By  on March 22, 2005

NEW YORK — Hillary Rodham Clinton said nothing prepares anyone to be first lady.

“You know you don’t get a training manual. You don’t get any guidance whatsoever,” said Clinton, speaking about her former role at a luncheon Monday that kicked off two exhibitions about the wives of presidents at the New-York Historical Society. As for the public’s fascination with a first lady’s style, it continues to stupefy her.

“People will overlook policies about war and peace to argue about the first lady’s hairdo and clothes,” she said.

The senator recalled telling Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis over lunch at her Fifth Avenue apartment in 1992 how she was getting unsolicited advice about her clothing and hairstyle.

“I told her, ‘I have to confess that is not something I have been very confident about. Some friends say I should turn myself over to these image people and see what comes out.’”

“She told me, ‘You have to be you. You can’t be anyone else.’”

Downstairs at “First Ladies of New York and the Nation,” an exhibition devoted to Kennedy and Eleanor Roosevelt, even Clinton couldn’t resist the lure of a little glamour. Upon entering the exhibition and admiring a Carolina Herrera gown worn by Kennedy in the Eighties, she said, “Oh wow, that’s great. That’s wonderful. She was so amazing.”

But during her luncheon remarks, the senator said she was more impressed with the substance featured in an adjunct exhibition, “First Ladies: Political Role and Public Image,” which is on loan from the Smithsonian and on display at the Historical Society through June 4.

Contrary to some public speculation, the former first lady said she had nothing to do with the Smithsonian’s 1992 decision to make its first ladies’ exhibition more about substance than inaugural gowns. She said she was happy to provide its first pantsuit — much like the black one she wore Monday with a salmon-colored blouse.

On display, a Clinton pantsuit looked mannish compared with another outfit nearby, a silk brocade dress and jacket that Oleg Cassini designed for Kennedy in 1961. But Clinton made no bones about her no-nonsense attire, as evidenced by her quote that frames her display: “Sixty-two counties, 16 months, three debates, two opponents and six black pantsuits later, because of you we are here.”

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