Hillary takes lead in defense of the president

October 27, 1998|By Sandy Grady

WASHINGTON -- Once, to stave off an earlier bimbo eruption, she looked into the TV camera and said, "I'm not just a little Tammy Wynette standin' by my man."

Now, despite ultimate humiliation, she's not only standing by her man, but Hillary Clinton's also standing by her party.

In mysterious ways, unfathomable as her marriage, the scandal has energized the first lady into a radiant, aggressive political force.

Campaigning coast-to-coast, Ms. Clinton draws crowds and cash in a one-woman frenzy to save Democrats from defeat in the midterm elections.

It's not cynical to note that every House and Senate seat she saves may also be barrier against her husband's impeachment.

Mrs. Clinton always wanted to emulate Eleanor Roosevelt. Now in an odd way, she is Eleanor.

Because his polio-ravaged legs made travel difficult for Franklin D. Roosevelt, Mrs. Roosevelt was often his eyes, ears and voice.

Imprisoned by scandal, President Clinton is just as White House-bound.

Tied to the Oval Office

Not since Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam tumult or Richard Nixon in the throes of Watergate has a president been so manacled. Mr. Clinton itches to campaign, but jeering hecklers waving "Impeach! Resign!" signs would distort every stop into nasty spectacle.

Enter Mrs. President, a role Hillary is playing with fiery vengeance.

"She's moved on, she's back to business," says Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. "I wish we could clone her."

Maybe we'll never understand -- at least until the first couple's inevitable memoirs -- what's behind Mrs. Clinton's metamorphosis from pained other woman to intense save-her-man campaigner.

After all, the prez sent her unknowingly to lie on "The Today Show": Monica Lewinsky rumors were part of a "vast, right-wing conspiracy," Mrs. Clinton said. According to Sidney Blumenthal's testimony, she shrugged off the president's closeness with Monica: "He's counseling a troubled young person."

Supposedly Mrs. Clinton didn't hear the truth until a few days before the president's Aug. 17th grand-jury session. What followed was stormy seclusion, prayer with Chelsea, a vacation from hell. Mercifully, Mrs. Clinton was out of the country when the Starr porn exploded. Reportedly, she's never read it. She seemed to vanish.

Not now. In an odd transformation, Mrs. Clinton has changed from Betrayed Wife into confident, popular powerhouse.

It's bizarre. When she was mishandling the health-care proposal, she was maligned as a pushy, intrusive meddler. But after the Monica episode's brutal embarrassment, her popularity (63 percent, Gallup poll) blooms. Calling Dr. Freud.

What's certain is that Mrs. Clinton has thrust herself into the middle of the November election -- and the coming impeachment struggle -- with the fury of prairie wife fighting off Indians.

On the stump

If the president is wounded and semi-mute, she's tirelessly visible. Mrs. Clinton has campaigned in nine states, 10 to come. She's made 100 radio-TV spots for Democratic candidates. She's stumped hard for Democratic women, especially endangered Sens. Barbara Boxer of California and Carol Mosely-Braun of Chicago.

It's as if Mrs. Clinton, released from her cell of marital pain, is unleashing her frustrations on Republicans. She rips into them with undisguised joy.

Here she is in New York, campaigning for Rep. Charles Schumer against Sen. Al D'Amato, a New York Republican: "Republicans are buying such a blizzard of negative advertising, good folks don't want anything to do with politics. I see it in Washington every day, their game for power, their shameless, brazen attitude."

And in Massachusetts: "They're dividing and diverting us from the country's real business."

And in Rhode Island: "Are we going to give in to the sideshow running in Washington instead of focusing on business that matters to people?"

The "sideshow," of course, is Bill & Monica & Ken. But Mrs. Clinton never mentions Ms. Lewinsky. Or takes press questions.

Sure, her loyalty to Democratic issues and aversion to Newt & Co. is palpable motive. But her husband's survival is also at stake. Every victory Republicans add to their 11-seat House margin is a sure pro-impeachment vote. More crucial: Preventing Republicans from adding four or five new senators if Mr. Clinton faces a Senate trial.

She knows the arithmetic and nuances. Ironic that in 1974, Mrs. Clinton was a bespectacled, 26-year-old Yale Law grad hired by Peter Rodino's committee to define the impeachment of Nixon.

It's Shakespearean irony that rules she helped write that long, hot summer 24 years ago could impale her husband.

No wonder she is an energetic, rousing tornado on the hustings. No wonder yesterday, after she gave him a rare, hearty smooch at a White House function, the prez looked grateful.

Sandy Grady is Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

Pub Date: 10/27/98

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