CELEBRATING THE CAUSE OF WOMEN, AND THE CURIOUS CASE OF HILLARY

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This was last Monday in the grand ballroom of the Waldorf on Park Avenue in Manhattan and New York Women in Communications were parceling out their annual Matrix Awards.

Customarily I avoid such solemn events, much as you tried to make the quick Mass on summer Sundays and not the one where Monsignor droned on about the sixth and ninth commandments and then suggested we all renew our baptismal vows while we were at it. But last Monday I went to the Matrix awards. And was glad I did. This was what awards ceremonies ought to be: brisk and bright, and with more marquee names than you might encounter in Letterman's green room over a week of telecasts.

Chairwoman Mary Berner of Glamour kept things moving swiftly (how'd you like to be one of her kids and can't find your school shoes?). Both presenters and honorees kept their remarks to a couple of minutes (Barbara Walters did go on and so did "Prime Time Live" producer Phyllis McGrady) and zillions of powerful women, including lots of former Matrix winners, showed up. There was a cash bar but let me not bog down in unseemly recriminations here when I'm being otherwise very upbeat.

Up there on that double-tiered dais were, as Miss Jean Brodie might have put it, the creme de la creme. Here, without taking a breath, I'd like to drop a few names:

Matt Lauer of the "Today Show" introduced Anthea Disney of News America Publishing Group, who does everything for Rupert Murdoch but play third base on the Dodgers; fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi introed Self's Rochelle Udell (both were funny and she was touching); Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana presented Bette Midler; Arthur Sulzberger Jr. did likewise for Janet Robinson, president of The New York Times (we are blessed to have her, said Arthur); and Diane Sawyer was up there along with a delightful young Pilar Crespi and advertising's Sally Minard and, in a checked suit that looked suspiciously Chanel but she swore to me wasn't, the city's First Lady, Donna Hanover.

They also called out names without end of stars who'd been saluted in the past: Liz Smith and Cathie Black and Judy Daniels and Ruth Whitney and Ann Moore and Anne Fuchs and Myrna Blyth and like that. Just about every famous dame but Madame Curie and Amelia Earhardt was in that old ballroom and I guess we all had a pretty good time enjoying ourselves. And enjoying the empowerment of women in this business and in all businesses and in life itself. Hooray for women! They don't get pushed around anymore. Do they?

Which got me to thinking about Hillary Clinton.

Who that very morning had been written about in the Times re: her just completed trip with the president to Chile. The Times reporter, John M. Broder, cataloged her schedule: visiting a primitive Mapuche Indian clinic, inspecting a school, meeting with small businesswomen. "The programs the first lady highlighted are part of her campaign of global good works that has taken her to similar sites in Bangladesh, Uganda, Uzbekistan, Mongolia, Ireland and Nicaragua." There were also in Chile some dances, massages with floral salves, herbal teas and the like. Fine. Like kissing babies, it's what pols (and their spouses) do.

But Mr. Broder went on: "Rumor has it that Mrs. Clinton lets a different side of her personality show in private. . .that at lunches with reporters she can be wickedly funny, offering astute and biting assessments of global leaders and American politicians alike. . .Mrs. Clinton possesses a sharp analytical mind. . .has strong positions and is not shy about expressing them. . ."

For five or six years now, ever since Bill Clinton began his campaign for the presidency, I've been hearing stuff like this about Hillary Clinton.

And from many of the same powerful women at the Matrix Awards lunch. To hear them talk after meetings at the White House or cozy little lunches and afternoon teas, Hillary was the smartest, toughest, most brilliant, energetic and liberated American woman ever. A role model for the young, a shining beacon for the disenfranchised.

And the women telling me this were themselves, smart, tough, brilliant, energetic, liberated. Some are married, some aren't; some have children, some don't; some, surely, are happy in their private lives and some aren't; and they are all enormously successful at what they do.

Which gets me back to Hillary Clinton.

Of all the players in this vulgar national soap opera, the president, the beauty queens, the spin doctors, the drabs, the smirking golfing partners, the phone-tappers, the ambulance chasers, the tame clergymen, the tattling bodyguards, the right-wing crazies, the tabloid hacks and the groupies, Mrs. Clinton is surely the oddest. We are all told by admirable women how admirable she is. But if 10% of the stories they are telling about her husband are true, then Hillary is either a sap or just another wife who's cut a rather cynical deal to let boys be boys and not to rock the boat.

Not while in other respects the ship of state is sailing along so smoothly; not while she is our first lady, and admired by all.

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