Hillary takes lead in president's defense First lady believes scandal to be politically motivated rTC

January 27, 1998|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- At yesterday's child care event at the White House, the first lady stood closer to the president than the place card on the floor instructed her to. She nodded when her husband spoke, applauded when he finished, whispered in his ear and, wearing a sunny yellow pantsuit, showed no indication that life for the First Couple was anything but peachy.

This is Hillary Rodham Clinton "fully engaged, disciplined, focused and in battle mode," a former administration official said yesterday.

And she has had lots of practice.

She has been by her husband's side through all of the scandals in the political life of Bill Clinton -- through Gennifer Flowers, the draft flap, Whitewater, Paula Jones. And it is unlikely he would have survived them without her support, her very public support.

Now, once again, as the nation mutters to itself, "Poor Hillary," the 50-year-old wife and mother is having none of the pity. Instead, Mrs. Clinton is donning the armor and taking the lead in the defense of the president against allegations that he had a sexual relationship with a young White House intern, Monica Lewinsky, and then advised her to deny it under oath.

"Hillary Clinton is a fighter," said Lisa Caputo, her former press secretary. "She believes this current situation is part of an ongoing political attack on her husband that's been going on for five or six years."

Indeed, while other White House officials have been somewhat reserved in their denials of the charges, Mrs. Clinton has been unequivocal. "Certainly I believe they're false," she said of the accusations when the story broke last week. "Absolutely."

She is expected to be just as categorical in two scheduled TV interviews that she is going ahead with this week as part of her offensive: this morning on NBC's "Today" show, and tomorrow on ABC's "Good Morning America."

Concerned that the crisis would gain momentum, the Yale-trained lawyer took matters into her own hands last week, calling old Clinton allies such as former Commerce Secretary Mickey Kantor, former deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes and TV producer Harry Thomason to come back to the White House and help with damage control.

She consulted with the president's legal team and, in the rift between political advisers who felt Clinton should quickly and fully respond to the allegations publicly and lawyers who believed he should delay a full account, she reportedly sided with the lawyers. Her side won.

Yesterday, she toured the Harriet Tubman school in Harlem, where, in a speech carried live by CNN, she spoke in upbeat, cheery tones about child care and after-school programs, with not a word about the controversy that has consumed the White House.

"She very much sets an example for people here about getting about your work," says White House communications director and close friend Ann Lewis. "She's out publicly and setting a very helpful tone."

Lewis said Mrs. Clinton is also helping beleaguered White House officials who call for inspiration.

And as she has done before, Mrs. Clinton has aimed her ire at what she calls the president's political enemies, including Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth Starr. In this case, she is said to be particularly intrigued by the story of Lucianne Goldberg, the New York literary agent and ardent Clinton foe who urged former Lewinsky co-worker Linda Tripp to tape-record her conversations with the young intern.

One former White House official said that, in a way, Mrs. Clinton has become "numb" to the allegations against her husband. "You recognize that this is part of life in Washington, and you develop a mind-set where you put it in a box," the former aide said, describing Mrs. Clinton's practice of compartmentalizing controversies and going on with her work.

This latest episode has again raised questions about the nature of the Clintons' marriage, described by aides as alternately loving and affectionate and combative. Their marriage has been a subject of scrutiny and speculation ever since 1992 when Mrs. Clinton sat by her husband's side on "60 Minutes" as he answered questions about Gennifer Flowers and admitted having "caused pain" in their marriage.

"You know, I'm not sitting here as some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette," Mrs. Clinton said in a performance many believe saved her husband's candidacy. "I'm sitting here because I love him and respect him and I honor what he's been through and what we've been through together, and you know, if that's not enough for people, then, heck, don't vote for him."

Mrs. Clinton, in essence, told the nation that she accepted him, infidelity and all, so the public should. "Her faith in him and her pride in him is very powerful," said Lewis.

Asked if there was any part of Mrs. Clinton that questioned whether her husband was telling the truth in his denial of a sexual relationship with Lewinsky, Lewis said: "I don't do psychology. I don't do X-rays. But there's no sign of that. Just look at the tape from this morning."

Other friends say a combination of factors -- chief among them, her genuine love for her husband -- keep Mrs. Clinton at her husband's side.

"She's crazy about him and takes very seriously the commitment of marriage," said a longtime friend of Mrs. Clinton's. "For better and for worse, in good times and bad times, she's there for the duration."

The confidante said Mrs. Clinton's religious convictions as a Methodist also afford her much strength and consolation, as does her belief in her husband's political agenda.

"She believes he is a very good president and that there is a great deal at stake with his presidency and the policies he's been bringing about," the friend said.

Pub Date: 1/27/98

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