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  •   First Lady's Actions Get Close Attention

    Hillary Rodham Clinton/
    President Clinton speaks to his wife, Hillary, during a visit to a Russian school Tuesday. (Reuters)
    By Peter Baker
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, September 2, 1998; Page A26

    MOSCOW, Sept. 1 – At public appearances, she typically introduces him as "my husband." Today, he was simply, "Bill Clinton, the president of the United States."

    Whether there was any deeper meaning to that in the auditorium of Elementary School No. 19, only Hillary Rodham Clinton knows for sure. But everyone was watching for signs of the first couple's marital health as they made their first formal appearance together in the two weeks since he confessed to an extramarital affair with Monica S. Lewinsky.

    As she usually does when the president travels overseas, Hillary Clinton accompanied him to Moscow for his summit with Russian President Boris Yeltsin and, as she usually does, she kept a busy separate schedule of events around town. When the two of them got together, there was no public mention of the Lewinsky saga or the "healing process" aides say the couple engaged in during their just-ended vacation on Martha's Vineyard, yet there appeared a formal coolness to their interaction.

    After her introduction at the school, the president touched her shoulder as he passed her on the way to the lectern, but she simply strolled by, looking down, without a return gesture. Asked during a solo stop earlier in the day how she has been coping, she said tersely, "I've been getting along fine."

    Every word was analyzed for its possible meaning. In the evening, she appeared in good spirits as she joined her husband for the official Kremlin dinner in the ornate, domed Catherine Hall. She teased Yeltsin that he had never shown her the library and laughed at comments made by people coming through the receiving line. At one point, Deputy Treasury Secretary Lawrence H. Summers said something that amused her but could not be overheard. In a jocular reply that could be taken the wrong way, she laughed, "Boys just want to have fun."

    What all this tea leaf reading means remains a mystery in the context of a complicated and enigmatic quarter-century relationship that has cycled through crisis and recovery more than once. Aides and friends have talked freely about how angry Hillary Clinton has been, and the president said during his national television address that he "misled people, including even my wife."

    The affair and the political controversy it has wrought remained similarly unfathomable for some Russians who encountered the couple today.

    Vasily Sovobolev, a 17-year-old student at Moscow State University of International Relations, dismissed the Lewinsky matter after hearing the president speak on the Russian economy. "I don't think it's very important," he said. "Of course, maybe some people don't trust him, but I think most of our people trust him as they trusted him before. Our opinion didn't change."

    There was little opportunity to explore how the first lady's opinion changed as she raced around town with her Russian counterpart, Naina Yeltsin, today, touring a sewing factory and an art museum before joining their husbands for the dinner, which ended an hour earlier than scheduled.

    But Wednesday may be different. She is scheduled to participate in a round table discussion on women in Russian society, and a U.S. official said several of the women selected to participate were interested in asking the first lady about the controversy and its effect on her.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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