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First Lady Launches Counterattack

Hillary Rodham Clinton
The first lady appearing on NBC's "Today" show (AP)

By David Maraniss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 28, 1998; Page A01

First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton yesterday launched a vigorous counterattack on behalf of her husband's beleaguered presidency, declaring that the president is the victim of a "politically motivated" prosecutor allied with a "vast right-wing conspiracy."

Using a nationally televised interview as her forum, she assumed a familiar and crucial role as Bill Clinton's first defender. She said she knew him better than anyone in the world, still loved him, and fully believed his denial of allegations that he had entered into a sexual relationship with a White House intern and had urged the young woman to lie about it.

The first lady's determined performance on NBC's "Today" dramatically reshaped the debate over the sex scandal that erupted last week and now threatens President Clinton's political survival. Her words at once established a clear line of counterattack for Clinton's loyalists, whose defense strategy until yesterday had seemed confused if not half-hearted, boosted morale at the White House, and drew a swift rebuttal from her main target, independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, who labeled the conspiracy claims "nonsense."

While Hillary Clinton had nothing new to add to the president's sketchy explanations of his relationship with the White House intern, Monica Lewinsky, she said that she had talked to her husband at great length about the subject and was satisfied with his answers.

"I think as this matter unfolds, the entire country will have more information, but we're right in the middle of a feeding frenzy right now, and people are putting out rumor and innuendo," she said. She urged the press and public "just to be patient, take a deep breath, and the truth will come out."

Throughout the interview with Matt Lauer, the "Today" host, Hillary Clinton displayed the cool and unruffled style that has become her trademark in times of trouble. She easily and quickly diverted the toughest questions about her husband's behavior, suggesting that his difficulties are either the "mean-spirited" imaginings of people out to get him or the unwitting misinterpretations of his garrulous and friendly personality.

When Lauer began a sentence by saying, "So where there's smoke . . . " she quickly punctuated it with the negating variation of that turn of phrase: "There's no fire." In her version of events, even the first conversation that she and Clinton had about Lewinsky's allegations seemed almost routine. She said the president had woken her up last Wednesday morning and said with a tone of bewilderment, "You're not going to believe this, but . . . "

The decision to transform Clinton's public defense into a rhetorical war with Starr and the political right wing was made at the White House in a series of meetings over the past four days, according to several administration sources. In every discussion in which she participated, the first lady was a a leading advocate of an aggressive strategy attacking Starr, but it was not until her remarks yesterday morning that they realized that counterattacking was their most effective choice, and that she was their most effective weapon.

In the days after Lewinsky's allegations -- made in conversations tape-recorded by a friend -- first surfaced, the White House seemed virtually paralyzed by an intense struggle between Clinton's lawyers and political aides. The lawyers urged a cautious response because of the immense legal stakes, which included possible felony convictions or impeachment if it could be proved that Clinton asked the intern to lie about their relationship. His political advisers urged some sort of strong denial and counterattack in response to the relentless news stories.

With Hillary Clinton leading the way, the political side eventually won. After a series of carefully worded denials that in their vagueness only prompted more questions, the president changed course on Monday. At a routine White House function on education, with his wife and Vice President Gore standing on either side of him, Clinton ended a short speech by gritting his teeth, tightening his face, squinching his eyes into an angry glare, and stating, "I want you to listen to me! I'm going to say this again, I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky. I never told anybody to lie, not a single time. Never."

White House aides said that the president had offered denials of similar intensity in several private meetings, and from that point, the mood of his loyalists began to change, and they began to consider more determinedly a full-bore plan of attack.

At a meeting in the Old Executive Office Building on Monday afternoon, Ann Lewis, the White House communications director, led a strategy session with several political consultants and advisers. The discussion was ostensibly about the State of the Union address, but it also focused, inevitably, on the sex scandal. According to several consultants in attendance, the central question was: "How do we finally turn the corner where we can get people raising legitimate questions about Starr."

Hillary Clinton, as she has been at every point in his career, was at the center of that strategy. It was no accident that she would take it to Starr when she reached the "Today" set in New York yesterday morning. She awoke at 5 a.m. at her suite in the Waldorf Astoria, and spent a brief time preparing for the interview before heading into her limousine for the short ride over to Rockefeller Plaza.

"She was very relaxed on the ride over," said Melanne Verveer, her chief of staff, who was in the limousine with her. "Not uptight. Not apprehensive. She was not overwhelmingly natural. We talked about how odd it was that her speech the night before at the UNICEF dinner had so many press people covering it, and how large the press was at the events in Harlem." The press was expecting her to say something a day too soon. She was holding her fire until the morning television show.

Even before Lauer's questioning had turned to Starr, the first lady said that she was "very concerned about the tactics that are being used and the kind of intense political agenda at work here" -- and she returned to that topic at every opportunity.

She said she was calm in the midst of the "firestorm" because she and her husband had become accustomed to spurious conspiracies concocted against them. "So having seen so many of these accusations come and go, having seen people profit, you know, like Jerry Falwell, with videos accusing my husband of murder, of drug-running, seeing some of the things that are written and said about him, my attitude is, you know, we've been there before. We have seen this before."

She portrayed Starr as an obsessed prosecutor in league with Falwell and others on the far political right whose only mission has been to "undo" the results of the last two elections. She called Starr a "politically motivated prosecutor who is allied with the right-wing opponents of my husband, who has literally spent four years looking at every telephone . . . call we've made, every check we've ever written, scratching for dirt, intimidating witnesses, doing everything possible to try to make some kind of accusation against my husband."

Starr, she said, was just part of what she called "an entire operation."

In a written statement that his office released hours after the interview, Starr said: "The First Lady today accused this Office of being part of a 'vast right-wing conspiracy.' That is nonsense. Our current investigation began when we received credible evidence of serious federal crimes. We promptly informed Attorney General [Janet] Reno, and she determined that the allegations merited further investigation."

During the interview, Lauer noted that Reno had approved the expansion of the investigation. "Well, of course . . . ," Hillary Clinton responded. "Because she doesn't want to appear as though she's interfering with the investigation. . . . Look, I'm not going to take all that on, because I've learned that we just have to ride this out. It's just a very unfortunate turn of events that we are using the criminal justice system to try to achieve political ends in this country."

Members of Congress, for the most part, stayed out of the fight, except Republican Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.), who urged the Democrats to give Starr "the same benefit of the doubt" they are seeking for Clinton.

When the first lady's aides were asked later who was involved in this conspiracy, they said Hillary Clinton's statements would stand on their own, with no additional details. "I really can't" add any details, said Verveer. "I think she said all she was going to say."

The argument that most of Bill Clinton's troubles arise from the conspiracies of his enemies is one that Hillary Clinton has been making for several years. In "The Agenda," Bob Woodward's book on the first two years of the Clinton presidency, she claimed that the Whitewater investigation had its roots in a longstanding Republican plan to diminish his power.

"She connected the current troubles to a call that she remembered Bill telling her about in the summer of 1991, just as he was deciding to run for president," Woodward wrote. "She recalled that he reported a direct threat from someone in the Bush White House, warning that if he ran, the Republicans would go after him. 'We will do everything we can to destroy you personally,' she recalled that the Bush White House man had said.' "

The validity of that threat could never be established, but it served as the rallying point within the Clinton camp throughout the 1992 campaign. Many of Clinton's longtime advisers were aware of the Arkansas roots of that strategy. Since his first political campaign, when he was running for Congress in northwest Arkansas in 1974, Clinton had been dealing with rumors about his sex life, and also with conservative adversaries who acknowledged that they were intent on cutting short his political career.

In several of his races for governor, especially his final one, in 1990, against Republican Sheffield Nelson, Clinton had effectively been able to dismiss all sexual allegations against him by claiming they were part of a reckless conspiracy launched by desperate opponents.

At a meeting the other day when several Clinton political aides were discussing how they have dealt with this problem for the past five years, two of his advisers who go back to the Arkansas days with him looked at each other, smiled wistfully. "Five, hell, how about 10!" one said.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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