought us Webster Hubbell, Vincent Foster, and William Kennedy, and her Health Care Task Force that landed the administration in the earliest of its legal difficulties. That is, Mrs. Clinton has herself had a good deal to do with setting the legal and moral tone of her husband’s administration.

Such petty controversy, she now shows us, can easily be swept aside by the invincible power of celebrity. At least in Professor Douglas’s breathless prose, indeed, Mrs. Clinton has achieved a sainthood last seen with Princess Di. Republicans wavering on impeachment might add Vogue to their reading lists, and reflect on what is likely to happen if in this week’s vote the President walks away with something that can pass as a victory.

Reprinted by permission of Dow Jones, ©1998.


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