From left: The Clintons and Diane Blair and her husband, Jim Blair, in 1979. (University of Arkansas Special Collections/ )

Hillary Clinton was first lady when an influential legal journal featured her in its spring volume, drawing tributes from such luminaries as Elie Wiesel, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and the Queen of Jordan.

But the most intimate portrait came from Diane Blair, a woman Clinton befriended in Arkansas who was not a Nobel laureate or legal scholar and never held elected office. Through 30 years of friendship, Blair knew more than perhaps anyone about Clinton’s private struggles as she became the governor’s wife, moved to the White House and transformed herself into the most famous woman in American politics.

In her tribute to Clinton in the 1995 Annual Survey of American Law, Blair portrayed her friend as a female crusader, setting an example at great personal cost.

“When I was a schoolchild I was both fascinated and horrified by stories of the canaries who were carried down into the mines as early warning systems for the miners; if poisonous gases started seeping into the mine-shafts, the canaries would quickly expire, thereby giving warning to the men in the mines. I wonder now whether Hillary is playing the risky part of national canary for the women of America,” Blair wrote.

Clinton wrote back to Blair in the summer of 1995, calling her a “fellow canary.”

“We flap our little wings harder and harder, while chirping as loudly as our voices permit about what’s happening around us,” she said. “Sometimes we even are heard outside our cages!”

Diane Blair and Hillary Clinton were close friends for 30 years. Over the decades, Blair amassed a collection of letters that give intimate insight into the pair’s relationship, and the life of the presidential candidate. (Deirdra O'Regan/The Washington Post)

Blair never sought the limelight, but she became one of Clinton’s closest confidantes as the first lady wrestled with what she saw as a legion of political detractors and a hostile press. Clinton turned to Blair with her fears that her husband was “ruining himself” and the presidency because he had no strategy to fight back at his enemies.

Blair, who died of cancer in 2000, left behind a written record of their friendship that today offers one of the most comprehensive portraits of the woman who last month became the first female presidential nominee of a major American party.

Blair’s papers, archived at the University of Arkansas, include public statements and policy memos, as well as private correspondence and journal entries.

They show Clinton determined, with Blair’s help, to craft a positive image before she left the White House — an elaborate attempt to negate years of bad publicity.

In Blair, Clinton found a collaborator who shared her belief that women remained constricted, if not literally caged, in American politics.

Like minds in a small town

Hillary Rodham and Diane Kincaid were both outsiders in the small university town of Fayetteville, 200 miles northwest of Little Rock.

Diane arrived in 1963 from Washington with her first husband, attorney Hugh Kincaid.

“She thought she was moving to the end of the world. And to some extent, was,” said her second husband, Jim Blair. “You couldn’t buy a bagel anywhere in Fayetteville.”

Diane earned a master’s in political science from the University of Arkansas and took a teaching job there. Soon, she met Bill Clinton, who joined the faculty fresh from Yale Law School and whose girlfriend, Hillary, was in Washington working on the House Judiciary Committee’s Watergate investigation. Bill persuaded her to move to Arkansas in 1974, and they married the next year.

Hillary taught at the law school and met Jim Blair, then the outside counsel to Tyson Foods and a onetime professor. They played tennis and had lunch, and as Jim and Diane became involved, the two couples double-dated.

The two women immediately connected, Jim Blair recalled. Hillary founded a legal-aid clinic and was “dealing with the judges who . . . didn’t have very much sympathy for a woman lawyer,” he said. Diane was chair of the governor’s Commission on the Status of Women.

Then-Gov. Bill Clinton, far left, officiated the wedding of Diane Kincaid (Blair) to Jim Blair in 1979. (University of Arkansas Special Collections) (University of Arkansas Special Collections/ )

Diane Kincaid married Jim Blair in 1979, and then-Gov. Bill Clinton officiated. “On this day, the day of your marriage, you stand somewhat apart from all other human beings,” he told them. “You stand within the charmed circle of your love.”

The couples remained close, and when Bill Clinton decided to run for president in 1992, Diane Blair was an adviser. After he was elected, she traveled frequently to Washington, staying in a third-floor residence quarters bedroom with butterflies on the wallpaper.

As she wrote in 1992: “It was my job to catch the grenades being hurled in non-stop, from all sides, and toss them back out again before they exploded in BC’s face.”

She said it was a “dirty job.” But, as she wrote in a letter, “I know how necessary it was to keep them from ever scoring a fatal hit on BC or Hillary, and I guess I was uniquely qualified to do it.”

She dwelled in particular on Hillary Clinton’s role. “The world is going to find out just how smart a smart woman can be,” she wrote.

Hillary Clinton was appreciative.

“One of the best gifts I’ve ever received was the love you’ve given me — through good times and recently,” Hillary wrote to the Blairs in November 1994.

“You and Jim are two of the reasons I’m glad that fate led me to Fayetteville in 1974,” she wrote them in August 1995, just as the infrastructure for her husband’s reelection campaign — which Blair again joined — was falling into place.

Troubled times

In the spring of 1994, Hillary Clinton was pondering how she would be remembered.

The administration had been besieged by troubles. The death of White House deputy counsel Vince Foster, Hillary’s friend and Little Rock law partner, had been devastating. An independent counsel was probing the Clintons’ investments, subjecting the couple to unrelenting scrutiny.

Clinton asked Blair to reconstruct her “first hellacious year” in the White House. Blair’s account, which she called “Hillyear,” is a dizzying report on a woman pushed close to the brink, juggling family responsibilities with high-level political battles.

She was concerned with her teenage daughter, her parents’ health and the hunt for an “appropriate wardrobe.” But she also had assumed an unprecedented role in public policy, leading a task force to transform the health-care system.

Clinton, who had read 43 biographies of her predecessors, was still unprepared for the blowback she would face on her health-care plan. The early work had been conducted in secret, an approach that incensed the opposition. Clinton felt she was “being watched” and “being listened to,” Blair wrote. By February, Blair said Clinton told her she wished she hadn’t taken on health care, which was defeated in the summer of 1994.

Throughout the lobbying efforts, Clinton put on a positive face for the president, according to Blair. She tried to signal to him “what a mess health care is,” Blair wrote, while also saying “sweetly, ‘Don’t worry.’ ” She was “baffled” by “DC ways” and took comfort in walks on the Mall with Blair.

In March, crisis struck again when Clinton’s father, Hugh Rodham, suffered a stroke. Her decisions about “life support” for her father were “complicated by watching press,” seemingly a perpetual stance for the first lady. Rodham died in April. Bill Clinton, meanwhile, was “really on theme of being spied on, taped, watched, imprisoned,” Blair wrote. He also regretted his inattention to his wife, Blair said, a sense that “he hadn’t had time to really take care of her.”

Diane Blair and first lady Hillary Clinton, date unknown. (University of Arkansas Special Collections)
Enemies in the press

Clinton blamed some of her travails on the news media, and Blair fed her disdain, often railing against journalists for their portrayals of the Clintons.

One particularly impassioned rebuke was of a piece in the New York Times Magazine that was critical of Bill Clinton’s gubernatorial record. The president called Blair to complain, saying the “press is trying to make me personally unacceptable,” as Blair recalled. “The thing none of us could ever have predicted is that they could make this character issue stick,” she wrote.

Blair mounted a full-scale counteroffensive to retell the story of Bill Clinton’s early years, his political awakening, his accomplishments as governor.

She sent directly to the first lady her rebuttal — challenging “the buckets of vile and venom now being hurled on both Clintons.” She also marshaled a letter of complaint from then-Sen. David Pryor, an Arkansas Democrat, who denounced the Times piece as “mean-spirited and wrong.”

By January 1995, Blair and Hillary Clinton discussed a project to exert more control over the record. Blair wanted Clinton to secretly tape “open and candid” interviews with members of her staff, describing why they came to work “in Hillaryland” and how they viewed her accomplishments.

The friends pondered “how history can ever be written when those who do the contemporary stuff are so wrong.”

Clinton told her there was hardly a news story “that she couldn’t totally refute,” Blair wrote. Her concern was, “How does one arrive at the truth?”

From left: President Clinton, Diane Blair and first lady Hillary Clinton in April 2000 during a visit to Fayetteville, Ark. (University of Arkansas Special Collections/ )
A noticeable streak of silence

Clinton’s longing for an oral history conducted by Blair owed in part to her view that the people working for her husband were “just not good enough,” Blair wrote. This included staffers who had started out with the president in Arkansas or on his campaign but had “exceeded their capacity,” such as Mack McLarty, the White House chief of staff, and Dee Dee Myers, the White House press secretary.

“At least in campaign,” Blair wrote, she and Betsey Wright, an embattled aide to the Clintons, had “fought back against sleaze; kept bad things from happening.”

Wright was Gov. Bill Clinton’s chief of staff for seven years and deputy chair of his 1992 campaign, largely responsible for containing stories about the politician’s extramarital activities. Attempts this week to contact Wright were unsuccessful.

Blair remained in the Clintons’ inner circle, but Wright became a problem, the papers show. Two days after the 1992 election, Blair — seeking to protect the newly elected president and first lady — wrote to Wright, putting “on paper what I have wanted to speak to you for months.” She accused Wright of harboring “resentment and rage” that could harm the Clintons.

Wright later aired her own grievances to Blair, saying the Clintons “tossed me out like a used tissue.” She said she felt like a “leper to potential employers” and wondered whether she could ever forgive Bill Clinton for his “behavior” with women and for “never learning his lesson.”

“Some day i hope hillary will understand why bill and i developed such a tense relationship,” she wrote. “I guess her understanding will be my vindication, but that sure has to wait for quite awhile.”

Notably, Blair’s papers offer insight into how Hillary Clinton reckoned with the public fallout from news of her husband’s relationship with Monica Lewinsky. As Bill admitted to maintaining an inappropriate relationship with the White House intern in grand jury testimony, Hillary Clinton fell silent. For days, she didn’t return Blair’s calls, according to Blair.

When they finally spoke, in early September, they discussed books — John Banville’s “The Untouchable” and Arthur Golden’s “Memoirs of a Geisha.” They talked about Blair’s upcoming trip to Washington. Finally, they addressed the scandal.

Blair said that Clinton partly blamed herself: “She thinks she was not smart enough, not sensitive enough, not free enough of her own concerns and struggles to realize the price he was paying.”

She wouldn’t leave him, Blair wrote, partly “because she’s stubborn; partly her upbringing; partly her pride . . . she really is okay.”

Part of Hillary Clinton’s frustration was that the White House was not hitting back hard enough at detractors, Blair said.

On the congressional front, where they were “getting killed,” Blair wrote, Hillary Clinton was “urging hard ball.” For instance, she was angry that the North American Free Trade Agreement took legislative priority over health care. She complained that most senators were “diseased from egomania,” according to Blair.

She refused to tolerate incompetence or dissimulation. She was “dumbfounded,” Blair wrote, “by people who look her in the eye and lie to her.”

Month after month, Clinton was “in despair,” her friend wrote, that nobody in the White House was “tough and mean enough.”

‘On my own terms’

Throughout the White House years, amid the turmoil that buffeted the Clintons, Hillary Clinton gained a greater sense of her own strengths, Blair’s notes suggest. She shared with Blair her frustrations with her lack of “real power.”

Blair said Clinton told her, “I’d be happy in a little office somewhere thinking up policies, making things happen, refining them.”

She stated this preference during a phone conversation in which the two women mused about the role of the first lady and its association with a “healing, mourning, empathetic presence,” Blair wrote. What the Clintons presented was a “role reversal,” with Bill supplying empathy,” she wrote, and Hillary “seen as the harder tougher disciplined one with an edge.”

Blair said Clinton told her in one conversation: “I’m a proud woman . . . I’m used to winning, and I intend to win on my own terms.”

“On her death bed,” Blair wrote, her friend “wants to be able to say she was true to herself.”

Blair’s notes distill the oft-expressed claim among Clinton’s inner circle that only her close friends truly understand her. The two women remained close until Blair’s death, her final months buoyed by a daily phone call from Clinton, Jim Blair said.

“Like everybody else in America, I have some strong opinions about HRC,” Diane Blair wrote in a typeset document with an all-caps header, “BUILDING A FIRST LADYSHIP TO THE 21ST CENTURY.”

She continued that, “unlike most Americans,” however, she enjoyed “personal knowledge” of Clinton. The portrait of Clinton as a “malevolent, power-mad, self-aggrandizing shrew” has been “mystifying,” she wrote.

“Few of us today have the luxury of choosing this or that, homemaker or professional, wife or worker,” Blair wrote. “We are all those things, because they all msut [sic] be done.”

Clinton was merely the first woman to claim this complexity “so openly, and well, and without apology.”

“Hillary, like most of us,” her friend wrote, represents something “in between.”