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Hillary Rodham Clinton waits to speak at the recent dedication of the Peace Corps Building.
(By Susan Biddle –
The Washington Post)

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Full Coverage: Including More Post Stories

The First Lady Forges On

By Kevin Merida
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 20, 1998; Page A1

It's nearly 2:30 p.m. on Dark Friday, and her eyes seem heavy from stress and sleeplessness. In little more than an hour, Kenneth Starr's graphic account of her husband's affair with Monica S. Lewinsky will hit the Internet. And then Hillary Rodham Clinton will be transformed again into that creature she loathes – the wronged first lady who must weather another public analysis of her marriage. It will be the most searing inspection of her 23-year partnership with Bill Clinton.

She may dread the impending Starr revelations, but showing it is not in her nature.

Not a hint of aggrievement or anger creases her face. No open wound to probe. Just a smiling, waving, poised diva is all we see. There's a limit to what can be learned from body language, but for everyone except her very closest friends, that's all Hillary Clinton gives the world to work with.

Backstage in a half-filled auditorium at the National 4-H Center in Chevy Chase, James Walker is thinking the first lady looks "somewhat tense." But, he later recalled, "she seemed to focus once she got up there on stage."

Walker, a nationally known consultant to youth service agencies, would later marvel at how the first lady suddenly came alive amid the cheers of teenagers from foster care and homeless backgrounds who had gathered from across the country for a leadership conference.

"I think there's a lot you can help teach Americans about resilience and hope and grit and determination," she tells the children. And before she can wade into the crowd to hug them and pose for photos, many sense she could easily have been talking about herself.

"Those kids were so important to her," says Melanne Verveer, the first lady's chief of staff. "She said, 'There's no way I'm not doing that.' There was never a thought of not doing that event."

Even on Dark Friday.

Public Composure

In the nine days since the world has learned the seamy particulars of her husband's dalliances with a White House intern – and more is scheduled to emerge Monday morning – Hillary Clinton has projected the image of an unruffled woman carrying on: honoring a civil rights pioneer, dedicating the new Peace Corps building, rallying Democratic women on Capitol Hill, highlighting the importance of arts education.

She has kept such a vigorous schedule – 18 events since the morning of Sept. 11 – there has been no need to wonder: Where's Hillary? Tomorrow, she's with the president in New York for a conference on strengthening democracy in the global economy, and later in the week it's off to campaign for Democratic candidates out West. However she feels about her husband and his treatment of her, she has made a conscious decision to keep those thoughts sealed. If she is aching badly, and those who have spoken to her suggest she is, Hillary Clinton is resisting the role of martyr. She does not want the pity.

Part of this is her natural inclination to fight rather than fold. Her critics often seize on this aspect of her personality when issuing their harsh assessments. They see her as a cold, calculating political animal whose partisan edge is much sharper than her husband's.

Back in January, for instance, she went on national television to defend Clinton against allegations of infidelity and blamed his predicament on a "politically motivated" prosecutor allied with a "vast right-wing conspiracy." Even after the president was forced to admit he had lied about his affair with Lewinsky, Hillary Clinton was among those in the White House who encouraged him to challenge Starr's motivations in his televised apology. This strategy only deepened Clinton's woes, drawing criticism across party lines that he had not been sufficiently remorseful.

While Clinton later admitted he blundered, the first lady has not retreated.

"She is a very directed person," says a confidant of the first lady's. "Her father always had the view: 'Get back up on the horse. If they knock you down, get up.' "

"She's a very complicated person," says someone else who has spent considerable time with her. More mysterious than her husband because she shows her hand less often. Which is why it is nearly impossible to gauge whether her mood now is closer to rage or reconciliation.

"I think that is true and intentional," says friend and Democratic consultant Mandy Grunwald. "The tougher things get in terms of the public scrutiny of her marriage, I think that will make her more and more private about her feelings and her family. And as curious as the country is about how she's feeling and what does she say to him at night and how's Chelsea, I think all of these things will go unanswered."

Private Pain

It is difficult to assess anyone's state of mind, for the mind is a private domain. What Hillary Clinton has been telling friends about her inner state is that coping with her husband's latest infidelity "is extremely difficult and very painful," says Lisa Caputo, her former press secretary, but that "she is, however, a believer in the vows of marriage. And that's an important context to have."

Though her mother was a child of divorced parents, Hillary Clinton grew up in a family that looked like it was "straight out of the 1950s television sitcom, 'Father Knows Best,' " the first lady writes in her book, "It Takes a Village." Her father was a devout Methodist. Growing up, she didn't have a single close friend whose parents weren't together.

"My strong feelings about divorce and its effects on children have caused me to bite my tongue more than a few times during my own marriage and to think instead about what I could do to be a better wife and partner," she writes.

If that is one context in which to consider the survivability of the Clintons' marriage, another one is this: Over the past quarter-century her dreams have been his dreams, her career buckled to his. This has given rise to the notion that theirs is a marriage of pragmatism and convenience. Viewed another way, in a sense to leave him would be to leave herself.

"I think she takes 'for better or for worse' seriously," says Grunwald, "and she knows she has plenty of each."

The instinct is to try to read her facial expressions, to pore over her public persona for clues about her emotional being. What did it mean when she patted the president gently on the back when a reporter asked whether he had considered resigning? Was her embrace of him at a Democratic National Committee fund-raiser warm or cool? When she whispers to him or brushes her hand across his pant leg, are those gestures of forgiveness or carefully scripted acts meant to convey an impression?

At last week's state dinner for Czech Republic President Vaclav Havel, it was Mrs. Clinton who was the brightest social light in the room, partying as if it were November 1992 and they had just won the White House. She danced three times with her mate, fast and slow, starring for the world as the happily married woman. She was much more animated, in command and energetic than her husband as the night wore on. Typically, it's the president who gabs away while the first lady tugs on his arm to end the evening.

Of course, it was the first big social event since the Starr report dropped, and amateur behavioral scientists were sure to search for cracks in the first couple's chemistry. So perhaps Hillary Clinton decided early on she would not show a crack. Or perhaps she wanted and needed to have some fun.

Labor Secretary Alexis M. Herman spoke to the first lady at the prayer breakfast where the president admitted he had sinned and had failed to be contrite enough in his nationally televised Aug. 17 confession. She sensed in Hillary Clinton a surprising level of recuperation.

"There was such a glow about her that I don't think I've seen in all the years I've worked with her," Herman recalls. "You felt her love. For those of us who are a part of the [Clinton] team, it was as though she was lifting us up. I think she has searched her soul in the same way the president has searched his soul. ... I think in her own time and in her own way she will say what she feels she needs to say if she needs to say it."

And for now?

"She is moving on. It's vintage Hillary."

'Soldier On, Hillary'

There is no right way to confront betrayal, no special knife to excise it from the soul. The first lady has not spent much time wilting, friends say. She continues to meet and talk with her pals, who have comforted her without passing along judgment about the Clinton & Clinton relationship that mystifies much of the public. Her longtime Arkansas friend Diane Blair, who was in town for a meeting, spent the night at the White House last week. Another friend sent her a baseball hat, inscribed: "Soldier On, Hillary."

Friends and aides suggest she has not read even portions of Starr's report, though no one is certain of that. Grunwald suspects Hillary Clinton the lawyer will want to be thoroughly briefed – if she hasn't already been – on the 11 acts the independent counsel cites as grounds for impeachment. She is, after all, still her husband's most valued strategist.

But she doesn't want to be rushed into making a public speech about forgiveness and is said to be annoyed at suggestions that there is something she could do to improve Clinton's plight. If and when she does speak her mind, "a possibility" is to use her syndicated column as the vehicle, says her press secretary, Marsha Berry, "but how she chooses to speak out is totally up to her."

While she holds the president accountable for his behavior, Mrs. Clinton is also angry at Starr for the manner in which he has gone after her husband. "I think there's an element of that," says Berry.

Starr's office didn't return phone calls for comment.

The independent counsel continues to investigate the first lady in connection with the White House travel office and Whitewater.

Whatever tensions exist between the White House and the independent counsel's office, Starr's report locates Hillary Clinton squarely in the text of her husband's misadventures.

The report chronicles Lewinsky's recollections of having sexual encounters with Clinton on occasions when the first lady was in far-flung locations, such as Las Vegas or Ireland. It reports the president telling Lewinsky that he had "hundreds of affairs" before he turned 40. It quotes the president suggesting to Lewinsky that he "might be alone in three years." It even prints Clinton's alleged remark after having oral sex with Lewinsky "that he hadn't had that in a long time."

A Washington Post reconstruction of Hillary Clinton's schedule shows that the president had several of his alleged sexual experiences with Lewinsky just before or just after being with the first lady. On the evening of Jan. 21, 1996, for example, the Starr report says Lewinsky and Clinton engaged in a sexual act outside the Oval Office study. Earlier, Clinton and the first lady were given a private tour of the Johannes Vermeer exhibit at the National Gallery of Art.

Clinton's reckless disregard for the first lady's sensibilities has especially infuriated some of the president's female supporters.

"If I wasn't so dead set against violence," says Rep. Louise M. Slaughter (D-N.Y.) "then I might have liked to have seen him at Martha's Vineyard in a full-body cast with two black eyes. Women might have felt a little better about it."

Why She Stays

There is something eerily familiar about the spot Hillary Clinton, at age 50, finds herself occupying. This keeps happening to her – ever since she drove to Fayetteville from the East Coast to help Bill Clinton campaign for an Arkansas congressional seat in 1974. She was still a girlfriend then, but her husband-to-be was already juggling multiple women, which was a source of frustration to campaign aides who were trying to prevent him from self-destructing, according to David Maraniss's biography of Clinton, "First in His Class."

She has been pelted with so many allegations of his unfaithfulness over the past quarter-century that it is difficult to fathom that anything about him would surprise her now.

"Two things keep Hillary with him," says Betsey Wright, a former Clinton troubleshooter in Arkansas who befriended the two in 1972. "One is her deep love for him. And two is the feeling that she is a better person – they are better people – because they have each other."

Hillary Clinton made a difficult calculation when she married the young politician in 1975 – that she could find happiness by intertwining her ambitions with his and sharing the rewards. Now, as the Clinton presidency continues to unravel, and by extension her own dreams, the public is rendering its own verdict.

A new U.S. News & World Report poll shows that while a majority of Americans still consider her a good role model for women, a majority also believe she deliberately ignored her husband's indiscretions. And 48 percent of those surveyed called the marriage a practical, business relationship, while only 18 percent described it as a loving marriage that has troubles.

"I wish people understood forgiveness and marriage convictions better," says Wright. "Few people go through what Bill and Hillary have done to keep their marriage, and I feel that they are almost persecuted for it at times."

Staff writer Roxanne Roberts and researcher Ruth Leonard contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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