First lady steps up as No. 1 defender She works phones, attends fund-raisers to rescue presidency

September 28, 1998|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON SUN STAFF WRITER JONATHAN WEISMAN CONTRIBUTED TO THIS ARTICLE. — WASHINGTON -- People don't understand it. Women say it's not what they would do. Even White House spokesman Mike McCurry says the president is in no position to expect it or request it.

Even so, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton is casting aside any notion of herself as betrayed wife -- for public consumption at least -- and aggressively working to rescue her husband's tattered presidency.

Aiming her ire at Republicans, Mrs. Clinton has been phoning Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill and traveling to fund-raisers across the country on behalf of Democratic candidates. Her efforts are intended to bolster her husband, his agenda and the party -- not necessarily in that order.

Why does she do it? "I presume because she loves her husband and she supports him," McCurry said when asked about Mrs. Clinton's activities. "I think that is something that she, being gracious as she is, volunteers to do. It would be consistent with who she is and what she's about."

"Of course, she loves and supports him," adds her spokeswoman, Marsha Berry. "But she also believes his role as president is an important one, and she believes he's done a really good job."

Mrs. Clinton has had a number of dress rehearsals for her role as first defender, having publicly stood by her husband during the Gennifer Flowers crisis, the Paula Jones lawsuit, the Kathleen Willey allegations and, for the past eight months, the scandal over his affair with Monica Lewinsky.

This time around -- perhaps more stoically than ever -- she is joining the president and other allies in quietly calling Democratic members, seeking their advice and trying to assess the level and strength of support. The first lady had a phone conversation recently, for instance, with Rep. James P. Moran Jr. of Virginia, the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call reported last week.

Among Democrats, Moran had been one of Mr. Clinton's harshest critics in the past several weeks but has recently

softened his stance, praising the president for advancing "New Democratic themes" and cautioning that Republicans may be overplaying their hand.

"As articulate as her husband is, I find her even more persuasive," Moran said, noting that Mrs. Clinton had experience with the impeachment process as a staff lawyer on the Watergate impeachment inquiry committee 24 years ago.

Moran said that, in their recent conversation, Mrs. Clinton was "very strongly supportive of her husband and she explained why. She said there are no impeachable offenses and he did not commit perjury."

Moran said that he is considering the first lady's arguments. "I'm trying to separate my disappointment and almost disgust with what the president has done with the legitimacy of impeachment," he said. "But my main concern here is to end this."

Moran said he would not call for the president's resignation. "That's his call," he said.

In fact, he said, after talking with Mrs. Clinton, "I decided, if this looks like a long, drawn-out process, I may even vote against the impeachment inquiry."

Berry, confirming that Mrs. Clinton has talked to other members of Congress as well, says, "Her point is to let people know how proud she is of her husband and that he's doing a good job as president."

With her popularity soaring these days, perhaps due to feelings of sympathy generated by the Lewinsky scandal, Mrs. Clinton is a bigger draw than ever as she travels the country campaigning for Democratic candidates.

In the past few days alone, she appeared at fund-raisers for New York Democratic senatorial candidate Rep. Charles E. Schumer, who is running against Republican Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato; Colorado senatorial candidate Dottie Lamm and gubernatorial hopeful Gail Schoettler; Oregon congressional candidate David Wu; California Sen. Barbara Boxer; and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in Seattle.

"For a whole lot of reasons, she's getting a great response from the crowds," says Berry.

While never referring directly to the scandal that has loosened her husband's hold on his office and his legacy if not his marriage, Mrs. Clinton makes occasional jabs at Republicans for what she calls their fixation on "stuff that doesn't amount to a hill of beans in the long-term future of America."

At an appearance Thursday in Sheridan, Colo., she said of Republicans, "They'd rather spend their time dividing our country, diverting our resources, doing anything but focusing on the real problems of America."

In recent weeks, some candidates have preferred Mrs. Clinton over Mr. Clinton, feeling the first lady is the safer Clinton to be seen with these days.

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