Strategists ponder first lady's remarks

Some see a crass attempt to win public's sympathy for election bid in N.Y.

August 03, 1999|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- It seemed at first out of character -- Hillary Rodham Clinton using pop psychology to explain her marriage, rather than treating the subject with her usual cool detachment. But in an interview in the glossy new magazine Talk, Clinton allies say, the first lady was demonstrating another well-known quality: her political savvy.

Democratic strategists say the first lady believed that if she did not confront the issue of her husband's cheating now, the matter would erupt and could hurt her later in a Senate campaign in New York. As she explores her all-but-announced candidacy, Clinton submitted to one of her most personal interviews, hoping to put the issue to rest for the next 15 months as her campaign rolls through New York.

"It was very, very hard for her to talk about this," said a longtime friend. "But it frees her. She talked about it once, and now she can put it aside. If people are going to ask her about her marriage, now she can say, `No.' "

Republican critics suggested that the first lady was trying to play the victim at a time when her poll numbers are flat. "She's America's wounded woman in chief -- that's where her public image has been strongest," said Rich Galen, a Republican strategist. "It's national group therapy."

In the article, "The Intimate Hillary," Clinton describes her pain during the Monica Lewinsky affair and her belief that the source of her husband's problems lay in childhood "abuse" caused by a conflict between his mother and his grandmother over the raising of young Bill.

But delving into this well-trod subject has its risks. Some political strategists wondered whether this journey into Clinton's emotional life was ill-timed, coming when the country clearly wants to move beyond the scandal altogether.

"Some New York Democrats think this is a mistake," said a Democratic operative who asked not to be named, adding that his office was flooded with calls yesterday about Clinton's comments. "People just don't want to think about the Clintons' personal lives anymore."

Other New York campaign analysts were skeptical that Clinton's public confession would help her achieve political success. Her critics continue to think she protected her husband for political gain -- and analysts say those voters are not likely to change their minds.

"I don't know why Clinton did it," said veteran New York political strategist Norman Adler, who advises Democrats and Republicans. "The only one who's a winner here is Tina Brown," editor of Talk.

The article comes as Clinton continues her search for a house in New York. That move would keep her separated from her husband and likely raise more questions from reporters about the state of the marriage. In the article, Clinton seems to say, they are still a couple, lest anyone think distance makes it otherwise.

"He's responsible for his own behavior whether I'm there or 100 miles away," the first lady says in the interview. The article quotes a former staffer as saying the Clintons rekindled "physical passion" in the aftermath of the scandal.

This is not the first time Clinton has tried to control speculation about her marriage. On rare occasions, she has addressed the subject publicly for political necessity -- such as her "60 Minutes" interview after the Gennifer Flowers controversy erupted during the 1992 presidential campaign.

Yesterday, while the Clintons appeared hand-in-hand at a memorial service for former Democratic National Committee official Dan Dutko, many Republicans were quiet about that relationship. New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who has reportedly had his own marital difficulties, said, "I have no desire to probe Mrs. Clinton's private life."

But privately, several New York Republicans accused Clinton of making a brazen attempt to capture the headlines and appear vulnerable.

At the White House yesterday, her comments dominated the daily news briefing. President Clinton did not consult with his wife before the article ran but felt "comfortable" with his wife's conclusions, Joe Lockhart, the president's spokesman, said.

But the first lady's comments sounded to some as though she was rationalizing her husband's infidelities -- and sparing him from taking personal responsibility by saying his cheating sprang from trauma he suffered as a 4-year-old.

Lockhart clarified that the president never suffered any physical abuse -- the first lady was referring to psychological scars -- and said he was not trying to shift blame. "The president has stated openly, publicly that he is responsible for all of his actions," Lockhart said.

The first lady has been criticized for not saying enough about the problems in her marriage, and friends complain that she has been dubbed icy as a result. This interview, they said, went a long way in putting that image to rest.

"It's pretty hard to have something this searing an experience, and say nothing about it," said an old friend. "She won't be talking about it anymore. She's said it -- people can't accuse her of being a machine with no feelings."

Pub Date: 8/03/99

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