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First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton is welcomed upon her arrival at Martha's Vineyard on Tuesday. (Reuters)

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Key Player: Hillary Rodham Clinton

Hillary Clinton 'Committed' to Marriage

By Ruth Marcus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 19, 1998; Page A01

Hillary Rodham Clinton "is committed to her marriage" and "believes in this president and loves him very much," her press secretary, Marsha Berry, said yesterday.

Berry and others also took pains to emphasize that Hillary Clinton did not know until this weekend how her husband would explain his relationship with former intern Monica S. Lewinsky to the grand jury. They said that when the first lady assured the American people about her husband's behavior days after the scandal first broke, she had been misled.

"She learned the nature of his testimony over the weekend," Berry said. "Like I said, she was misled. The president said that, and that's true."

But even some White House aides said they found those professions of ignorance highly doubtful. "That just does not ring true," said one senior White House aide. "Who is putting this stuff out?" said another, before being informed that it was the office of the first lady herself.

Berry's unusual public comments about the first lady's attitude toward her marriage appeared to have three goals: To satisfy press clamor for Hillary Clinton's reaction to the president's admission Monday night of an improper relationship with another woman. To reassure the public that – however egregious her husband's behavior – Hillary Clinton was standing by him. And to make clear that – while the president may have knowingly misled the American public – the first lady did so only inadvertently and because she herself had not been told the truth.

Berry's statement came after Hillary Clinton's top advisers in and outside the White House held a strategy session and conference call during which it was decided that Berry would make the remarks.

"It's fair to say this is not the best day of her life," Berry said. "No one's saying this isn't serious."

However, Berry added, "It's at times like this when she relies on her strong religious faith. She is committed to her marriage and loves her husband and daughter very much. The other thing is she wants folks to know that she believes in the president and her love for him is compassionate and steadfast and she's very uncomfortable with her personal life being made public."

When the Lewinsky story first broke, Hillary Clinton adopted what has become her traditional strategy when confronted with allegations of her husband's sexual indiscretions: dismissing the charges as ludicrous and attacking their attackers. She told NBC's Matt Lauer that she and the president had "talked at great length" about Lewinsky and that she was not concerned. She acknowledged that for a president to have had an adulterous liaison in the White House "would be a very serious offense," but added, "That is not going to be proven true."

Yesterday, one ally of the first lady said the notion that Hillary Clinton was operating on misleading information was emphasized "because she went out on national television in January and made some statements without a full picture of the complete facts." In addition, the adviser said, Berry's statement was designed "to basically shut down speculation about her, how she's doing and how their marriage is doing, to put people at ease."

Said another adviser, "I assume that her own credibility matters a lot to her and she wouldn't want anyone to think that she intentionally misled the country even though he did." Asked how a Yale-educated lawyer who has known for years that there were serious questions about her husband's fidelity could have remained in the dark for so long, this adviser said, "She obviously believed him until she couldn't any more."

As Hillary Clinton left the White House yesterday for a Martha's Vineyard vacation with her husband and their daughter Chelsea, Berry said the first lady would have no public comment on the Lewinsky controversy.

Others described the first lady's reaction as a strange mixture of anger and outrage at President Clinton's actions and a brisk professionalism in helping steer the president through his latest crisis.

One senior White House official said throughout the day Monday that Hillary Clinton was playing "two roles, a private role, which was a hurt spouse looking for reconciliation with her husband, looking for some accountability from her husband . . . and a public role that she played when she was with her president and the president's advisers, and that was being one tough shrewd lawyer and political adviser."

Jesse L. Jackson, who went to the White House Sunday night to counsel the first lady and Chelsea, said she was more supportive of her husband than bitter. "Rather than jump ship or turn on her husband, she turned to him with her daughter and offered love and support when he needed it the most and perhaps deserved it the least," Jackson said in a telephone interview. "Many women would have been nursing their wounds or in private solitude. She was in the room helping to chart the plan for his testimony."

James Carville, who participated in the White House strategy session Monday, said of Hillary Clinton's reaction: "What was it Ricky used to tell Lucy? I think the president's got some 'splaining to do. I think, to paraphrase Queen Victoria, she's not amused. I think the president's going to spend a little time in the woodshed here."

But at the same time, by all accounts, Hillary Clinton clicked into action mode as Clinton raced to beat a deadline for yet another critical speech. "At some point she stopped being worried about herself and thought, essentially, 'Bill needs me,' " said one adviser. ". . . 'I've got to get involved and help because this is a big moment for him and we'll worry about the other stuff later.' "

Said one senior White House official, "My sense was she was supportive last night and she had her sense of humor about her and she was helping him get through a difficult situation. . . . This had to be a difficult day, but she didn't show the strain, she was making people feel comfortable in that environment."

As the clock ticked closer to 10 p.m., this official said, Hillary Clinton was emphasizing to the president: "It's your speech, say what you feel, what you want to say."

But others said Hillary Clinton had a definite point of view about the message in the speech and was instrumental in the president's decision to go on the attack against independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, over the nearly unanimous objections of his political advisers. They noted that in his short address, Clinton took pains to point out that "an independent federal agency found no evidence of any wrongdoing by me or my wife over two years ago."

Said one senior official, "He did that because he believes it and he did that because he wants to say it for her too. He was on that page because that's where he knew she wanted to be."

Lisa Caputo, Hillary Clinton's former press secretary who saw her when the first family arrived on the Vineyard yesterday said, "She's fine and so is Chelsea. They all seemed very upbeat. . . . She seemed herself."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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