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Like First Ladies Before Her, Hillary Clinton Stands Tough

Style Showcase By Kevin Merida
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 25, 1998; Page A22

America has a long tradition of fighting first ladies, women who rise to fend off their husbands' critics in times of crisis. They are strange creatures to some -- the kind of women willing to disguise their own pain, subordinate their personal views, endure public humiliation for their men.

Florence Harding was known to berate reporters who attacked her husband -- at a time when journalists didn't even quote first ladies. Eleanor Roosevelt vigorously defended her husband's New Deal policies, in much the same way that Lady Bird Johnson stood up for her beau during Vietnam. Rosalynn Carter vigilantly battled her husband's critics during the Iran hostage crisis in 1980.

During the past few days, as scandal has enveloped President Clinton, Hillary Clinton has been on the phone rallying friends and political allies. She has urged some of the president's former strategists to come to his aid. As she has done in past crises, she is trying to divert attention from the allegations themselves and attacking the motives of her husband's accusers. She has long felt, friends and advisers say, that right-wing activists will do anything to undermine her husband's presidency.

In an oft-quoted remark in 1992, Hillary Clinton said she is not the "Stand by Your Man" type -- referring to a country-western classic by Tammy Wynette.

But that's exactly where she has stood.

"I don't think these women get to the White House unless they're tough," says historian Carl Sferrazza Anthony, an expert on first ladies. "That is what really seems to be required -- to go through the maze of darts and arrows on the road to the White House and then to maintain your composure once there."

Lillian Lewis is a political wife -- married 30 years to Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a civil rights hero elected to Congress in 1986 -- and she is Hillary Clinton's friend. "I think when you're in public life you develop the ability to rise above the fray," she says. "It's almost like the brain has the ability to levitate to some level where you're not down on the ground beating your chest: 'Woe is me.' You can't take a 24-hour period to moan and groan."

She recalls a sex-related controversy that erupted during her husband's first campaign, an unsuccessful bid for a House seat in 1977. A man associated with the campaign was arrested for exposing himself in a place where gay people were known to gather. Everyone fretted, including her.

"We just kept going with the uncertainty of how it would turn out," says Lewis, who doesn't think the episode caused her husband's defeat. "In the black Baptist church tradition we have a song that goes, 'No matter what swirls around, I feel like going on.' "

Hillary Clinton has lived that verse on many occasions, championing her husband despite his indiscretions for nearly a quarter-century. When she married Clinton in 1975, he had a reputation as a ladies' man. The marriage apparently had little impact on his flirtatious ways, friends and associates have said. The subject of infidelity figured prominently in his decision not to run for president in 1988.

Over the past six years, on the campaign trail and in the White House, Hillary Clinton has endured the heat of some blazing sex scandals: Gennifer Flowers, "Troopergate," Paula Jones. Now it's Monica Lewinsky.

Unfortunately for Hillary Clinton, this is not 1938 or 1958 or even 1978. It's 1998, an age of multimedia saturation and new boundaries of journalistic exploration. It's an age in which a respectable program such as ABC's "Nightline" feels comfortable examining the nuances of adultery and whether her husband's reported preference for oral sex has any bearing on his assertion that he had no "improper sexual relationship" with a former White House intern.

Every night Jay Leno baldly ridicules her husband on national TV. ("Nixon talked of peace with honor; Clinton talked of getting a piece while on her.") Yesterday's papers were filled with reports that her husband courted his alleged lover with gifts of jewelry, clothing and Walt Whitman's poetry, and that he engaged in late-night telephone sex.

Other presidents have certainly had their extramarital dalliances, but never before has a first lady been confronted with such tawdry accusations against her husband.

"Lady Bird Johnson, Mamie Eisenhower, Florence Harding, Ellen Wilson, Frances Cleveland, Eleanor Roosevelt and Jackie Kennedy have never been publicly questioned about allegations involving other women and their husbands," says historian Anthony, who is a friend of Hillary Clinton. "This is an unfortunate precedent that's been established."

"I couldn't even begin to suggest how to deal with something like that," says Sheila Tate, who was Nancy Reagan's press secretary.

Tate ponders a moment, then says: Let the president handle it. "This is his issue, his problem and it seems the press is waiting for him," she says.

But the nature of sex scandals is that the public often trains its gaze on the personal disposition of the wife and children. Many wonder: How can she stay with such a cad? Will she brood or pretend she isn't hurt? Will she disappear into the woodwork or take the main stage?

When Gary Hart's 1988 presidential campaign imploded after disclosures that he cheated on his wife, Lee Hart was unable to conceal her hurt. Effi Barry stuck by her husband, Mayor Marion Barry, through his trial on cocaine charges and reports of his sexual escapades. But after he was convicted and out of office, she divorced him.

Hillary Clinton has shown particular single-mindedness in her ability to separate her personal pique from her broader political goals. She is, by all accounts, a skilled lawyer and strategist. Many close observers of the Clintons doubt that Bill Clinton would have made it to the White House without her.

She has also been called calculating, and accused of playing rough. In an interview with Vanity Fair magazine during the 1992 campaign, she fought back against media scrutiny of her husband's affairs by pointing a finger at his opponent, then-President George Bush. The media, she said, was turning a blind eye to rumors that Bush had once had a romantic relationship with an aide. Clinton later apologized and said she had not meant to be "hurtful to anyone."

In classic first lady form, Barbara Bush stuck up for her husband. Though she was often portrayed as a white-haired grandmother who stayed out of policy debates and walked her dog, she was in fact fiercely protective of her husband and family and was not shy about letting reporters know when she didn't like their questions.

"She lived with people calling her husband a liar, she lived with people calling her husband a preppy twit, she lived with people questioning his integrity," says Anna Perez, the former press secretary to Barbara Bush.

That is the classic role of the political wife. Never waver. Never crack. Never display agony in public.

"She was very disciplined about focus," says Perez, "and I assume Hillary Clinton is disciplined, too."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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