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Hillary Clinton in 'Full Battle Mode'

 Hillary Clinton/Post photo
Hillary Clinton is said to dismiss the charges, considering them a continuation of political attacks.
(Frank Johnston / The Washington Post)
By Lois Romano and Kevin Merida
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, January 24, 1998; Page A16

Hillary Rodham Clinton has swung into "full battle mode" in defense of her husband, White House colleagues and friends said yesterday.

As Bill Clinton faces the most threatening crisis of his career -- with most senior White House officials uncertain of how to respond -- sources close to the inner circle say that the first lady is totally "focused," working the phones, consulting with her husband's advisers and determined that this latest round of allegations about the president's sex life will not destroy his presidency.

These sources said that the first lady does not believe the claims of Monica S. Lewinsky, the former White House intern who told a friend that she had an 18-month affair with the president, and that he urged her to lie about it in a sworn deposition.

"Mrs. Clinton is showing the colors, and we're rallying around the flag," said James Carville, longtime Clinton adviser and defender.

Meanwhile, several people with close ties to the White House have noted that the president's own staff remains tentative. One source who has worked closely with the Clinton political team in the past and has spoken with several White House officials in recent days noted that no one on Clinton's senior staff has proven able to rally troops. Even high-ranking officials have said they have no conception of what the actual facts in the Lewinsky controversy are, what Clinton's defense strategy either politically or legally will be, or how long it will take for this strategy to emerge.

One of the few exceptions has come from senior adviser Rahm Emanuel, who at a meeting yesterday morning reminded a large contingent of staffers that they had Clinton to thank for their jobs and implored them not to give up on him or his agenda.

Several Clinton advisers noted that Chief of Staff Erskine B. Bowles, who has little experience or appetite for fighting allegations of scandal, has seemed especially ill-equipped to handle the current crisis.

But Hillary Clinton has always been the one to lead the charge in defending her husband against what a former aide once indelicately referred to as "bimbo eruptions." In fact there were discussions that she would be turning to some of the veteran advisers -- Carville, Harold Ickes, Mickey Kantor and Harry Thomasson -- who had helped the Clintons to weather earlier scandals.

Said Lisa Caputo, former press secretary to the first lady who has been in touch with her in recent days, "She is in full battle mode. . . . She believes that this is just a continuation of the political attacks. . . . And her actions [this week] have been totally consistent with other times likes these."

When Gennifer Flowers rocked the 1992 presidential campaign with her allegations of a longtime affair, Hillary Clinton appeared on CBS's "60 Minutes" with her husband, declaring to the nation: "You know, I'm not sitting here -- some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette. I'm sitting here because I love him, and I respect him, and I honor what he's been through and what we've been through together."

Two years later, when a conservative magazine reported that Arkansas state troopers had solicited women for Clinton, Hillary Clinton responded even before the president, calling them "outrageous, terrible stories."

And hours after the Lewinsky story broke Wednesday, Hillary Clinton told Associated Press radio that "I have seen how these charges and accusations evaporate and disappear if they're ever given the light of day." The first lady is scheduled to appear on the "Today" show on Tuesday, the morning of President Clinton's State of the Union address.

Even while she is trying to stage an aggressive defense, however, sources say that Hillary Clinton understands that this is also a delicate legal issue and that her husband should proceed with caution. "She's a lawyer and understands the dangers of getting out there too early without facts to meet the ferocious demand," said a senior White House official close to the first lady. "She knows what she's doing."

The first lady also has been finding time to pursue the president's policy agenda. Ann Lewis, White House director of communications, said last night that Hillary Clinton is determined that this current crisis not disrupt the work of the White House as the president prepares to roll out his plans for 1998.

"She has a strong feeling that the best thing for them to do is go about doing people business," said Lewis, who added that Hillary Clinton also has been working on the State of the Union. What she is not looking for, said several sources, is sympathy.

"This is not a 'poor Hillary' story," said one close adviser. Those who know her best say the first lady would cringe if she thought the American people saw her as the pitiful wronged wife.

Yet even people who know the Clintons well have had a difficult time reconciling the couple they've recently seen holding hands and sometimes kissing in public with the stories they've read in the news this week. But through it all, friends say, Hillary Clinton is fiercely protective of the man she met at Yale law school -- and if she knows or suspects that he has been unfaithful, she would never let on. They also say she remains deeply in love.

"I think people either generally feel sorry for her or wonder why doesn't she do something about it," said a former Reagan White House official. "It raises questions about the nature of the relationship. I don't think any of us have a sense of what kind of marriage you could have and still have this."

In his book, "First in His Class," Washington Post writer David Maraniss recounts a conversation Hillary had many years ago with Arkansas family friend Carolyn Staley. They were sticking croquet hoops into the grass and talking about their husbands. Hillary was explaining that, unlike Carolyn, she never could have married a quiet, soft-spoken husband who stayed in the background. She liked to "get into it."

And then, contemplating the ups and downs of their life together, she mused "I wonder how history is going to note our marriage?"

Early in his political career, Hillary Clinton came to see herself as her husband's protector. As Maraniss writes: "Her concerns were largely political, though at times there seemed to be a sexual component to her protectiveness. A male friend of Clinton's noticed that Hillary was classifying the people around Bill as either 'one of the goods or one of the bads. If you were bad, you had to be kept away from Bill, because if he was with the bad guys he would relax and enjoy himself and make comments about attractive women waving at him in the crowd.' "

Staff writer John F. Harris contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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