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Loyal first lady stays the course Hillary Clinton fights to redeem husband's damaged presidency


WASHINGTON -- When Hillary Rodham Clinton arrived at a children's Christmas reading at the White House last week, it was not so much her chitchat with school kids that caught the attention of those watching, or her multicolored, embroidered Santa sweater and sparkly red-and-green earrings. Instead, it was a statement far more subtle.

Ever so briefly, she held her husband's hand.

Somewhere in that gesture -- a quick grasp of the president's hand as they left the East Room -- was a hint of defiance to those who would question a marriage under scrutiny and a presidency in crisis. In this latest chapter of the impeachment saga, Mrs. Clinton has allowed her actions to speak for her. The message: The fight for the presidency is far from over.

In the past, Mrs. Clinton has been in the forefront of a White House strategy that unleashed a legalistic attack on Kenneth W. Starr's findings and charged that a "vast right-wing conspiracy" was behind the Monica Lewinsky revelations. Today, she stands by her man on a different front, fighting her war with images of loyalty and perseverance.

In doing so, she has emerged as one of the president's most credible defenders. Her public allegiance to Clinton perhaps appears stronger with the Lewinsky scandal, signaling to one-time allies that if she can forgive him, they should as well.

"There's politics in her gut -- it is in her gut to have this administration succeed," said Thomas E. Mann, director of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution. "It's really clear that she has separated this. She doesn't view it from a personal dimension, and so now she is really speaking about the presidency with gusto and great effectiveness."

After dropping out of view after Starr issued his report to Congress in September, Mrs. Clinton has resurfaced, this time as perhaps the White House's most effective public advocate. With her popularity ratings soaring to record highs, she has emerged as an ideal defender.

Of course, images are hard to control. More than ever, the public reads her actions like tea leaves. Consider the vastly conflicting conclusions about her role over the past month:

Mrs. Clinton appears on the cover of Vogue with her hair slicked back, similar to a cool pose Princess Diana took in Harper's Bazaar after her breakup with Prince Charles. Observers say she is defiant, a survivor.

She visits the gravesite of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and pulls her arm from her husband's grasp. They say she is angry, a woman wronged.

She lobbies Capitol Hill for the president and stands at his side in stoic solidarity on Impeachment Day. They decide she is steadfast, a fighter.

It is this last image that some say makes the most political sense. With the White House in a near-panic the morning of the impeachment vote, Mrs. Clinton rallied Democratic allies in Congress and snuffed out any suggestion of her husband's resignation. Her almost aerobic nodding as her husband delivered a post-impeachment address sealed the picture of the loyal combatant.

"There was strength there," Rep. Dennis Kucinich, an Ohio Democrat, said after the Capitol Hill meeting where Mrs. Clinton reportedly accused Republicans of trying to "hound" her husband out of office and thereby derail his policy agenda. "It was right that she showed that. Because the nation needs her strength now."

At the White House, Mrs. Clinton's staff says she is doing what she always does: staying the course, soldiering on and pursuing the work that brought her and her husband to Washington.

"She's really focused on what she believes the American people elected her husband to do," said Marsha Berry, her press secretary. "She keeps her thoughts on what's important."

As the Senate decides whether to put the president on trial, the White House is pondering the role Mrs. Clinton will play in coming weeks. She must tread carefully. She cannot be seen as openly accepting the president's behavior. And any effort to lobby senators before an impeachment trial would look unseemly -- something akin to jury tampering.

Yet Mrs. Clinton can make a considerable contribution to her husband's cause. Many believe that it is she, not he, who can best shore up support for the administration.

"She certainly will be involved behind the scenes," Berry said.

Popularity and sympathy

If ever the first lady was in a position to influence public opinion, it is now. Her popularity has been sky-high all year; not since a brief honeymoon after the 1992 election has she polled higher.

The White House used this popularity to great effect when she helped rally the Democrats to a surprisingly successful showing in the midterm elections -- a vote widely viewed as a referendum on how the Lewinsky saga had been handled. The White House had a crisis; she helped fix it.

Part of Mrs. Clinton's new power derives from the sympathy that surrounds her. Friends say the first lady does not want to be seen as victimized and helpless. Yet the perception that she is vulnerable has engendered the goodwill toward her that has lasted all year.

"She's the only one coming out of this entire controversy with her image enhanced," said William Schneider, a political analyst with the American Enterprise Institute. "There's a tremendous wave of public support for her. One reason she seems to be more assertive these days is because she doesn't want to be seen as a victim."

Managing that image is a challenge. Friends say the first lady carefully chooses when and where to appear, striking like a smart bomb when the time is right.

"I think when Mrs. Clinton is very certain about something, including certain about when she can be effective, she acts," said a longtime friend of the Clintons who asked not to be named. "If she's not sure something is a good or a bad idea, she takes that uncertainty as a signal to wait."

Even when Mrs. Clinton goes about business as usual, she is studied intensely. Early this month, critics said Mrs. Clinton was conspicuously absent as the impeachment vote neared. Instead of working for the president's cause in Washington, she was lighting the Christmas tree at New York's Rockefeller Center and singing a duet on the "Rosie O'Donnell Show."

The next week, when the Clintons visited the Middle East, cameras caught her pulling her arm away from her husband's. The next day, the New York Post headline read: "Frigid Hill Sends Chill Up Bill's Spine."

This holiday season, the Clintons have offered some well-timed smiles together. And Mrs. Clinton marched through her back-to-back holiday engagements despite having aggravated an injured back muscle during impeachment week.

'Zone of privacy'

Even so, lovebird images of the Clintons spending time together these days are rare. Last year after New Year's, cameras captured the Clintons dancing on a Caribbean beach (much to the ire of a then-unknown named Monica Lewinsky). This year, there will be no such pictures. A Caribbean trip is not on the schedule.

As for dealing with the pain of the scandal and its aftermath, friends say Mrs. Clinton, a Methodist, copes by reading the Bible, working out on her treadmill, talking to friends and staying busy with issues affecting women and children. Her new book of letters to the Clinton pets, "Dear Socks, Dear Buddy," hit the stores last month.

Mrs. Clinton may play out her fight for her husband's presidency in public, but any such battle for her marriage will remain as fiercely guarded as ever. In this realm, words are scarce.

"She has not done any interviews about the topic -- she has not spoken," said Lisa Caputo, her former press secretary. "She has reasserted her zone of privacy."

Pub Date: 12/28/98

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