Why Hillary Clinton should do well as Senator

By Dale Bumpers

Even if the Senate were not entering the interesting and potentially history-making territory of a 50-50 Republican-Democratic split, it would find itself receiving new, intense attention in the session that begins today, simply because Hillary Clinton will be taking office.

The other senators will be bombarded with questions about her: what she's doing, how she's doing — and later, how she has progressed. Some of what's asked will be those all-too-familiar delicate questions for background use only.

But while some other senators may resent her fame at first, and many will disagree with her now and later on social, economic or political issues, I believe they will be hard pressed to criticize her personally. She will become a colleague they respect.

The Senate is a small, disparate group of men and women who are thrown into constant close contact: in the cloakroom, on the floor of the Senate, in caucuses, in their private dining room. They get to know one another well in those confined settings, and one-dimensional impressions they may have previously held about one another have difficulty in surviving.

This is the reason for the collegiality that can develop and bring together, for example, Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Ted Kennedy, D. Mass., who hold diametrically opposed positions on many issues but are warm friends and have learned to cooperate where they do agree. The same is true of John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russ Feingold, D-Wis., who have strong policy disagreements but have worked together tirelessly to try to pass a campaign finance reform law.

The common bond that senators often share is legislation and the philosophies behind it. I remember many hotly contested debates in the Senate between two temporary adversaries, but I can remember very few sustained personality disputes.

Having known Hillary Clinton since 1974, I would expect her to live and die by the former but never engage in the latter. She will demonstrate toughness, but also the graciousness that is another part of her character. She will ultimately be judged just as other colleagues are, using the same criteria — and that will be in her favor.

Not that the Senate, old and venerable as it is, has ever experienced anything quite like what Hillary Clinton will bring. Majority Leader Trent Lott's initial advice that she take a "low profile" is certain not to be followed — if for no other reason than simply because the press will never permit it.

Her upcoming role in the Senate, after eight years in the White House as a very active first lady and with much speculation already about a future presidential candidacy, is historic and unprecedented. And how does one take a low profile when Secret Service agents and Capitol police accompany one's every move? Nor should she be asked to stay out of the public eye. She is a senator-elect from a large and important state.

The unfair onus on Clinton will be that her every utterance and vote will be microscopically examined and analyzed for possible impact on a presidential bid. The press is unlikely to allow her the luxury of simply voting yea or nay because she strongly believes a vote is in the public interest.

I've long been puzzled by the intense animosity many people developed toward Clinton after she became first lady. All strong-willed people with strong convictions have their detractors, but in her case, the antipathy has been not only intense, but so unfair as to seem irrational.

Her health-care proposals gave rise not to a simple disagreement, but to open hostility and rancor. Even her beautiful book, It Takes a Village, the concept of which was that it takes all of us to solve our problems, was wildly distorted by her detractors as meaning that the government was the ultimate solution.

When her work in the Senate actually begins, I expect that over a rather short period of time any mumbling over the hoopla surrounding her — along with false stereotypes some senators may hold — will fade, subsumed into the Senate's agenda and the daily business of colleagues.

Bumpers, an orator and lifelong Democrat, represented Arkansas in the U.S. Senate from 1975 until he retired in 1998. He has served as a character reference for President Bill Clinton