Hillary Clinton's chief role may be to save her husband's career

February 13, 1998|By Jack Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- When candidate Bill Clinton was seeking the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992, he repeatedly referred to his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, as a bonus the voters would be getting if they voted for him. Reminding audiences that she was an accomplished lawyer in her own right, he called the deal for the voters "two for the price of one."

But it was Mr. Clinton himself who got more than his money's worth when she helped plan and personally execute the strategy in that campaign that extricated him from allegations of marital -- infidelity when he was governor of Arkansas. She sat stolidly at his side in that celebrated "60 Minutes" interview when he admitted only to "causing pain in my marriage."

What allegedly had happened regarding Gennifer Flowers, she said then on national television, was between her and her husband, and if she could deal with it, that was all that mattered. "If that's not enough for people," she said, "then heck, don't vote for him."

An activist first lady

The voters bought it then, giving him the Democratic nomination and then election and re-election to the presidency, and getting in the package a woman who arguably is the most activist first lady since Eleanor Roosevelt. During Mr. Clinton's five years in the Oval Office, Mrs. Clinton had ups and downs, failing most conspicuously in a unique policy role as spearhead of her husband's ambitious plans for health-care reform to achieve universal coverage for all Americans.

Now, ironically, she finds herself back in the role that would probably be most painful for most women, but it's perhaps the most valuable one she can carry out for her husband right now -- defending him once again against allegations of marital infidelity.

The wise guys in this town laughed when the first lady launched her assault on the "vast right-wing conspiracy" that, according to her, was bent on bringing her husband down in the Monica Lewinsky affair. They knew what she was up to -- trying to take the public's eye off the central issue of what the nature was of the relationship between the president and the former White House intern, and whether he lied about it and then tried to get Ms. Lewinsky to lie about it.

But the notion of lumping together independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, Paula Corbin Jones and her backers from the Rutherford Institute, Newsweek magazine, the Washington Post and all the other players in pursuit of the truth about that central issue was ludicrous on its face. These "culprits" spanned the political spectrum.

The president's house attack dog, 1992 Clinton presidential campaign guru James Carville, had been singing the same tune for months, without creating much stir. Even when he announced on NBC's "Meet the Press" upon the outbreak of the Lewinsky story that it would be open warfare between the Clinton White House and Mr. Starr, his warbling was largely dismissed as a broken record.

When the first lady stepped up only hours before her husband delivered his State of the Union address and lambasted Mr. Starr as "politically motivated," however, what was widely dismissed coming out of Mr. Carville's mouth as a diversionary tactic suddenly took on new credibility around the country.

In a Washington Post poll taken over the first three days after Mrs. Clinton's attack on Mr. Starr as part of the "vast right-wing conspiracy" against her husband, 48 percent of the 1,390 voters surveyed said they believed the scandal was "mainly due to the work of his political enemies," to 42 percent who said they thought it was "mainly caused by [Mr.] Clinton's own personal conduct."

A CNN/Time magazine poll taken over the same three days was less certain. Of the 1,016 voters interviewed, 34 percent agreed with the view that the allegations were "the result of a conspiracy of conservatives who oppose [Mr.] Clinton politically," to 55 percent who disagreed. Still, even in this poll, more than one in three respondents said they believed the first lady's charge.

An unpopular investigation

Her taking the lead in raising the right-wing conspiracy allegation was not the only reason, to be sure, that a considerable segment of the public seems to believe it. Mr. Starr's interminable Whitewater investigation, and its branching out in search of other wrongdoing by the Clinton White House, made him suspect in many quarters long before Mrs. Clinton spoke out.

Still, the woman who was supposed to be a groundbreaking policy first lady may be making her chief contribution to her husband's presidency in her tough, outspoken efforts to save it.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 2/13/98

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