By Lois Romano
"We don't even care about the dress -- get over it," Sage-El, 42, declares from her home.
What her customers do want to talk about, she says, is Hillary Clinton.
"I just don't know what drives her," muses the small business owner, who has clearly given the first lady some thought.
"She's maintaining her own dignity -- not so much standing behind her man -- she's maintaining her own self-respect with this dog she's married to. It's her choice to stay with him -- for whatever reason, I can't figure out why. . . . I don't know what she's going to get out of it."
Hillary Rodham Clinton is inarguably the most analyzed woman in America today, in part because she has not allowed herself to be pigeonholed into any neat little packages. She has eschewed the traditional images of the political wife -- keeping her maiden name for years and refusing to exploit her daughter for the pages of People. She has even avoided the trappings of physical consistency: She has had more dramatically different hair styles in the past six years than most woman have in a lifetime.
The right has long tried -- with some success -- to define her as a left-wing feminist out of step with the traditional American woman -- whomever that is. But for the average Jane, the fascination has been much more basic: What does drive her? Why, people wonder, would a smart, successful woman stay with an admittedly unfaithful husband?
The speculative answers have always been too simplistic, often political and sometimes just plain mean-spirited. She's crazy about him, some of her loyalists suggest, and so she looks the other way. She stays in it strictly for the power, her political detractors flatly state. She lives her own life, others sniff.
Answers or insights about the first lady are no clearer today than they were when she arrived at the White House. Yet the American public seems to be rallying to her side these days, giving clear approval of the job she is doing and how she has conducted herself in the midst of the scandal. She is no more translucent or less complex than before. But perhaps that is the point. In her, they say, are many things. In her, they are seeing themselves.
"I identify with her because she really is a woman of my generation, and here she is in this traditional role, first lady, she didn't fit into," says Sage-El. "She tried to make it work the way she envisioned it, and the public slapped her down. . . . She's still trying to find her place. And with marriage, too -- we all know that marriage isn't perfect and you do have to let some things go to make the whole picture work."
As President Clinton's troubles have escalated, and as he prepares to testify about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky on Monday, Hillary Clinton seems to have risen above it all in the eyes of many American women. Recent public opinion surveys, in fact, show that more Americans than ever -- women in particular -- say they have a favorable view of her.
"She may not be behaving as a first wife should behave, but women believe she is behaving like a first lady should behave -- loyal and dignified," says Myrna Blyth, editor in chief of Ladies' Home Journal. "Women may be saying, 'I would throw the bum out,' but they don't want to see the first lady behaving like that."
Partisan skeptics caution that public opinion could still shift as the facts continue to unfold. "If it comes out that the president lied and Hillary knew he lied, the American public would be disenchanted," says Republican pollster Ed Goeas. "She would no longer be a victim. She would be a co-conspirator."
But for now, women tend to be looking at Hillary Clinton in a different light. Few see her as a victim or a dupe. To the contrary, some say they see the 50-year-old first lady as a totally modern woman, who is not standing tall merely to protect her husband and cling to their relationship, but to protect the dignity of her own role -- as first lady, mother and professional woman.
"People are watching her for different things now . . . how she's able to compose herself under this barrage of bad press directed at her husband," suggests Mia Levy, 22, a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania. "She is the first lady and, granted, nobody elected her to be, but it is a position. . . . It's a role. [She's] not just a wife or a mother."
Indeed, Hillary Clinton is the first presidential spouse with her own full-time career, plucked from a generation of women struggling to have it all yet guilty about giving up their traditional homemaker roles. She believed, friends say, that if she openly took the lead on issues she cared about, like health care, there would be less speculation about her hidden power. Instead, many seemed uneasy with her cards-on-the-table approach.
But over time some say they came to appreciate her consistent commitment to her causes and the commendable job she did raising her only child, Chelsea. And there is something else. Even in 1998, American women are still grappling with their own ever-changing roles -- in relationships and in the work force. Clinton, some women point out, reflects those universal struggles.
"I think it's simply that all of a sudden Hillary has become more human," says Ruth Fine, 70, a leader in philanthropic causes in Boston.
"I don't think it's pity. I think this is what happens to lots of relationships, and you live with it. Probably more people than we know live with such relationships. Forget what we think of the man, it's the relationship thing, and I suspect it's the way life is for lots of people. I think people see it that way, and they empathize."
Kelly Oakleas, 21, a University of Kansas senior who has barely begun to examine her own choices in life, says she admires Clinton for balancing her roles -- something to which Oakleas aspires.
"Women are put in such hard positions. You never know what to do," says Oakleas, who describes herself as a conservative and a Christian. "You can be like a family woman, and be kind of like in back of your man. Or you can have your own career and do your own thing and be independent. And I think it's really hard for women to go to the middle. I just think we have it rough."
Experts add that part of Clinton's approval could be coming from the fact that in the past decade women have become less judgmental about adultery. Isaiah Zimmerman, a Washington clinical psychologist and marriage therapist, says that many of the women he sees today are more tolerant about infidelity because they appreciate the complexities of maintaining long-term relationships.
"They want to forgive and save the marriage, and they see the first lady as trying to do this in the face of forces trying to destroy the marriage," Zimmerman says.
Ellen Levine, the editor in chief of Good Housekeeping, says she too has seen a marked change in women's attitudes toward adultery in recent years.
"When the whole Gary Hart episode happened, American women were mad at Lee Hart. They wanted her to leave him," says Levine, who conducted surveys on the subject while editor of Woman's Day. Today, Good Housekeeping's 4.5 million readers are largely supportive of the first lady, she says, admiring Clinton "for her dignity."
A poll to be published in Ladies' Home Journal's September issue shows that as many women today -- 46 percent -- would forgive their husbands for being unfaithful than would not. A similar poll conducted by the magazine seven years ago indicated that only 12 percent would forgive men who who cheated on them.
Blyth and Levine also say they believe there is another reason their readers have been overwhelmingly pro-Hillary. "The public today is very wary of issues that cross the line between public and private," Levine says. "They are sending a clear message that this is none of our business."
Most of those interviewed agreed that by actions and words Clinton herself has sent a very clear message that this is strictly a personal matter -- that she has it under control and that, if she is okay with it, why should others judge her.
"She has made a decision not to air her dirty laundry in public," says Betty Hung, a 27-year-old San Francisco investment banker. "I don't buy into this victim stuff. I tend to think she knows everything that is going on."
Hung, like others, expresses a great deal of admiration for Clinton because she is "trying to move beyond the sordid stuff and get on with her job."
Women also seem to be giving Clinton the benefit of the doubt -- that however things appear, perhaps she is making the right choices for her and her family, and that when all the facts come out, she will ultimately come to the right conclusions about her marriage and her life.
Christine Strauss, a 45-year-old elementary school librarian in Colorado and mother of two daughters, says Clinton is appropriately "defending her husband."
"That's the thing that a courageous person does," says Strauss. "But I'll be very interested to see what happens after he is out of the White House. I think she should divorce him."
"I am sure she has addressed it in her way and in the appropriate place," says Blanche Lambert Lincoln, 37, a former House Democrat from Arkansas who is running for the Senate. "But I don't know that it is her responsibility to answer to the American public about what is happening in her private life."
Staff writers Libby Ingrid Copeland, Tom Kenworthy and Dale Russakoff contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company