Confession puts first lady under spotlight's glare With world watching, betrayed wife pledges devotion to president

Not the usual victim

August 19, 1998|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- With cameras watching and daughter Chelsea conspicuously in the middle, the Clintons walked hand-in-hand across the White House South Lawn yesterday as they left for vacation, one day after the president admitted that he had misled the nation -- and his wife -- about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky.

The president's extraordinary confession Monday night was hardly the ideal prelude to a merry family vacation.

Appearing to keep a certain distance from her husband as they boarded a helicopter and then Air Force One en route to Martha's Vineyard, Hillary Rodham Clinton acknowledged through her spokeswoman that yesterday was "not a happy day" for her.

"It's certainly not the best day in Mrs. Clinton's life," said her spokeswoman, Marsha Berry.

Still, adopting a posture that is familiar to her, if somewhat mystifying to much of the outside world, the first lady rallied behind her husband and pledged her devotion to him.

"She's committed to her marriage and loves her husband and daughter very much," Berry said after talking with Mrs. Clinton. "She believes in the president, and her love for him is compassionate and steadfast."

Berry said that Mrs. Clinton was uncomfortable with the public airing of her family's private turmoil but that she was looking forward to the 12-day vacation and "private time with the family."

White House aides have said that Mrs. Clinton first learned the true nature of her husband's relationship with Lewinsky over the weekend in "wrenching" private conversations. But many find it hard to believe that a woman as savvy as Mrs. Clinton, a Yale-educated lawyer, would be in the dark this long -- especially given that the president has admitted to infidelity in the past.

"If she didn't know, she had to, in her heart and in her gut, know it was true," said Ed Goeas, a Republican pollster.

Asked if the first lady had learned only last weekend that her husband had had a sexual relationship with Lewinsky, Mrs. Clinton's spokeswoman said only that it was not until then that Mrs. Clinton learned what her husband would tell the grand jury. "She certainly was misled," Berry said.

Attempt to 'provide cover'

Goeas says the suggestion that Mrs. Clinton was unaware of the Lewinsky relationship could be an attempt to "provide cover" for her. If the first lady and other administration officials knew the truth about the relationship all along, Goeas said, their efforts to discredit independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's investigation would be all the more egregious.

"They've been fighting a public relations war trying to kill this investigation," Goeas said.

The first lady, in fact, has been far more outspoken than her husband since January in denying the relationship and attributing the investigation to the president's political enemies.

"I can state unequivocally," Mrs. Clinton said on ABC's "Good Morning America" in January, "that, as my husband has said, these are false allegations."

Goeas also notes that if it turns out Mrs. Clinton knew about the relationship all along, "she is no longer a victim; she's a co-conspirator."

But even as the betrayed wife, Mrs. Clinton is not the usual victim. She not only helped the president develop a legal strategy for his grand jury testimony; she helped craft Monday night's address to the nation in which he confessed that he had had a relationship with the former White House intern that was "not appropriate."

In fact, Clinton discarded a more apologetic, conciliatory speech drafted by several advisers and speech-writers in favor of the more defiant address he delivered -- in which he spent much time attacking Starr -- that Mrs. Clinton signed off on, CNN reported.

It's not surprising, because the first lady has focused her ire over the seven months of the Lewinsky scandal on outside forces including Starr, a "vast right-wing conspiracy," the news media and, most recently, an anti-Arkansas bias she said she perceived in Washington.

Trying to understand the dynamic between Bill and Hillary Clinton -- in other words, trying to figure out why Mrs. Clinton so ferociously stands by a husband who has cheated on her -- has been a sort of Washington parlor game. It began when the couple first surfaced on the national political scene six years ago, with Mrs. Clinton by candidate Clinton's side as he was questioned on "60 Minutes" about his relationship with Gennifer Flowers and admitted causing "pain in my marriage."

Speculation about the Clintons' union has been the stuff of armchair psychologists and bona fide psychologists, historians, the news media, and even the couple's friends and associates.

"Marriages get worked out between the two people in them," Dee Dee Myers, a former Clinton spokeswoman, said on NBC's "Today" show yesterday. "I don't know anybody who really totally understands the dynamic."

'Never noticed any strain'

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