Six years ago Hillary Clinton saved her husband's career by declaring her love on a television programme. Now, once again, she is his last best hope. Hillary is quite something when she comes out fighting. You may wonder why she'd want to. Here's why.

Hillary Rodham Clinton should be a wreck. Last week she must have wondered if there could be anything worse than having your husband's wonky penis (as described by Paula Jones) discussed around the world. This week she had her answer as sordid detail after sordid detail emerged about her husband's relationship with a 24-year-old former White House intern who claims to own a blue dress stained with the presidential semen. "You think the boy would learn," said Gennifer Flowers, yet another one of Bill Clinton's Other Women who has now appeared on almost every talk show in America to discuss the presidential problem. Hillary must be secretly thinking exactly the same thing.

Most wives, when confronted with the blue dress detail, would have faltered. Many would have shed a tear or two, thrown some crockery, issued an ultimatum. But Hillary is not big on crying and, though she is said to like a bit of flying crockery, she is too smart to start smashing plates over this. Nor is an ultimatum much of an answer. If Bill had to sleep on the couch - a dangerous thought, given his record - it would be reported on CNN by sunrise. She could tell him to leave the house, except that the White House is hardly a normal residence and if Bill has to leave, then eventually Hillary would have to go as well. And the couple known as Billary have worked too hard for their place in history to do something as foolish as that.

And so she has come out fighting. Over the weekend she was reportedly in "full battle regalia". She has brought in some of the best legal minds in America, and some old friends, too. Yesterday she appeared poised and calm in lemon yellow at a "business-as-usual" White House news conference on education and child care. Her husband thanked her more than once for her devotion to the cause, even as he denied having an affair. She deserves the praise. Today he will give the official State of the Union address, but this morning his wife will appear on breakfast television for what may well be her own state of the union report. It may occur to him, as he watches, that he couldn't do this job without her, and he would be right.

The country will be riveted because there is nothing quite like Hillary on fighting form. Americans will put up with a lot but the current scandal is exceptionally tawdry with its sex, lies and audiotapes. Now they are looking for something to admire and they may find it in Hillary Clinton's loyalty. Americans like loyalty, and Hillary Rodham Clinton does it very well indeed.

Six years ago, almost to the day, she went on American television to say that even though she wasn't a "Tammy Wynette stand-by-your-man type" she was indeed going to stand by him. "I love him and I respect him and I honour what he's been through and what we've been through together," she said on the television programme 60 Minutes. She is unlikely to change her tune now, and it could be that the tough lawyer who wanted to be a "co-president" and reform America's health care system will end up being best remembered as the loyal wife who saved her husband time and again and as a doting mother who fiercely protected their daughter Chelsea from the media pack.

Until yesterday the administration appeared to be in shock, but yesterday's forceful denial and mutual admiration society press conference signals the beginning of the fight back. Hillary is said to have "hit the phones" over the weekend and to be "totally focused". But she is not a woman to shirk from looking at the facts and God only knows what she has made of this strange tale so far. The three key figures are women - Monica Lewinsky, her confidante Linda Tripp and literary agent Lucianne Goldberg - and it will not have passed her by that all have secrets of their own.

At the heart of the scandal is the woman Gore Vidal has called "Child Monica". Hillary Clinton will have noted, probably in despair, that it was through her own family connections that Ms Lewinsky was given a place as a White House intern in 1995. Until then she had been best known for "social energy" and raucous barbecues at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon. There it is said that she had a thing for older men, and that she was also prone to fantasy. "I was brought up with lies all the time ... I have lied my entire life," she told her friend Linda Tripp.

We are bound to be hearing a lot more about Monica. Already the Washington Post has found that her mother is an author who enjoys a sizzling sex scene herself, much to her editor's evident distress. "We are not talking Proust here," he said. "I had to de-purplise a lot of this book. She saw the sizzle in everything."

Expect home movies, as well. Over the weekend, the tabloid TV show Hard Copy showed some wild video footage of Monica at her high school prom, bursting out of her dress as she enjoyed embrace after embrace.

Linda Tripp is bitter over how she has been treated by the White House, and had the idea of writing a book about what really goes on inside it. She mentioned this to the literary agent Lucianne Goldberg, a political operative from way back who openly hates Bill Clinton. She urged Linda Tripp to tape her friend Monica's outpourings of her alleged affair with the President, and also helped bring the allegations to Newsweek magazine.

Ms Goldberg is hardly bashful about her role:

"What I'm glad about is, he's getting caught. If it took this to get him, fine. I'm a hero if this thing comes out the way my, quote, agenda would like to see it come out." She has been in the political scene for some time, working for President John Kennedy's speech-writing staff, and for Lyndon Johnson too. "When you're tall, thin and blonde and have big boobs, you can have any job you want," she told People magazine. She sold political intelligence to the Republicans during the 1972 election, during which she posed as a reporter on the Democratic candidate George McGovern's campaign plane.

Ms Goldberg's literary career has been no less full of intrigue. She has been the agent for a woman named Dolly Kyle Browning who wrote a (fictional) account of a romantic relationship with Bill Clinton. In addition, she represented the Arkansas state troopers who wanted to write a book about Mr Clinton's womanising when he was governor. Neither book found a publisher.

Hardly surprising, then, that she advised Ms Tripp to make the tapes of her "friend". The tapes impressed the man investigating the president's dealings over Whitewater, Kenneth Starr, and in a scene more appropriate to a B movie than to real life, he had Ms Tripp wear a "body wire" to make more tapes. If it all sounds surreal, Ms Goldberg thinks so too. "If there had been an organised conservative conspiracy it never would have happened. If they couldn't do it in five years, they couldn't have done it now. It's not like they haven't been trying. You can't orchestrate this stuff. You can't make it up. There is a God." She said she hopes Ms Tripp does write a book, so that she will have something to sell.

Today Hillary Clinton will show her true colours to Lewinsky, Goldberg and Tripp. In some ways Mrs Clinton is a political chameleon. She has gone from playing the top-flight lawyer to the little wife to the supportive spouse who cares desperately about child care. But, whatever her difficulties as First Lady, her personal integrity has never been in doubt.

Nor does she have many illusions about the man she married 22 years ago. She may believe that Ms Lewinsky's allegations are false, but she knows that others have not been. It is said that he believes that oral sex is, technically, not adultery. One resident of Mississippi, a state that holds its neighbouring state of Arkansas in exceptionally low regard, said: "You know, I bet that dumb hick really believes that." It seems a long time since Jimmy Carter worried about lusting after women in his heart.

Hillary has heard it all before. Mandy Grunwald, a former media strategist for the Clintons, notes this, but adds: "I think she loves him the way any man would want to be loved, for his strengths and his weaknesses, with wide-open eyes. She knows better than anyone who he is, and she loves him."

Ms Grunwald made fun of all of the people who have appeared on television saying "poor Hillary, poor Hillary", and added: "Hillary's just fine." That is what Bill Clinton hopes too, as Hillary prepares to stand by her man one more time.