Hillary Rodham Clinton says her husband's sexual behavior may stem from a troubled childhood and that she is trying to help him with his "weakness."
"I thought this was resolved 10 years ago," she said. "I thought he had conquered it."
The first lady's comments, in the debut issue of Talk magazine out today, mark the first time she has substantively addressed President Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky since her husband acknowledged the sexual affair that led to his impeachment. The first lady once blamed the accusations on a "vast right-wing conspiracy." She is dealing with the issue more directly as she gears up to run for a Senate seat in New York.
Clinton's remarks make clear that she has forgiven her husband and adopted an elaborate rationale for how he could betray her with a White House intern half his age. She never blames him for the affair or for deceiving her and the country. Instead, she says the president concealed the Lewinsky affair to shield her.
"He couldn't protect me, so he lied," she said. "You know in Christian theology there are sins of weakness and sins of malice, and this was a sin of weakness." Despite everything, she said, "we have love."
Clinton noted that the infidelity occurred after the deaths of his mother, her father and their long-time friend Vince Foster. But she also traces her husband's problems to his fatherless upbringing in Arkansas.
"He was so young, barely four, when he was scarred by abuse that he can't even take it out and look at it," she said. "There was terrible conflict between his mother and grandmother. A psychologist once told me that for a boy, being in the middle of a conflict between two women is the worst possible situation. There is always the desire to please each one."
Reaching for a biblical reference, Clinton recalled that "Peter betrayed three times and Jesus knew it but loved him anyway. Life is not a linear progression. It has many paths and challenges. And we need to help one another."
Journalist Lucinda Franks, who conducted the interviews, said yesterday that it took her five months to persuade Clinton to open up, arguing that it would be to her advantage to defuse the issue in New York politics.
"What most surprised me was that she was able to view his sexual transgressions--and she admitted they continued off and on for many years--as something that did not represent the whole of their marriage," Franks said.
Marsha Berry, Clinton's spokeswoman, said the first lady had discussed her marriage with Franks because "this is someone she knew and felt comfortable with." Berry called the article "positive" but would not say whether New York politics played a role in Clinton's decision.
Despite the year-long national ordeal triggered by the president's lying, the first lady continues to blame his critics for conduct that she called "harmful to the country." She said that unspecified people "are jealous of him. . . . People are mean. I think it's a real disservice, the way we sort of strip away everybody's sense of dignity, of privacy. . .
"Is he ashamed? Yes. Is he sorry? Yes. But does this negate everything he has done as a husband, a father, a president?"
Clinton continued: "Can you imagine what it took for him to go on after losing everything, to still get up each morning and do your job? . . . What is so amazing is that Bill has not been defeated by this. There has been enormous pain, enormous anger, but I have been with him half my life and he is a very, very good man. We just have a deep connection that transcends whatever happens."
Clinton portrays it as an accomplishment when her husband does not stray from their marriage. Referring to the period after his sexual relationship with Gennifer Flowers, the first lady said, "We did have a very good stretch. Years and years of nothing."
More than once, Clinton suggested that her troubled marriage is hardly unique. "You know people have a lot of daily problems in relationships," she said. "Everybody has some dysfunction in their families. They have to deal with it. You don't just walk away if you love someone--you help the person." Her husband, she said, has "been working on himself very hard in the last year."