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Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) at microphone is flanked by other Democratic female lawmakers. (Frank Johnston - The Post)

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The First Lady: In the Eye of the Storm (Newsweek, Sept. 14)

Key Player Profile: Hillary Rodham Clinton

Full Coverage: Including More Post Stories

By Terry M. Neal and Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 16, 1998; Page A31

First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton met with two dozen Democratic female lawmakers at the White House yesterday and assured them that she would use her popularity to get out the party's message and help Democrats get elected in tough elections around the country in November.

The House members sought out the first lady amid concerns that the sex and perjury allegations against President Clinton were obscuring much of his party's agenda with crucial midterm elections seven weeks away.

But those who attended the meeting said there was no mention of Monica S. Lewinsky or the report of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr or the possibility of impeachment hearings against the president. "There was no discussion of the scandal," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (Calif.). "There was a discussion about how do we get our message across, how do we accomplish this for the American people."

And there was no attempt on the members' part to comfort her or soothe any pain she might be experiencing. "We wouldn't have patronized her by assuming that she was anything but what she appeared to be, which was ebullient and engaged," said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D.C.).

Since returning on Labor Day from a trip to Russia, Ireland and Northern Ireland with the president, Hillary Clinton has kept up an active schedule on her own and with him. Yesterday morning, she helped inaugurate the new Peace Corps headquarters in downtown Washington with Queen Noor of Jordan. She addressed a Jewish organization in the afternoon and attended a dinner honoring civil rights leader Dorothy Height in the evening.

During her major appearance of the day, a 35-minute speech to the Lion of Judah, the first lady made no direct reference to the controversy that continues to hang over the White House, although some of her comments could be taken as hints of her thinking.

Adopting the term "family feminist," Hillary Clinton gave a full-throated exhortation on the rights of women.

She condemned the Taliban fundamentalist movement that controls Afghanistan, called on the Senate to ratify an international convention opposed to discrimination against women and decried attempts by conservatives to condition payments to international organizations on new restrictions on family planning services.

In comments that could apply to her current situation, the first lady talked about women who had endured extraordinary adversity and persevered, particularly citing a woman who lost most of her family during the Holocaust. "We haven't, most of us, been challenged like that," she said. "But we have been challenged, haven't we? And for us the challenge is how do we build lives of meaning and purpose."

House women are hoping to draw on Hillary Clinton's perceived strength. Polls show her popularity has increased significantly since the Lewinsky scandal broke in January.

Hillary Rodham Clinton is greeted by members of the Shriver family at Peace Corps event Tuesday. (AP)

Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald (Calif.) began organizing the meeting last week after returning from her district, where her constituents expressed concerns that issues -- including education, health care and Social Security -- were being ignored in Washington. She enlisted the help of several other high-ranking Democratic women to organize the White House meeting.

"I said, 'You know what, women, we've got to go see Hillary Clinton,' " Millender-McDonald said. "We've got to not be in this mode where people see us as defeatist. She is critical to our agenda."

Rep. Nita M. Lowey (N.Y.) said: "We really think if the women can get out there en masse with Hillary, we can really talk about the issues that most people care about in this country -- education, health care, the environment, Social Security."

Norton said the first lady agreed to step up her campaign appearances with House Democrats, particularly but not exclusively female candidates, in competitive races.

At the news conference after the meeting, some of the House members accused the media of making it difficult for them to focus on other important issues.

"Let me respond by challenging you," Rep. Lynn Woolsey (Calif.) said. "If the issues that are important to the people in this country are to be discussed, then the press of this country has to talk about something else besides Monica Lewinsky."

Staff writer Kevin Merida contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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