Confession puts first lady under spotlight's glare With world watching, betrayed wife pledges devotion to president; Not the usual victim


WASHINGTON -- With cameras watching and daughter Chelsea conspicuously in the middle, the Clintons walked hand-in-hand across the White House South Lawn yesterday as they left for vacation, one day after the president admitted that he had misled the nation -- and his wife -- about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky.

The president's extraordinary confession Monday night was hardly the ideal prelude to a merry family vacation.

Appearing to keep a certain distance from her husband as they boarded a helicopter and then Air Force One en route to Martha's Vineyard, Hillary Rodham Clinton acknowledged through her spokeswoman that yesterday was "not a happy day" for her.

"It's certainly not the best day in Mrs. Clinton's life," said her spokeswoman, Marsha Berry.

Still, adopting a posture that is familiar to her, if somewhat mystifying to much of the outside world, the first lady rallied behind her husband and pledged her devotion to him.

"She's committed to her marriage and loves her husband and daughter very much," Berry said after talking with Mrs. Clinton. "She believes in the president, and her love for him is compassionate and steadfast."

Berry said that Mrs. Clinton was uncomfortable with the public airing of her family's private turmoil but that she was looking forward to the 12-day vacation and "private time with the family."

White House aides have said that Mrs. Clinton first learned the true nature of her husband's relationship with Lewinsky over the weekend in "wrenching" private conversations. But many find it hard to believe that a woman as savvy as Mrs. Clinton, a Yale-educated lawyer, would be in the dark this long -- especially given that the president has admitted to infidelity in the past.

"If she didn't know, she had to, in her heart and in her gut, know it was true," said Ed Goeas, a Republican pollster.

Asked if the first lady had learned only last weekend that her husband had had a sexual relationship with Lewinsky, Mrs. Clinton's spokeswoman said only that it was not until then that Mrs. Clinton learned what her husband would tell the grand jury. "She certainly was misled," Berry said.

Attempt to 'provide cover'

Goeas says the suggestion that Mrs. Clinton was unaware of the Lewinsky relationship could be an attempt to "provide cover" for her. If the first lady and other administration officials knew the truth about the relationship all along, Goeas said, their efforts to discredit independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's investigation would be all the more egregious.

"They've been fighting a public relations war trying to kill this investigation," Goeas said.

The first lady, in fact, has been far more outspoken than her husband since January in denying the relationship and attributing the investigation to the president's political enemies.

"I can state unequivocally," Mrs. Clinton said on ABC's "Good Morning America" in January, "that, as my husband has said, these are false allegations."

Goeas also notes that if it turns out Mrs. Clinton knew about the relationship all along, "she is no longer a victim; she's a co-conspirator."

But even as the betrayed wife, Mrs. Clinton is not the usual victim. She not only helped the president develop a legal strategy for his grand jury testimony; she helped craft Monday night's address to the nation in which he confessed that he had had a relationship with the former White House intern that was "not appropriate."

In fact, Clinton discarded a more apologetic, conciliatory speech drafted by several advisers and speech-writers in favor of the more defiant address he delivered -- in which he spent much time attacking Starr -- that Mrs. Clinton signed off on, CNN reported.

It's not surprising, because the first lady has focused her ire over the seven months of the Lewinsky scandal on outside forces including Starr, a "vast right-wing conspiracy," the news media and, most recently, an anti-Arkansas bias she said she perceived in Washington.

Trying to understand the dynamic between Bill and Hillary Clinton -- in other words, trying to figure out why Mrs. Clinton so ferociously stands by a husband who has cheated on her -- has been a sort of Washington parlor game. It began when the couple first surfaced on the national political scene six years ago, with Mrs. Clinton by candidate Clinton's side as he was questioned on "60 Minutes" about his relationship with Gennifer Flowers and admitted causing "pain in my marriage."

Speculation about the Clintons' union has been the stuff of armchair psychologists and bona fide psychologists, historians, the news media, and even the couple's friends and associates.

"Marriages get worked out between the two people in them," Dee Dee Myers, a former Clinton spokeswoman, said on NBC's "Today" show yesterday. "I don't know anybody who really totally understands the dynamic."

'Never noticed any strain'

One close, longtime friend of the Clintons agreed, saying, "From my own experience, I never noticed any strain at all in their marriage. Quite the reverse."

The Clintons' friends have long insisted that the two are truly in love, but are also brought together, and perhaps kept together, by a shared political agenda.

"She might feel, no matter how hurt or embarrassed, that the presidency and her role in the presidency are so big and ongoing that they can overcome this personal crisis and simply go on to as successful a final two years as is politically possible," says James MacGregor Burns, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Franklin D. Roosevelt and scholar in residence at the University of Maryland. "Their political partnership is so strong it could help them overcome this crisis."

Similarly, political psychologist Steve Worchel, a dean of the University of Southern Maine in Portland, says Mrs. Clinton's distrust of the president's political enemies may be so fierce that it strengthens her resolve and her devotion to him.

What's more, Worchel says, Mrs. Clinton, as a political figure, is most likely highly attuned to public expectations of herself and how she should act as first lady. "Her public image is critical," Worchel says. "It may be the one stable thing she has to hold on to."

Indeed, Mrs. Clinton's popularity in the polls has remained at an all-time high in the past six months, with many people saying they are impressed with the dignity and grace with which she has handled the crisis.

"Whether they're feeling sorry for her, respecting her, or a combination of both, people have remained positive toward her," Goeas says.

Mrs. Clinton has spent much time on the road this year, touring historical treasures around the country that are in need of renovation, calling for improvements in health care and child care systems and, perhaps most successfully, raising money for Democrats.

Other than the president, she is the biggest Democratic draw, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for candidates around the country and attracting big crowds studded by signs that state "You Go Girl" or "Hillary for President."

Accompanied by her husband, Mrs. Clinton is to deliver a speech in Belfast, Northern Ireland, next month at a conference on emerging democracies. Then the couple will travel to Russia.

This trip to Martha's Vineyard, one of the first lady's favorite spots, will be different than past visits. Although Mrs. Clinton is expected to show support for the president by appearing with him publicly, the first family is expected to spend little time in front of the cameras and much of it alone.

For her part, Mrs. Clinton "is ready to do what she can to restore her family," her spokeswoman says.

And so should her husband, says James Carville, a Clinton loyalist: "I think the president is -- what did Ricky used to say, I mean, to Lucy? 'You've got some 'splaining to do here.' I think that he understands that he is married to a very special and dear woman and that he's got to attend to this matter."

Pub Date: 8/19/98

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