Hillary and Di

What the princess could teach the first lady.

Hillary Rodham Clinton has been devoted to Causes all her adult life. Apart from her family, improving the world (by her lights) is what she is about. For Princess Diana, Causes were more than a royal-lifestyle accessory but less than a lifelong passion. Each woman married into a huge opportunity to advance her Causes. And yet Hillary, the born Causenik, has been far less successful–both for her Causes and for herself.

As the official American representative at the princess’s funeral, the first lady must have wondered why a small fraction of the outpouring of affection for England’s most famous woman couldn’t attach itself to this country’s most famous woman. Millions of dollars and pounds pour in daily for Diana’s favorite charities. Hillary, meanwhile, prepares to co-chair a new Conference on Child Care–a prospect that must make her feel at least a small fraction as weary as everyone else.

It is hard to remember while in the grip of posthumous amnesia, but Diana’s press was often as lousy as Hillary’s. The media mocked her outsized clothes budget, her downsized tank tops, her affairs, her various dysfunctions, her penchant for New Age cures. The National Enquirer pulled its “Di Was Sex Mad” cover off newsstands as soon as it could after the fatal crash. Even the nontabloid London Sunday Times had the headline “Diana on the Couch”–above a story questioning the princess’s mental stability–in the edition that hit British doorsteps (too late to stop) a few hours after her death.

Both women suffered the indignity of a press obsession with their thighs. Photos from the Clintons’ recent Martha’s Vineyard vacation featured Hillary in a bathing suit with close-ups of her legs. You would think that the thighs of a woman of Diana’s years would yield little in the way of news. But her gym sold photos of her gams to Fleet Street. Her dimpled cellulite was blown up to ghastly proportions and plastered on newsstands.

B ut Diana was wiser about how to transcend her tormenters. First, she knew not to trouble her pretty little head about matters of institutional power. It could only slow her down. When she successfully put land mines on the world’s agenda, she didn’t do it by going to the United Nations or 10 Downing St., but to the places where the mines had done their ghastly damage. She posed for the photographers, uttered some clichés, and shared her glamour. But it worked.

By contrast, Mrs. Clinton believed that this feminine approach was old-fashioned, and went after executive authority like the boys. She got bogged down in leading a 500-member Health Care Task Force and fighting with subcommittee chairmen on the Hill. And it’s not a question of physical beauty: Eleanor Roosevelt also took the Diana approach and got results. When she wanted something to be done about conditions in the mines, she went to (and posed at) the mines, not to the Bureau of Mines.

Diana’s second lesson for Hillary is the one she delivered to the royal family: Flex that upper lip. There was a great deal more sympathy for Diana’s frailties, once she admitted to them, than the press–bad judges of how readers will process embarrassing revelations–predicted. At a particularly low point after the Squidgy tapes, Diana went on the BBC for a two-hour interview. Her private secretary was so appalled over it that he quit, and the media’s assessment was summed up in one paper’s headline, “Has She Gone Mad?” But politicians in trouble should pore over that tape for guidance in spin control. With that unfiltered performance, her triumph over the House of Windsor was ensured.

Hillary once made a similar appearance, one that has become known as the “press conference in pink.” During the simultaneous controversies over the health care task force, her killing in cattle futures, and her alleged meddling in the White House travel office, she invited reporters into the East Room to hear her explain herself. But by giving absolutely no ground, she gained no sympathy: Everyone thought she was smart, but no one was reminded she was human. Bill Clinton has admitted to causing “pain in my marriage,” but his wife has never given the slightest indication she feels any.

Of course, there’s the fear that a woman–even a woman whose public role derives entirely from her husband–won’t be taken seriously if her portfolio is more princess than prime minister. While Diana was more fame than substance, she accomplished a lot with her 15 minutes once she had it. Land mines made it onto the world’s agenda because Diana put them there, using only the cameras and good will at her disposal. Meanwhile, in America, there are still 47 million people with no health insurance.