By Ruth Marcus
"I think a lot of this is prejudice against our state," the first lady said in a telephone interview with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that was published yesterday. "They wouldn't be doing this if we were from some other state."
Marsha Berry, Hillary Clinton's press secretary, said she was responding to a question posed by a hometown reporter about "why are people always picking on Arkansas." But the reporter, Susan Roth, who had gotten the first lady on the phone for a profile of one of her friends in Arkansas, said her inquiry was more open-ended, "How are you doing, how are things going."
Either way, the remarks offered a glimpse -- rare in recent months -- of how Hillary Clinton views the world, and her continuing strategy on questions about her husband's behavior: blame them on enemies, political, geographic or otherwise.
"She's pretty tough," said consultant James Carville. "I think that she, with considerable justification, believes that people are trying to stack the deck against her husband and when any kind of a barrage opens up, she holds pretty steady."
Former White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers said the outsider theme was a familiar refrain for the first lady. "Now it's the elite in Washington are lining up against us because we're not one of them," Myers said. "That's something that she's felt from the day they arrived in Washington."
As the president prepares for his testimony Monday before the grand jury investigating his relationship with a White House intern, Hillary Clinton is engaging in business as usual: serving as one of the chief political and legal strategists for her husband, dismissing allegations against him as the work of political foes, and seemingly unperturbed by the increasingly graphic reports about the president's relationship with Lewinsky.
"To her this is another political attack. All of these things are of a piece. This is like how does she handle Travelgate, Filegate, Whitewater, all the things you would consider assaults," said consultant Mandy Grunwald, a long-time ally.
With White House staff and lawyers at risk of being called before the grand jury to recount their discussions about Lewinsky with the president, the first lady and Clinton's outside lawyers are the only people in whom Clinton can confide without legal risk.
"The circle has definitely gotten much tighter. The only loop that exists is Kendall, Mickey, Hillary and Clinton," said a former White House official, referring to Clinton's outside lawyers, David E. Kendall and Mickey Kantor.
Even Hillary Clinton's chief of staff, Melanne Verveer, said she has not discussed the matter at all with the first lady. "The reality is none of this is discussed with any of us because we'll all be hauled before the grand jury," Verveer said.
Those who have seen or spoken to Hillary Clinton in the last several weeks say they have not seen any effect of the Lewinsky allegations.
On the day last week that Lewinsky testified before the grand jury about having sexual encounters with the president, Hillary Clinton worked on a speech for her trip to Ireland next month, on a campaign to bring back arts in public schools and on planning for a first ladies' summit in Latin America. "I wouldn't tell you it was a day different from any other day I've had," Verveer said. "If I were to turn on the TV, I would turn on some other world."
"She's up. She's totally herself. I sense no agitation, no nothing," said Lisa Caputo, Hillary Clinton's former press secretary. "After six years, the constant beating of drums where you get accused of everything, including murder, it's like, 'Here we go again.' I think she's numb to it."
In January, when the allegations about the president and the intern "hit like a bombshell and the whole staff had be picked up off the floor," said one former official, Hillary Clinton "was a big morale booster: 'Come on, folks, get it together, we've been down this road before.' "
The official compared that to the first lady's evident unhappiness during other difficult periods -- the suicide of deputy counsel Vincent Foster, the uproar over Hillary Clinton's $100,000 commodity trading profit, the death of her father or the Christmas 1993 publication of the American Spectator article alleging that state troopers helped procure women for Clinton when he was governor.
Indeed, Hillary Clinton has been dealing with questions about her husband's fidelity since before their marriage, when she drove to Fayetteville in 1974 to help him campaign for a congressional seat and, one campaign aide recalled, he often found himself shooing an Arkansas woman out the back door when Hillary was coming in the front.
In his book about the 1992 presidential campaign campaign, Carville recounts being delegated the unhappy task of having to inform Hillary Clinton about the tabloid allegations involving her husband and Gennifer Flowers. Hillary Clinton's first response when she returned his emergency phone call, Carville writes, was simply to inquire, "How is Bill?"
Reports at the time had Hillary Clinton asking another, equally critical question: "Is the mainstream press asking about this?"
Hillary Clinton was key in helping Clinton, then campaigning for the Democratic nomination, fend off Flowers's allegations, calling them as "trash for cash" and likening the rumors about Clinton's sex life to UFO sightings. She sat by his side during the crucial "60 Minutes" interview in which she declared that, "I'm not sitting here, some little woman, standing by my man like Tammy Wynette."
It was not until his deposition in the Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit nearly six years later that Clinton -- who told "60 Minutes" that his relationship with Flowers was "friendly but limited . . . a friendly acquaintance" -- acknowledged having a sexual relationship with Flowers, although he said they had only one intimate encounter.
Hillary Clinton has played a similarly critical role for her husband on other occasions. When the American Spectator published its troopers story, she denounced "outrageous, terrible stories that people plant for political and financial reasons."
In the Lewinsky matter, Hillary Clinton's appearance on the "Today" show had been previously scheduled, but she took the opportunity not only to unload on her husband's critics in general and Starr in particular, but to assure the public that "we know everything there is to know about each other, and we understand and accept and love each other."
At the same time, however, she said that -- if a president were proved to have had an adulterous liaison while in the White House, the American people "should certainly be concerned about it . . . if all that were proven true, I think that would be a very serious offense. That is not going to be proven true. I think we're going to find some other things."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company