The Saga of the First Lady Files
Word that nearly 2 million pages of documents related to Hillary Rodham Clinton's time as first lady could remain locked up until after next year's election produced the predictable catcalls among critics suspecting coverup. But it raises the broader, unprecedented question of how someone's service as first lady should be evaluated in terms of her qualifications to be president in the first place.
American voters have assessed the records of vice presidents, governors, senators, members of Congress, cabinet secretaries, businessmen and generals in deciding whether they were capable of leading the country. But never before have they considered how a candidate behaved as first lady. A first lady signs no executive orders, casts no votes, runs no operations beyond a small coterie of aides in the East Wing. What is the standard to measure a first lady against? What constitutes a successful tenure as first lady?
On the campaign trail, Clinton tends to talk more about her service as a senator and the issues that have confronted her during her 6-1/2 years representing New York. But she points to her past residence in the White House as a qualification as well. Certainly no other first-time candidate for president ever saw a presidency up close and personal the way she did. She notes that she traveled to 82 countries while first lady. And certainly she redefined the position of presidential spouse to go far beyond the traditional adopt-a-benign-cause pattern set by most of her modern predecessors.
Her campaign web site defines her tenure as first lady in terms of women's issues. "Hillary's work as a champion for women was recognized and admired around the world," the web site asserts, noting that she "traveled the globe" promoting "the powerful idea that women's rights are human rights." As first lady, the site says, she championed efforts to make adoption easier, expand child care, increase breast cancer research and help ailing Gulf War veterans. And it mentions her failed effort to reshape health care.
But what about her role in other issues? Did she ever commit her thoughts on welfare reform to paper? What did she think of the government shutdown fight with Newt Gingrich? Are there memos describing her role in the travel office firings that have never been made public? How about the controversial pardons in the last days of her husband's presidency? Did she ever secretly meet as first lady with some of the lightning-rod figures from Whitewater, the campaign finance scandals or the Monica Lewinsky case?
We may never find out before Election Day next year. Judicial Watch, a watchdog group that peppered the Clinton administration with lawsuits during the 1990s, filed a lawsuit July 16 asking a federal court in Washington to order the National Archives and Records Administration to give it Hillary Clinton's calendars, daily office diaries, schedule and telephone logs from Jan. 20, 1993, to Jan. 20, 2001. The group filed the suit after waiting for more than a year with no reply to its April 5, 2006, request under the Freedom of Information Act submitted to the archives, which operates the William J. Clinton Presidential Library.
"With Hillary Clinton aggressively pursuing the presidency, uncovering the truth about her activities in the White House is just as relevant today as it was during the Clinton era," said Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch.
Then came a report in the Los Angeles Times this week that the Clinton library in Arkansas says nearly 2 million pages of documents related to the first lady's office probably won't be processed for release in time for the election. Under normal procedures, archives officials must review each requested document line by line for material considered classified, private or confidential communications before it can be released.
The staff is still processing older FOIA requests not related to her current campaign and by law moves through requests in the order they are received. It could take years for Hillary Clinton's documents to come out, officials told the Times. A previous Newsday story says the Clintons' longtime attorney and consigliere, Bruce Lindsey, has veto power over documents he deems privileged communications.
The notion of hidden documents, of course, recalls the controversy over the health care task force Clinton led in her husband's first term, when outside groups attempted to learn what was going on only to be shut out. After the Times story, the Republican National Committee put out a statement ridiculing Clinton for calling "for transparency in government" but putting her White House documents "in lockdown until after [the] '08 race." And then Sen. Barack Obama put out a statement in which he vowed to create the "most transparent and accountable administration in history." He made no mention of the Clinton papers, but the timing certainly did not seem coincidental.
-- Peter Baker
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