'The critics are going after the Clinton presidency,' advised Sally Quinn, a novelist and Washington Post writer who has written about White House incumbents since Nixon. 'Don't make the mistake of singling out Hillary. This is about both of them.'

There was always national unease about the Clintons, almost from the moment the nation first saw them. But it was rekindled when they arrived in Washington staking out the high moral ground.

This is a dangerous course for any politician but especially risky for a man like Bill Clinton. Having watched the arrival of four presidents in Washington, it seems to me the real problem is lingering doubts about both of them. On the campaign trail, Mr Clinton could not give a straight answer - about the draft, about smoking marijuana, or about his philanderings. His great charm, instant political successes and hard work has not erased the doubts.

For Hillary, it was different. She was always seen to be made of sterner moral stuff - at least in the beginning.

The avalanche of criticism that has now crashed down on her - a potent mix of Whitewater land deals, the First Lady's newly-created power, her failing healthcare policy - looks pretty personal. But something else triggered the slide.

As a couple, as a regime, they took too long to adjust from being stars in a small state where the odd peccadillo or a backscratcher deal can pass unnoticed to being in the big time. The best evidence of this slow learning curve is Hillary Clinton's astonishing reply to a Newsweek interview this week. 'I really have been pulled kicking and screaming to the conclusion that if you choose to run for public office you give up any zone of privacy at all,' she said. Not even Rosalynn Carter, the most unschooled of recent First Ladies, would have hoped for something as politically outdated as privacy.

For First Ladies of the United States, the personal is always political, as the old feminist slogan goes. Republicans pounced on Rosalynn Carter when she dropped in on Cabinet meetings; a strong wife meant a weak husband, they suggested. When Nancy Reagan ordered yet another set of china or the latest dress, the Democrats groaned at Reaganite profligacy. Barbara Bush was quickly dubbed the First Grandmother and crafted into a symbol of the outdated Bush presidency. And when Hillary Clinton's role in the Whitewater land deal had the slightest whiff of a cover-up, Republicans cried Watergate. The new First Lady was in the stocks well worn by her White House sisters.

Once in the White House Mr Clinton gave his wife what she wanted, even though it didn't exist under the Constitution - a proper office of her own. Her determination to rid the country of its healthcare scars brought accolades even from her enemies, who called her a brilliant and poised technocrat, a new and welcome power behind the throne.

There are all sorts of theories about what really caused a sudden drop of 12 per cent within a month in Hillary's favourable ratings.

Old-fashioned sexism, her supporters charged. 'This is what happens to women who stand up, step forward and speak out,' the Democratic party functionary Lynn Cutler chants to anyone who will listen. To the White House aide Paul Begala, Mrs Clinton's critics come from 'a small but pathetic gang of right-wingers who hate Hillary not because of what she's done but because their mamas didn't breast-feed them'.

Beyond Hillary Rodham's hard-core support almost everyone else, from left or right, thinks more than sexism is at work. 'If anything, the criticism is non-sexist in that the focus (on Mrs Clinton) is not because she is a spouse but because she is an important individual figure,' says Senator Bob Graham of Florida, a man who once aspired to be president himself. But the powerful-woman syndrome does not explain why Democrats have also dumped on Hillary.

Today, most Americans accept powerful women. At each level of society women are faring better in the workplace than a quarter-century ago. Women are staking their claim in positions of real power. There are more women in Congress, the Supreme Court, at the head of important government agencies and in the boardroom - up to 500 last year, from 46 in 1973. There was even talk recently of a woman for Secretary of Defence.

Her great achievement was to take control of what a New York Times columnist called 'the gerrymandered district of wife-adviser-power broker'. She was hailed as saintlike, and among her liberal admirers she became almost a cult figure.

At the same time, there was no end to the Hillary hagiography, from House Beautiful's coverage of her redecoration of the White House to praise from her older, more experienced sisters.' Her operation is the most organised, the most focused, the most co-ordinated and the most disciplined in the White House,' says Anne Wexler, a senior official under Jimmy Carter and a close observer of the Clintons.

But she had a problem. All this was done with a lawyer's, not a politician's strategem. Instead of being craftily manipulated, the public was rudely excluded.

Washington is all about power, and most Americans are willing, even eager, for Hillary Clinton to have more power than her predecessors. Knowing as well as anyone how Americans abhor closed doors, Mrs Clinton proceeded with her revolution in such secrecy that the public couldn't know how much power she was accruing. Other First Ladies have always had pillow-talk power, which is something that everyone understands and can deal with, but Mrs Clinton was tinkering with the Constitution; there were no checks and balances.

'The problem was we didn't know how much power she was taking and it made us nervous', says Ms Quinn. 'In practice,' said Abe Rosenthal, former executive editor of the New York Times, 'the reinvention of the First Ladyship skews the administration of government, evades the anti-nepotism law and avoids the responsibility that should go with authority.'

Then came Whitewater, which by the way is neither Watergate nor Iran-Contra, both of which were criminal abuses of presidential power. Judging from the evidence so far, Whitewater is one of those inbred Arkansas deals in a state the size of Brooklyn where the culture of association to mutual advantage takes hold and flourishes unchecked. However, one suicide (the deputy White House counsel Vince Foster) and three legal counsels resigning from the administration - all people either directly connected to Hillary or brought in by her - makes Whitewater stink.

For a media attuned as much to entertainment as to fact, a hue and cry was inevitable - and the only way to deal with it was openness. Quite the opposite happened. Instead of taking the blame for some apparently, but not necessarily, innocuous White House meetings, Bill Clinton walked the other way. Instead of rushing to explain her part in Whitewater, Hillary Clinton behaved like the Nixons, refusing to talk. Suspicions could only flourish and hopes for a triumph for feminism only fade, as the First Lady continued to demand not just a new role, but also her own rules. These rules seem to dictate that we now have to wait until the end of Whitewater to hold a First Lady debate that is more than a baby-kissing contest.

But much as she might hate to hear it, railing against the First Lady is displacement behaviour. The fact is that people are also rather worried about Bill.

(Photograph omitted)