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First Lady's Energy, Determination Bind a Power Partnership

NEWS ANALYSIS

By David Maraniss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 1, 1998; Page A01

In the early morning darkness of Wednesday, Jan. 21, up in the second-floor bedroom of their residence, the husband awakened his wife and said there was something he had to tell her.

"You're not going to believe this, but . . ." he began.

"What is this?" she asked quietly.

". . . but I want to tell you what's in the newspapers," he continued.

That is how first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton learned from her husband that he was in trouble again, according to a reconstruction of the scene that she provided on national television. She made the dialogue sound so gentle and innocuous that it evoked the image of a bewildered Ozzie Nelson rousing Harriet from slumber, rather than what it was: the first couple's first discussion of reports of new sex allegations that seemed to threaten everything they had struggled to achieve since they spotted each other in the Yale Law School library 28 years ago.

Whether sanitized or the real thing, the first lady's version of the bedroom scene revealed the disparate roles she plays in critical moments. Here she was, presenting herself as the ordinary wife, trying to live an ordinary life, her sleep interrupted by the inanities of the outside world. Minutes later in the same interview, she transformed into someone entirely different, chief partisan in the White House counterattack, claiming that she and her husband were victims of a "vast right-wing conspiracy" that included Kenneth W. Starr, the "politically motivated" independent counsel.

In the first few days after the story broke that Starr was investigating whether Clinton had a sexual relationship with a White House intern and had urged the young woman to lie about it, some of the central questions in the drama concerned the first lady: What would she do, and why would she do it? Would this be one sex story too many for her to tolerate? Would she pack up and leave? Would she recede from public view in a state of depression, or would she take the lead on her husband's behalf?

Many of those questions were posed in subdued tones inside the White House itself, where aides, expressing anxiety and confusion, said they were looking for her to ease their minds and give them a sense of direction in contrast to what they saw as the president's ambiguity. In keeping with her long-established pattern, the first lady moved steadily to resolve the questions, or at least smother them, responding as she has again and again in times of personal and political crisis: by doing whatever is required for the survival of the tumultuous and resilient partnership of Clinton and Clinton.

During a whirlwind period that began last weekend, when television punditry devolved into speculation about resignation or impeachment, the first lady, after keeping a low profile for a few days, seized control of her husband's defense, seeking to protect not only his position and legacy but hers as well. "I probably know him better than anybody alive in the world," she declared, offering her credentials as his ace defender.

Certainly no one matched her experience. She has had to deal with allegations about his unfaithfulness for nearly a quarter-century -- since she drove to Fayetteville in 1974 to help him campaign for a congressional seat -- and, ever since, from Arkansas to Washington, she has been the singularly essential figure in each recovery he has made in the repetitive cycle of loss and recovery that defines his political career.

This time, she returned to the breach displaying the outwardly unfazed certitude of a battle-tested veteran. She brought back the old friends, political lawyers Mickey Kantor, Harold E. Ickes and Susan Thomases, and also the Hollywood image maker, Harry Thomason. She said what she thought needed to be said about her husband. She loved him. She believed him. People misunderstood him. They mistook his gregariousness for something more sinister. Adversaries were out to get him. Always had been. But they had survived before and would again and that was that, silence from now on, business as usual.

Melanne Verveer, her chief of staff, said she saw no private moments of apprehension or dismay in her boss last week as she plowed forward through the mess. Some White House aides, themselves privately uncertain about the allegations, said they thought she might be repressing her anguish, blocking out reality, determined not to consider anything but what her husband claimed to be the truth. In either case, her determination seemed to bring new resolve to her husband, reassure the loyalists and lift the dismal mood inside the White House.

For all the questions the first lady answered last week, one remained. It is one of the central questions of her life with Bill Clinton: What motivates her to stay at his side, no matter what? This article, drawn from hundreds of interviews conducted over the past six years, is an examination of that question. Her critics say the answer is nothing more than a cold and pragmatic arrangement of shared power. Her friends say it can be explained by pride and love. The evidence points to more variegated and complex reasons which, like everything else in their uncommon story, are revealed in their history, in the patterns that appear at the start of their relationship and reappear throughout their long political rise.

And Not to Yield


The first key to understanding Hillary's behavior today can be found in the original nature of her relationship with Bill Clinton. From the time they began dating at Yale Law School in 1970, they shared a passion for politics, policy, power, books, ideas -- and they realized, they told friends, that they could attain heights together that they might not reach separately. Clinton seemed most impressed by her intellect. He said that Hillary was the one woman he could see growing old with. He once told Melanne Verveer, whom he had known since college, that he was emulating Phil Verveer, Melanne's husband, in going for "brains and ability rather than glamour" -- he meant it as a compliment. For her part, Hillary's feelings about Clinton seemed more traditionally romantic. One friend described her as "besotted."

She also seemed imbued with a belief that Clinton was destined for greatness. In the summer of 1974, when she was working as a junior lawyer on the impeachment inquiry staff of the House Judiciary Committee -- analyzing the constitutional intent of impeachment and trying to figure out the lines of communication within the Nixon White House -- she would occasionally punch her office mate, Tom Bell, in the arm and proclaim: "You know, Tom Bell, Bill Clinton is going to be president of the United States someday!"

No one took her boast seriously. Her East Coast friends were stunned when, two weeks after Nixon's resignation, she packed her suitcases in the trunk, strapped her bicycle on the roof and climbed into friend Sara Ehrman's car for the long ride from Washington to Fayetteville to start a new life with Bill Clinton, taking along a class picture of the impeachment staff inscribed with the Tennyson motto: To Strive, to Seek, to Find and not to Yield. What would she find in Arkansas? they asked her. Why would she give up the high-powered legal and political career she could establish on her own to teach law in the Ozark hills? Ehrman, her landlady in Washington and a friend from the McGovern campaign, tried to talk her out of the move even as they drove west through Virginia and Tennessee. "You are crazy," Ehrman said. "What are you doing this for?" Hillary laughed, said she loved Bill Clinton and wanted to take a chance.

From the moment she arrived in Fayetteville, there were signs of the problems that would plague them through the years. Clinton was in the middle of a congressional campaign then, traveling around northwest Arkansas, and he had girlfriends in several towns. One of his campaign aides was sent into a tailspin when Clinton stole his girlfriend away from him. Paul Fray, the campaign coordinator, said he and his wife were often put in the position of shooing an Arkansas woman out the back door when Hillary was coming in the front. Several staff members said they suspected that Hillary had dispatched her father down from suburban Chicago in part to make sure Clinton behaved when she was not around.

Clinton once told Betsey Wright, a friend from the McGovern campaign, that he had tried to "run Hillary off" during that period, "but she just wouldn't go." The young couple's loud arguments were unforgettable. Campaign aide Ron Addington recalled driving them to an event, Clinton in front, Hillary in back. All of a sudden Clinton began pounding the dashboard, Hillary yelled at him, ordered Addington to stop the car, got out, slammed the door and walked back to campaign headquarters. But it also seemed that they enjoyed mixing it up. As Hillary would confide later, she could not imagine getting stuck in a boring relationship where there was no friction and energy.

Before their marriage in October 1975, Hillary entered into intense discussions with friends on the question of whether a woman could establish her own strong identity and an independent life within a marriage. Her model, she told friend Ann Henry, was Eleanor Roosevelt. Having just finished a biography of the famous first lady, Henry replied with a note of caution: "That's right, but Eleanor never found her voice until that marriage was over -- until she didn't care about the marriage."

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.

In any case, at the low point in Clinton's life, she did everything it took to bring him back. He returned to the governor's mansion in 1983 and did not leave until he packed his bags for the White House. Throughout his final decade as governor, even as their marriage went through a series of tests, their professional partnership grew ever stronger: From the ashes of 1980, she emerged as his key policy adviser and political strategist. She was the one he turned to in 1983 when he needed someone he could trust to run a task force that would reform the state's education system. During a gubernatorial primary seven years later, when Clinton was being attacked from the left as a tool of corporations, Hillary was the one who decided that a direct confrontation was needed. She stormed over to an opponent's news conference and, from the back of the press section, yelled out: "Come off it, Tom McRae!"

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."

Who made the call? Hillary declined to say at first, but eventually, she and Clinton passed word through an aide that it was Roger B. Porter, Bush's domestic policy adviser. Porter, a mild-mannered policy wonk, said he had no such conversation with Clinton and was not aware of anyone else in the Bush White House who knew Clinton well enough to say such a thing. In the only conversation he had with Clinton in 1991, Porter said, he told Clinton that he ought to become a Republican if he wanted to become president.

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."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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