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First Lady Stays on Message

First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton (AP)

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Key Player: Hillary Rodham Clinton

By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 9, 1998; Page A20

LITTLE ROCK, Oct. 8 – On perhaps the most trying day of her adult life, Hillary Rodham Clinton returned to the security of a place where few judge her and most embrace her unconditionally.

Just hours after the House voted today to launch an open-ended impeachment investigation of her husband, the first lady was hugged and cheered by supporters at three overflowing events here in the city she called home for nearly 20 years.

Clinton ignored reporters' shouted questions about the historic vote in Washington and in her separate speeches she never addressed the scandal that has imperiled her husband's presidency and overshadowed her own dreams and achievements. Her spokeswoman Marsha Berry said the first lady would let stand President Clinton's comment today that the situation was now "in the hands of Congress and the people of this country, ultimately in the hands of God."

During her first visit back here since Bill Clinton admitted in August to an improper relationship with a former White House intern, she effusively praised her "husband, who has fought for better public schools . . . for as many years as he has been in public service."

And she took a swipe at Congress, which is scheduled to adjourn this weekend. "Even though they only have a few days left, it's not too late for them to do something good for the children and people of America," she told her first audience at a celebration of the Women's Emergency Committee (WEC), which four decades ago fought to open Little Rock public schools, closed by then-Gov. Orval Faubus to block integration.

"School is almost out on Capitol Hill, and like many parents we are glad to see it's nearly over," she said to knowing laughs. "There is still time for Congress to step up to its responsibilities, to leave partisanship at the schoolhouse door and strengthen America's public schools."

Clinton appeared at several other Little Rock events, including a fund-raiser for Bill Bristow, the Democratic challenger for governor, and Judy Smith, a congressional candidate, as well as at a rally for Blanche Lincoln, the front-runner for a Senate seat.

At the fund-raiser, she again made what was clearly intended to be a remark jabbing at those investigating the president. "I really hope that . . . we're able to put progress over partisanship, we're able to put unity over division, we're able to get about the business of continuing to lift people up, not tear people down," she said to a rousing ovation.

It's hard to find audiences more receptive and sympathetic to Clinton than the stalwart supporters and longtime friends in the state where Bill Clinton was elected governor five times. At every stop, the first lady was greeted with prolonged cheering and mobbed by well-wishers. Wearing a bright, sunflower-yellow pantsuit, Clinton put forth a demeanor of business-as-usual.

Outside the white mansion where the WEC used to meet, several hundred women, men and children packed the lawn to hear Clinton. She worked the velvet rope line for 30 minutes afterward, asking after families and old friends. No one raised her Washington troubles.

"She's been in our home for 20 years and she'll be welcomed for the next 50," said Dana Durst, after shaking the first lady's hand.

Eloise Raymond, who showed up with a contingent from a Hillary Clinton Fan Club – and sporting a button advertising her membership – drove 30 miles today to see the first lady. "This day no different from any other day," Raymond said after having an opportunity to chat with Clinton. "Every day has got to be hard for her. I just hope being here encourages her to push on."

"Hillary holds a special place in the hearts of Arkansas women," said Nan Snow, who described herself as a longtime Clinton supporter. "She gave us a voice, she gave us leadership."

The first lady has remained publicly silent on the investigation since the president acknowledged in August that he had an improper relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky. But in recent weeks, she had been quietly urging Democrats to stick with her husband on today's vote while assuring them that if they did not, there would be no political recriminations as next month's midterm elections near.

At all her stops today, she stressed the importance of the elections and urged people to get out and vote. Clinton also attended a cancer benefit tonight, which was not open to the news media, and was planning to spend the night with her mother, Dorothy Rodham, who lives here. On Friday, she is scheduled to visit Arkansas Children's Hospital.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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