Hillary Rodham Clinton doesn't want to talk about it anymore, but both the first lady and the president spent time today doing just that: explaining, revising and defending her controversial comments in a magazine interview published this week about her husband's infidelity.
Facing a barrage of questions from the media as she returned to the Senate campaign trail in New York, Hillary Clinton defended her comments in the magazine while also clarifying her beliefs on whether her husband was responsible for his actions.
"I think the important point to make is that every one of us comes out of our own childhood and I believe we're all responsible," Hillary Clinton said here today at the latest appearance in her exploratory Senate campaign. "And as I said in the article and as I believe, every one of us is responsible for his or her behavior, including the president and all the rest of us."
She reaffirmed that she and her husband "love each other very much" and said she believed the nation had put the issue of his infidelities behind it "and I have as well." Though it was she who reopened the issue by discussing it in an interview in the premier issue of Talk magazine, the first lady bristled at the questions put to her today.
Asked why she agreed to discuss for the magazine a subject so personal and painful for her, Hillary Clinton said emphatically: "Well, I'm not going to anymore." Her audience here at the Crawford Furniture factory, the venue for a campaign discussion on regional economic issues, applauded her statement as she continued, "I've said all I'm going to say on that."
In the interview, Clinton said of her husband, "Yes, he has weaknesses. Yes, he needs to be more responsible, more disciplined. But it is remarkable given his background that he turned out to be the kind of person he is, capable of such leadership. . . . He was so young, barely four, when he was scarred by abuse that he can't even take it out and look at it. There was terrible conflict between his mother and grandmother."
White House aides were shocked this week when news of the first lady's remarks became public. Some knew that she had been interviewed by a sympathetic writer from the new magazine, which is owned by a Clinton financial backer, Miramax studio boss Harvey Weinstein. The idea behind the interview was that Hillary Clinton should address certain questions early in her Senate campaign, and in a friendly setting -- but few on the Clinton team realized that she would so dramatically reopen the issue of the president's character.
At the White House, the president defended his wife's Talk comments, using language very similar to hers in Jamestown today. "I don't believe that anybody could fairly read that article and think that she was making excuses for me," he said at the close of a Rose Garden appearance on economic issues. "I have not made any excuses for what was inexcusable and neither has she, believe me."
The president added, "The most important thing is that every child needs to know growing up that he or she is the most important person in the world to someone, and I knew that."
The first lady's comments in Talk were in marked contrast with her declaration last year that her husband's problems stemmed from a "vast right-wing conspiracy" against him. But what clearly caused the most controversy this week was the impression she left magazine readers that she believed her husband's infidelity resulted from emotional trauma as a child.
Both Clintons and various White House aides sought to clarify that view. "She did not say the president's childhood in any way caused his behavior, nor does she believe that," said Marsha Berry, a spokeswoman for Hillary Clinton.
Political strategists have been abuzz this week about the interview's effect on her likely campaign and about Hillary Clinton's motivations in granting it to begin with: Was it intended to get the issue out of the way early -- even before she is officially a Senate candidate? Was it a way to bolster support from women?
Her aides had suggested earlier in the week that she might provide some answers while on her latest "listening tour" through New York. That turned out not to be the case.
In the Talk interview, Hillary Clinton made it clear that she views the Senate campaign as an effort to be judged on her own merits. She also discussed it in the context of her own independence. "Now, for the first time I am making my own decisions," she told Talk. "I can feel the difference. It's a great relief."
Here in Jamestown, in western New York about 60 miles south of Buffalo, she addressed a small crowd of businesspeople and community activists. Many were obvious supporters and spoke effusively of her campaign, but others were skeptical.
The subjects of infidelity and personal responsibility that have been so much on the airwaves in Washington and New York City over the past few days were far from the forefront of people's minds here.
"We're kind of a backward little community," quipped Shirley Spontaneo, a wood finisher at the factory and a Democrat who voted for President Clinton. Still, people here as elsewhere know enough about Monica S. Lewinsky and other presidential liaison scandals to have formed an opinion about the first lady.
"I feel sorry for her," Spontaneo said. "I think that this is a private issue that should stay in the home." Asked how she felt about Hillary Clinton reopening the issue in a published interview, she said, "If she brings it up, it's good for her."
No one from the listening session raised such issues, however. Instead, there was talk of job losses, the lack of skilled workers, the effect of environmentalism on the logging industry and the desire for more federal money flowing into New York.
All of these issues have been roiling for years, David J. Cromey, a local businessman, told the first lady. And if Democratic Sens. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whom Hillary Clinton would like to succeed, and Charles E. Schumer, and former Republican senator Alfonse M. D'Amato couldn't bring solutions, why should New Yorkers think a Sen. Clinton could do any differently, Cromey wanted to know.
Clinton, in her answer, did not distinguish herself specifically from the three other lawmakers but said she supported initiatives to help lift local markets.
When time came for questions from the media, virtually all the questions centered on Talk, and the audience was clearly annoyed. As waves of questions were shouted out, Betsy Blanco-Perez, a local activist, took the microphone to make a plea: "I'd like to make a comment. With all due respect to the press, this is a presentation that's supposed to address issues specific to our community and our concerns. So I would appreciate it if no longer the press brings up things of the past."
Clinton appeared amused but also pleased, though later she returned to media questions. "This is really hard for me to do, but I'm going to stick up for the press because they have a job to do and they've come a long way and they feel they should have a right to ask questions."
With that, she took another question about her Talk interview -- the question that drew her smiling but terse refusal to discuss it further.