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President Clinton and first lady/AP
The Clintons confer at the White House on Jan. 26. (AP)

First Lady's Determination
Binds Power Partnership

By David Maraniss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 1, 1998; Page A01

In the early morning darkness of Wednesday, Jan. 21, up in the second-floor bedroom of their residence, the husband awakened his wife and said there was something he had to tell her.

"You're not going to believe this, but . . ." he began.

"What is this?" she asked quietly.

". . . but I want to tell you what's in the newspapers," he continued.

That is how first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton learned from her husband that he was in trouble again, according to a reconstruction of the scene that she provided on national television. She made the dialogue sound so gentle and innocuous that it evoked the image of a bewildered Ozzie Nelson rousing Harriet from slumber, rather than what it was: the first couple's first discussion of reports of new sex allegations that seemed to threaten everything they had struggled to achieve since they spotted each other in the Yale Law School library 28 years ago.

Whether sanitized or the real thing, the first lady's version of the bedroom scene revealed the disparate roles she plays in critical moments. Here she was, presenting herself as the ordinary wife, trying to live an ordinary life, her sleep interrupted by the inanities of the outside world. Minutes later in the same interview, she transformed into someone entirely different, chief partisan in the White House counterattack, claiming that she and her husband were victims of a "vast right-wing conspiracy" that included Kenneth W. Starr, the "politically motivated" independent counsel.

In the first few days after the story broke that Starr was investigating whether Clinton had a sexual relationship with a White House intern and had urged the young woman to lie about it, some of the central questions in the drama concerned the first lady: What would she do, and why would she do it? Would this be one sex story too many for her to tolerate? Would she pack up and leave? Would she recede from public view in a state of depression, or would she take the lead on her husband's behalf?

Many of those questions were posed in subdued tones inside the White House itself, where aides, expressing anxiety and confusion, said they were looking for her to ease their minds and give them a sense of direction in contrast to what they saw as the president's ambiguity. In keeping with her long-established pattern, the first lady moved steadily to resolve the questions, or at least smother them, responding as she has again and again in times of personal and political crisis: by doing whatever is required for the survival of the tumultuous and resilient partnership of Clinton and Clinton.

During a whirlwind period that began last weekend, when television punditry devolved into speculation about resignation or impeachment, the first lady, after keeping a low profile for a few days, seized control of her husband's defense, seeking to protect not only his position and legacy but hers as well. "I probably know him better than anybody alive in the world," she declared, offering her credentials as his ace defender.

Certainly no one matched her experience. She has had to deal with allegations about his unfaithfulness for nearly a quarter-century -- since she drove to Fayetteville in 1974 to help him campaign for a congressional seat -- and, ever since, from Arkansas to Washington, she has been the singularly essential figure in each recovery he has made in the repetitive cycle of loss and recovery that defines his political career.

This time, she returned to the breach displaying the outwardly unfazed certitude of a battle-tested veteran. She brought back the old friends, political lawyers Mickey Kantor, Harold E. Ickes and Susan Thomases, and also the Hollywood image maker, Harry Thomason. She said what she thought needed to be said about her husband. She loved him. She believed him. People misunderstood him. They mistook his gregariousness for something more sinister. Adversaries were out to get him. Always had been. But they had survived before and would again and that was that, silence from now on, business as usual.

Melanne Verveer, her chief of staff, said she saw no private moments of apprehension or dismay in her boss last week as she plowed forward through the mess. Some White House aides, themselves privately uncertain about the allegations, said they thought she might be repressing her anguish, blocking out reality, determined not to consider anything but what her husband claimed to be the truth. In either case, her determination seemed to bring new resolve to her husband, reassure the loyalists and lift the dismal mood inside the White House.

For all the questions the first lady answered last week, one remained. It is one of the central questions of her life with Bill Clinton: What motivates her to stay at his side, no matter what? This article, drawn from hundreds of interviews conducted over the past six years, is an examination of that question. Her critics say the answer is nothing more than a cold and pragmatic arrangement of shared power. Her friends say it can be explained by pride and love. The evidence points to more variegated and complex reasons which, like everything else in their uncommon story, are revealed in their history, in the patterns that appear at the start of their relationship and reappear throughout their long political rise.

And Not to Yield

The first key to understanding Hillary's behavior today can be found in the original nature of her relationship with Bill Clinton. From the time they began dating at Yale Law School in 1970, they shared a passion for politics, policy, power, books, ideas -- and they Hillary Rodham Clinton/TWPrealized, they told friends, that they could attain heights together that they might not reach separately. Clinton seemed most impressed by her intellect. He said that Hillary was the one woman he could see growing old with. He once told Melanne Verveer, whom he had known since college, that he was emulating Phil Verveer, Melanne's husband, in going for "brains and ability rather than glamour" -- he meant it as a compliment. For her part, Hillary's feelings about Clinton seemed more traditionally romantic. One friend described her as "besotted."

She also seemed imbued with a belief that Clinton was destined for greatness. In the summer of 1974, when she was working as a junior lawyer on the impeachment inquiry staff of the House Judiciary Committee -- analyzing the constitutional intent of impeachment and trying to figure out the lines of communication within the Nixon White House -- she would occasionally punch her office mate, Tom Bell, in the arm and proclaim: "You know, Tom Bell, Bill Clinton is going to be president of the United States someday!"

No one took her boast seriously. Her East Coast friends were stunned when, two weeks after Nixon's resignation, she packed her suitcases in the trunk, strapped her bicycle on the roof and climbed into friend Sara Ehrman's car for the long ride from Washington to Fayetteville to start a new life with Bill Clinton, taking along a class picture of the impeachment staff inscribed with the Tennyson motto: To Strive, to Seek, to Find and not to Yield. What would she find in Arkansas? they asked her. Why would she give up the high-powered legal and political career she could establish on her own to teach law in the Ozark hills? Ehrman, her landlady in Washington and a friend from the McGovern campaign, tried to talk her out of the move even as they drove west through Virginia and Tennessee. "You are crazy," Ehrman said. "What are you doing this for?" Hillary laughed, said she loved Bill Clinton and wanted to take a chance.

From the moment she arrived in Fayetteville, there were signs of the problems that would plague them through the years. Clinton was in the middle of a congressional campaign then, traveling around northwest Arkansas, and he had girlfriends in several towns. One of his campaign aides was sent into a tailspin when Clinton stole his girlfriend away from him. Paul Fray, the campaign coordinator, said he and his wife were often put in the position of shooing an Arkansas woman out the back door when Hillary was coming in the front. Several staff members said they suspected that Hillary had dispatched her father down from suburban Chicago in part to make sure Clinton behaved when she was not around.

Clinton once told Betsey Wright, a friend from the McGovern campaign, that he had tried to "run Hillary off" during that period, "but she just wouldn't go." The young couple's loud arguments were unforgettable. Campaign aide Ron Addington recalled driving them to an event, Clinton in front, Hillary in back. All of a sudden Clinton began pounding the dashboard, Hillary yelled at him, ordered Addington to stop the car, got out, slammed the door and walked back to campaign headquarters. But it also seemed that they enjoyed mixing it up. As Hillary would confide later, she could not imagine getting stuck in a boring relationship where there was no friction and energy.

Before their marriage in October 1975, Hillary entered into intense discussions with friends on the question of whether a woman could establish her own strong identity and an independent life within a marriage. Her model, she told friend Ann Henry, was Eleanor Roosevelt. Having just finished a biography of the famous first lady, Henry replied with a note of caution: "That's right, but Eleanor never found her voice until that marriage was over -- until she didn't care about the marriage."

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