Surviving in Little Rock
The second key to understanding Hillary's behavior today comes from the pattern that developed after they got married, moved to Little Rock and became the most powerful couple in Arkansas. Throughout that period from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, there were regular intervals when their personal relationship seemed endangered, often by Clinton's sexual behavior. The true extent of his infidelity is known only to him. He has acknowledged it to the degree of confessing that his actions caused "problems" in the marriage and that he was unable to meet a standard of perfection. In a recent deposition, he also apparently testified that he had sex with Gennifer Flowers, an allegation he had vehemently denied when it threatened his nascent presidential campaign in 1992. Flowers has claimed their affair lasted 12 years.
According to people close to the Clintons, there was occasional mention of divorce, but it was never seriously considered. Clinton discreetly broached the subject at least twice with colleagues during conventions of the National Governors' Association, and Hillary told friends she thought about it during a rough stretch in 1989. According to Betsey Wright, then Clinton's chief of staff, Hillary concluded that she had invested too much in her marriage and was determined to see it through. But even in the toughest moments, no one close to the Clintons thought their emotional bond had broken entirely. Wright described it as an "intensely argumentative but passionate" relationship, though there were times when Hillary was mad enough to stop talking and give Clinton the cold shoulder for weeks.
But the most important pattern that developed over that long haul in Arkansas was that in times of real crisis, when Clinton's career, and their shared dream, seemed imperiled -- for whatever reason, his personal behavior or larger political forces -- it was Hillary who took the lead and made it possible for him to survive and recover. She did this largely by turning outward, coolly focusing her anger and indefatigable energy on his adversaries. This habitual response intensified their symbiotic relationship at a moment of vulnerability and made it easier for her to repeat the process the next time.
The defining crisis of this sort came in 1980 when Clinton, at age 34, after a single two-year term as governor, was defeated, rendered the youngest ex-governor in American history. He was depressed by the loss, consumed by bitterness, convinced that journalists had conspired against him, doubtful that he could recover. Hillary stepped in and made recovery possible. She summoned consultant Dick Morris and organizer Betsey Wright to Little Rock to launch the comeback. She went to the press and calmly described the forces that were out to get her husband, explaining that he had lost because "there was no effective counterattack" to the negative stories spread by his opponent, Frank White, and the Republican right. She identified key journalists who had turned against Clinton and went out and flattered them.
And, in response to criticism that she seemed too much the feminist for Arkansas tastes, she willingly changed her image: She softened her hair, bought contacts, compiled a new wardrobe, used more makeup, even changed her name. No more Hillary Rodham in public; she was now Mrs. Clinton.
This complete makeover was not the uncharacteristic sacrifice that many later made it out to be. In fact, from her college years on, Hillary had always had an ability to play different roles at different times; they were all part of her nature, she said. In her undergraduate days at Wellesley College, she wrote in a letter to a friend, she loved to "try out different personalities and lifestyles" -- now the social activist, now "sticking to the books," now acting "as outrageous as a moral Methodist can get." Her friends at Yale Law School said it seemed as if she had different glasses every month.
This pattern was firmly established by January 1992, when Clinton's presidential bid seemed to be facing an early death in the face of Flowers's public declaration that she had been his lover. Much like the White House intern case this month, Hillary turned things around then, telling Clinton to fight back, dismissing Flowers's claims as "trash for cash," likening the rumors about Clinton's sex life to UFO sightings, and finally going on television with him, in the crucial "60 Minutes" interview.
Two Against the World
The final key to understanding Hillary's response to the latest allegations comes from the long-standing sense she and Clinton share that they are in a war for survival, that they engender hatred in their adversaries that exceeds the norm, that people are constantly spreading false rumors about them, that there is, as she claimed last week, a right-wing conspiracy out to destroy them. The evidence shows this contention to be a strange combination of the real and imagined.
From that first campaign in 1974, it became apparent that Clinton evoked a visceral hatred in some people, who would then say anything they could dredge up to disparage him. In that race, conservative preachers called him a homosexual and said that his campaign headquarters was a drug haven. They spread rumors that he was the "Boy in the Tree," a longhaired protester photographed holding a banner in a tree during President Nixon's 1969 appearance at a Razorbacks football game. All false -- the last one absurdly so; Clinton was at Oxford at the time of Nixon's visit.
During Clinton's final gubernatorial race in 1990, a bitter contest against Sheffield Nelson, there was a bubbling undercurrent of allegations about Clinton's sex life. A disgruntled state employee named Larry Nichols, fired for making hundreds of unauthorized telephone calls to Nicaraguan contra leaders, sued Clinton, charging he had a slush fund for the procurement of women. In the suit, Nichols named every woman he thought might have had an affair with Clinton. Some, such as Flowers, might have been true, but others were wildly inaccurate.
Because there always seemed to be an overload of exaggeration in the claims against Clinton, it became possible for Hillary to lump everything together and dismiss it as the imaginings of their enemies. On conservative talk shows, in videotapes sponsored by Jerry Falwell, in a newspaper funded by right-wing billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife, in all of those venues, Clinton had been accused of every evil act imaginable: murdering Vincent Foster, killing as many as a dozen people in Arkansas, conspiring with the CIA and drug runners. Where did the zealotry of Clinton's enemies end and truth begin?
At times, Clinton emphasized the conspiracy theme with Hillary, real or imagined, as a means of preparing her for more allegations coming his way. Near the end of Bob Woodward's book on the first two years of Clinton's term, "The Agenda," just as the Whitewater investigation is getting underway, Hillary reflects on what she sees as the "politically motivated attacks aimed at undermining" her husband's presidency. She remembers a telephone call that her husband told her about back in 1991, just when he was "pumping up" to run for president. The call was from someone in the Bush administration who had worked with Clinton on state policy issues, and as Hillary recalled her husband telling her the message, it went like this: "We've done a lot of looking at this race and your profile as a candidate is one, and one of a very few, that could cause us any trouble. And we just want you to know if you get into this race, we will do everything we can to destroy you personally."
The first lady spent considerable time in early 1994 holding off-the-record discussions with editors and opinion leaders in Washington during which she presented her theories on the people out to get her husband -- not unlike what she said in clear and terse form the other day on national television. "The great story here for anybody willing to find it and write it and explain it," she said, sounding like a newspaper assignment editor, "is this vast right-wing conspiracy that has been conspiring against my husband since the day he announced for president."
Considering the nature of their relationship from the beginning, the patterns that developed in Arkansas, and the wall of conspiracy she has built around herself in the White House, the notion that she might leave her husband in the midst of crisis seems almost beside the point. In essence, she would be leaving herself.
David Maraniss is the author of "First in His Class: A Biography of Bill Clinton."
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