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Public Dramas, Private Toll for First Lady

The Clintons
The Clintons attend a Democratic fund-raiser in New York last September, three days after the release of the Starr report. (AFP file photo)

Related Links
  • How the Research Was Conducted

  • Part One: A President's Isolation

  • Part Three: Starr's Investigation

  • Next Sunday: The Scandal Culture's Toll on Bush
  • By Bob Woodward
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, June 14, 1999; Page A1

    This is the second of three excerpts from "Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate." Copyright 1999 by Bob Woodward, Simon & Schuster.

    On an Aug. 18, 1998, helicopter ride out to Andrews Air Force Base to catch a plane to Martha's Vineyard, Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton basically were not speaking to each other. A day earlier, the president had testified before a grand jury about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. Press secretary Michael McCurry tried to defuse the tension.

    McCurry, whose job included studying the president's demeanor and moods, noticed that Clinton looked as if he didn't know what to expect from his own family. Hillary appeared drained. Chelsea Clinton looked so sad that McCurry thought he did not want to ever see a kid look like that again in his life.

    McCurry finally had some time alone with Hillary in Martha's Vineyard. She had been instrumental in his hiring. He had always tried to support her.

    Showing emotion, the first lady said to McCurry that there was no way to understand what she was going through. As a woman, she said, as a spouse, and as a mother, it was complex.

    She offered a glimpse into her pain and asked five questions:

    "Do I feel angry?"

    "Do I feel betrayed?"

    "Do I feel lonely?"

    "Do I feel exasperated?"

    "And humiliated?"

    McCurry gasped, nearly whispered thank you. There it all was in those five questions. This great public drama was, to the first lady, something more real and personal anger, betrayal, loneliness, exasperation and humiliation. McCurry's fondness and empathy for her ascended off the charts.

    The one-dimensional portraits of Hillary in the media whatever version anyone might pick were unfair, shallow, missed the layers, McCurry felt. Here was this woman, almost frail and breakable, but still standing, mustering whatever dignity was left her. Any question of punishment, which McCurry felt the president richly deserved, seemed beside the point in the face of her endurance. Could there be nobility amid this squalor?

    In her heart, she said, she still believed in the work Bill was doing as president.

    As for forgiveness No, she said, she was not at the point emotionally where she wanted to forgive him.

    Incongruously, Hillary Clinton's humiliation gave her status in the relationship and in the world.

    In the past, she had seemed to believe that the only public face that would work for her would be a tough and confrontational one. Charm wouldn't work. In 1993, Dick Morris, President Clinton's longtime adviser, had urged her to soften her image. "One of the most appealing things about public figures is when they lead with their vulnerabilities," Morris said. "They talk about their defects and people cut them a lot of slack." He cited Eleanor Roosevelt's shyness, or even Ronald Reagan's jokes about his poor memory. Defects and weaknesses can be assets, he argued.

    "I can't think of any," Hillary had said. "I'm not good at that. What do you want me to do?"

    She was unsure of her role. As the family's lawyer and investor she had screwed up Whitewater and then in 1994 she had lost what was supposed to be the crown jewel of her husband's presidency: health care reform.

    "I'm just confused," she told Morris at the time. "I don't know what works or what doesn't work. I don't know why this is happening. I'm just so confused."

    But Mrs. Clinton's scandal-managing role continued. By the summer of 1995, Whitewater was causing her real anguish. In Newsweek that August, Joe Klein wrote that the scandal had exposed the character of the Clintons. "They are the Tom and Daisy Buchanan of the Baby Boom Political Elite." The Buchanans were the 1920s-style careless people of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby."

    "They smashed up lives and didn't notice," Klein wrote.

    He laid out in harsh terms how Hillary's chief of staff, Maggie Williams, had broken down in tears while testifying the previous week at the hearings chaired by Sen. Alfonse D'Amato. Williams was saddled with large legal bills, virtually abandoned by her patrons in the White House. "How could the first lady allow her chief of staff to spend $140,000 on legal fees?" Klein asked. "Why hasn't she come forward and said, 'Stop torturing my staff. This isn't about them. I'll testify. I'll make all documents available. I'll sit here and answer your stupid, salacious questions until Inauguration Day, if need be'?"

    Hillary was sobbing when she called Jane Sherburne, the White House attorney in charge of scandal management.

    Had Jane read the Klein column?

    Yes.

    "It's killing me to let this happen," Hillary said. She wanted to testify, to make it better, to take care of it. "Every bone in my body tells me that's what I should do."

    She could not stand by and let Maggie be hurt so, have others dragged in.

    "How is Maggie?"

    Sherburne said they both knew Maggie was both vulnerable and tough. She was willing to throw herself in front of any train and get beat up.

    Hillary's voice caught and she gasped in short breaths.

    Testifying, Sherburne said, would be a mixed blessing. It would be such a sensation. The pure spectacle of the first lady appearing before Congress would overshadow anything she said. Were there words she could say that would resolve the issues and answer all the questions? They would always find more questions.

    "I got to do this," Hillary said, gaining strength, taking deeper, measured breaths. "I'm going to do it."

    The Clintons' personal lawyer, David Kendall, was against it, they both knew vehemently opposed in the midst of independent counsel Ken Starr's grand jury investigation of Whitewater. Public testimony by the first lady before D'Amato's committee might play into the Republicans' hands. There would be rounds of questions with all the Republican senators homing in. Potentially very ugly.

    "Am I really that powerless?" Mrs. Clinton asked. The portrait of her as heartless and selfish was tearing her apart. It was awful to stand silently by as those she cared about were being hurt, she said.

    Sherburne said her testimony would have multiple legal ramifications. What about Starr, his investigation and grand juries? Politically, how would D'Amato and the other Republicans handle her? Her husband's reelection bid was a little more than a year off. The basic strategy on Whitewater was to calm the waters, avoid confrontation, minimize news coverage.

    Sobbing again, Hillary said her parents had always told her not to be guided by the opinions of others. "You have to live with yourself." Well, now the law and politics had cornered her. It wasn't a matter of appearances appearing cold and indifferent to her friends and staff. If she stood by silently she would be that person they accused her of being.

    "That is not who I am!" Hillary said, crying, pleading. "I take care of people."

    Sherburne realized that Hillary had become the person she, at all costs, did not want to be. It was not simply a loss of identity. It was worse. She seemed to have fully realized the price that had been paid, and the identity that had been lost. She had become the person she hated.

    'How Can I Go On? How Can I?'


    In January 1996, Hillary looked forward to assuming the role she most liked, planning an 11-city tour for her book "It Takes a Village and Other Lessons Children Teach Us." But the discovery of a memo written by David Watkins saying Hillary was responsible for the 1993 travel office firings and the reappearance of Mrs. Clinton's long-lost Rose Law Firm billing records shifted the focus to her role in the scandals.

    On Jan. 8, a Newsweek cover story on Hillary was headlined "Saint Or Sinner?" over a frumpy picture of the first lady. The same day, columnist William Safire of the New York Times wrote that Hillary was a "congenital liar."

    Hillary wanted to discuss her issues children's issues but she agreed to answer questions about the scandals. On Jan. 15, she appeared on "The Diane Rehm Show," a serious, popular Washington talk-radio program.

    She said she and her husband had always acted in "good faith." Even during the 1992 campaign, her staff had made the Whitewater documents available, she said.

    "We actually did that with the New York Times," she claimed. "We took every document we had which, again, I have to say, were not many we laid them all out."

    The New York Times's Washington bureau chief called George Stephanopoulos, Clinton's senior adviser, to note that Mrs. Clinton was wrong. The clearest example was the computer run of the Rose Law Firm billing records the same records that had been found recently in the White House residence. The Clinton campaign had these records in 1992. They hadn't been turned over. Mrs. Clinton's current claim of total Whitewater disclosure in 1992 was incorrect. There was going to be a front-page, above-the-fold, first-lady's-a-liar story.

    Stephanopoulos wanted Sherburne to smooth over this problem.

    Sherburne called Susan Thomases, Hillary's close friend, who had helped with the initial 1992 Times Whitewater story. She reported what Hillary had said.

    "Oh, my God, we didn't," Thomases explained, recounting how they had severely limited the documents they made available in 1992.

    Sherburne reviewed the information. They needed to say that the first lady had made a mistake and was now correcting her comment based on new information, but that she had not intended to mislead anyone.

    A short statement was finally drafted with the key word "mistakenly" in it. Sherburne had to phone Hillary, who was on the road promoting her book, to clear the statement-retraction with her.

    Just before Sherburne placed the call, she learned that Starr had issued a grand jury subpoena for the first lady to testify about the disappearance and sudden reappearance of the billing records.

    When she reached Hillary, the first lady was profoundly upset about all these matters stacking up. Watkins's memo, billing records, the grand jury subpoena and now the coming first-lady-is-a-liar story. Fine, she said, issue the statement but call Rehm to let her know the statement was coming.

    Hillary poured out her emotions. Sherburne had never heard her so distressed. She was at wit's end, under siege, in despair. She dwelled on the ugly, ugly sequence of events. "Saint or Sinner?" "Congenital Liar."

    "I can't take this anymore," Hillary said. It was the voice of someone at the end of her rope. "How can I go on?" she asked. "How can I?"

    'I Have to Take This Punishment'


    Within the White House, a classic internal debate began over the subpoena. Should they announce it or try to appear in secret? Sherburne and Mark Fabiani, the White House scandal spokesman, were worried that information about the subpoena would leak to the news media. They wanted to announce it from the White House and shape the story.

    Kendall presented Hillary with a number of options for going to the courthouse. She could take a limousine into the courthouse basement or even sneak in covertly.

    "Nope," she said. As past master of putting the best face on disaster, she decided it was best not to attempt to sneak into the courthouse like some Mafia suspect or engage in some other subterfuge.

    On Jan. 26, 1996, she walked into the courthouse, head held high. She went to the witness room with her attorneys and lingered by the doorway. First the 23 grand jurors walked by into the grand jury room. They were mostly black and about half women.

    Then suddenly a group of men led by Starr paraded by into the secret room. Hillary and Sherburne both mentally counted out, one, two. Nine altogether. All white males in suits. Sherburne looked at Hillary, then Hillary looked at Sherburne. Both registered the same reaction but of course.

    "God," Mrs. Clinton said, noting she and Sherburne had the same reaction, "I'm looking in the mirror."

    Outside, after dark, after four hours of testimony, Hillary walked up to an array of microphones.

    "Would you rather have been somewhere else today?" she was asked.

    "Oh," Hillary said, "about a million other places."

    As she came under increasing attack in the following months, Hillary pressed Sherburne and Fabiani.

    "Why is Starr getting a free ride?" she asked. "I don't understand this. Everything we do gets put under a microscope and look at this guy! No one says anything negative about him. How can he get away with this?"

    Hillary wanted the White House to call attention to the independent counsel's potential conflicts of interest and Starr's part-time status, the types of criticisms that she kept hearing on the news and reading in the newspapers.

    Fabiani did not believe they dared declare open war on the independent counsel. The White House's relationship with the independent counsel's staff would deteriorate rapidly. Fabiani also felt a public attack is what many would expect, and to a certain extent that would mitigate any potential damage to Starr.

    Sherburne decided not to tell Hillary that Fabiani had collected publicly available negative background information on the independent counsel and quietly given it to reporters. She hoped to protect the first lady and the president. But Hillary continued to vent in private about the administration's failure to attack Starr.

    "We're out there," Sherburne told her, hoping she would get the message.

    It was not until Jan. 27, 1998, that Hillary Clinton publicly gave voice to her anger at Starr. Appearing on the "Today" show, days after allegations that her husband had had an affair with Lewinsky, she said Starr was part of "a vast right-wing conspiracy" out to get her husband.

    Matt Lauer, the show's co-anchor, asked her if she thought her husband "would admit that he again has caused pain in this marriage?"

    "No, absolutely not," she replied sharply. "And he shouldn't."

    It took the president seven months to admit before a grand jury and then the nation that he did have an "inappropriate intimate relationship" with Lewinsky.

    After the vacation on the Vineyard, which she considered the dark days, she attempted to sort out her dilemma with some women friends. She insisted that she did not view Lewinsky as a real threat. It was only sex, not partnership. She had the partnership the real friendship and love with him.

    Her friends thought that Hillary used to be a wallflower. She had blossomed in the White House years. Several close friends believed that Hillary filled so many roles in her husband's life the mother he didn't have any longer, the sister who had never existed, the chief adviser he didn't have anymore and perhaps had never had. She was the smartest person in the room.

    Hillary retreated to her religious and spiritual convictions.

    "I've got to take this," she told one friend. "I have to take this punishment. I don't know why God has chosen this for me. But He has, and it will be revealed to me. God is doing this, and He knows the reason. There is some reason."

    By fall 1998, as the House moved toward impeaching her husband, Hillary was still uncertain about her own course. A close friend told her about a high-profile, public couple. They had been married 40 years, the friend told Hillary. The man had lots of affairs and the woman finally caught him.

    "She was devastated," the friend said, "but she thought hard about it. They had a great friendship, and she decided he is worth fighting for, and it would be unwise to turn him out or to give him to someone else. Her decision was that it was better to fight for him and to fight for the relationship."

    "Man," Hillary said, "that's exactly what I'm thinking now."

    A therapist can stop the bleeding, Hillary's friend said. That was the key to making progress and saving the marriage.

    Hillary said she and Bill knew that counseling was the right thing to do. "We are doing the right thing."

    Researcher Jeff Glasser contributed to this report.

    © 1999 The Washington Post Company

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