By Blaine Harden
NEW YORK, Jan. 26 In her first overnight foray out of town since a sex scandal engulfed her husband's presidency, Hillary Rodham Clinton dropped in today on an after-school reading program in Harlem, where people in the mostly black neighborhood encouraged her to stand by her man.
The first lady, smiling and seemingly cheerful in a canary yellow pant suit, visited four classrooms in an elementary school, while making no comments about allegations that President Clinton had a sexual relationship with a former White House intern and later urged the intern to lie about it. The carefully choreographed, 40-minute appearance kept her well away from shouted questions from the press.
Hillary Clinton, who is scheduled to be interviewed Tuesday morning on NBC's "Today" show, arrived here hours after having stood beside her husband in the White House as he angrily denied allegations regarding Monica Lewinsky.
As Clinton scowled and enunciated these words, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman. . . . I never told anybody to lie, not a single time. Never," his wife stood at his side, nodding approvingly, her lips pressed tightly together.
Even though she said nothing of events that have transfixed the country in the past week, the visit to New York today invited scrutiny of the first lady's every word and gesture, as she mingled with children and spoke to invited guests in the school.
When she entered one classroom this afternoon, she was told that the fourth-grade students were studing the "four values."
"What values?" the first lady asked, with a broad, beaming smile.
"Honesty, caring, respect and responsibility," the children replied in unison.
"Those are really important values. Boy, that's a big word responsibility isn't it?" Hillary Clinton said.
Before delivering brief remarks endorsing a $21 billion child-care program that the president will detail Tuesday night in his State of the Union speech, Hillary Clinton stopped off in another classroom where children were writing with crayons on orange construction paper to complete the phrase "I have a dream. . . . "
She bent over a table where Danquan Love, 9, was struggling with the spelling, syntax and penmanship of his dream. After she and the boy collaborated for a minute or two, Love's dream emerged as: "I have a dream that one day I will change the way people act."
With the composition complete, Hillary Clinton said to Danquan and to the other children in the room, "Learning how to spell is a lot easier than stopping people from hating you."
Behind the police barricades that surrounded P.S. 154 during the first lady's visit, Harlem neighborhood residents were remarkably uniform in their support of the president and his wife. Many said they did not believe the daily deluge of salacious news coming out of Washington. Several said they had heard that the president's wife had sprung into "full battle mode" in defense of her husband and they said they approved.
"She is doing the right thing. I think he was set up," said Pearlie Agnes Johnson, 49, a home care worker who lives in Harlem and who said that news of the sex scandal makes her furious. "My knees have been shaking and I can't think of nothing else. I am upset because of these strange women coming from somewhere."
Like several people interviewed today in Harlem, Johnson said she suspected a white Republican conspiracy was trying to force Clinton out of office and ruin his marriage. She referred to the supporters of this conspiracy as "they."
"This woman [Lewinsky] was paid because they want the White House for themselves," said Johnson, whose comments were seconded by several people outside the elementary school.
A few people were less unconditional in their support of the president and his wife, saying that if they knew of more than one dalliance on the part of their spouse, then the issue would be considerably more cloudy.
"If it was me and my husband and I really truly believed that he was telling me the truth, then I would stand by him," said Nany Lee, 30, an AT&T sales representative from Brooklyn. "But if it was anything more than once, then we would have some problems."
Most others, however, said that Hillary Clinton, as the president's wife, has just one option.
"You got to stick with your husband," said Barbara Davis, 47, a cook who works in Harlem for the New York City school system. "If it was me, I would let them cameras see me with my husband and me kissing him. I would stand by him in front of all the world. But when we are alone, it might be different."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company