By John F. Harris
Recent days have yielded a wealth of words from the first lady, none of them on the subject that happens to be consuming official Washington. Despite the yearning of many of the president's political advisers that she speak out publicly with words of forgiveness for him, aides and friends say she is determined that the best way to chase away scandal clouds is through immersion in policy, not through an emotional undressing on national television.
Yesterday offered a vivid example.
While the president was on the road at fund-raisers, Hillary Clinton started the day at the District's Marie H. Reed Community Learning Center, where she appeared with pop singer Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds to promote the importance of arts instruction in public schools.
A few hours later she was at the White House with educators and business executives speaking on the same theme, spotlighting new research showing that musical exposure and training can enhance the "spatial understanding and analytical abilities" of youngsters.
And last night she delivered a wide-ranging address on the need for U.S. activism overseas. She reiterated the administration's usual arguments in favor of paying the U.S. dues to the United Nations, and for generous foreign aid to developing and former communist nations making the transition to democracy and capitalism. But she did so in blunter terms than her husband often uses.
"I have seen first-hand how American programs overseas have helped fuel progress," she told the liberal Center for National Policy, but due to insufficient congressional interest and funding, "we have not played the role we could have played."
The group gave her an award for "raising consciousness" internationally about issues relating to women and children.
"This is definitely what her focus is on," press secretary Marsha Berry said of the first lady's recent sprint of policy and political appearances, which will be extended later this month with heavy domestic and foreign travel. With the administration now in its sixth Berry said, "there's limited time, and she wants to make use of all the time on issues that people elected this administration to do.
"She thinks the rest of it is private," Berry added.
Clinton feels this way strongly enough to snub her husband's own advisers, many of whom believe that the president's precarious political situation could be improved if his wife were to publicly affirm in her own words what Berry has already released in a written statement: that she forgives him for his extramarital affair with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky.
The first lady, according to a variety of people who have talked with her, is neither personally ready to speak out nor believes that it is wise politics. To the contrary, one outside Clinton adviser said, she wishes the president would put an end to his repeated statements of contrition and focus strictly on policy.
"She's going to keep her powder dry," said one family friend who has spoken to both the president and first lady. "I think she will speak eventually, but she does not feel this is the time."
There are hints, meanwhile, suggesting that the apparent freeze in the Clinton marriage may be thawing a bit, even though her disappointment in him remains deep, according to some confidants. At the White House state dinner Wednesday night honoring Czech Republic President Vaclav Havel, the couple strode hand-in-hand to the stage to thank entertainer Lou Reed, and later took to the floor together for rock-and-roll dancing.
"Hillary and I, we're doing fine," Clinton said at an appearance in Cincinnati yesterday. "We're working on what we need to be working on, and we're doing fine."
Both Clintons remain united in their anger toward those that have treated them unfairly, friends say. In addition to independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, both Clintons are fuming at their former aide, ABC News commentator George Stephanopoulos, for his recent suggestion that perhaps Clinton could bring closure to the case by agreeing to pay a large monetary fine.
Friends say the first lady's pronouncements on policy serve as a retreat, both from a strained family situation and from the political community's incessant attention to scandal.
On Wednesday, she summoned a group of senior administration officials, including national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, and outside foreign policy experts, such as former secretary of state Henry A. Kissinger, for a wide-ranging discussion of world affairs, partly in preparation for last night's speech. Later this month she will travel to Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Chile and Uruguay to talk about development and women's issues.
At her appearances yesterday, audiences poured out longer-than-usual applause. When Gordon M. Ambach, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, told her from the podium that "education has never been given such prominence from the White House" as it has under the Clintons, there was a standing ovation that some in the audience later said was a way of showing the first lady that they support her during the current turmoil.
"My tribute is to both of them," Ambach said later. "There's a diminished recognition of how powerful their advocacy for education has been."
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