Clinton In Crisis: Hillary confronts past, present, and future

THE FIRST LADY; Her new role as loyal wife has made her more popular than ever, reports Mary Dejevsky

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AS BILL CLINTON languished in an unhappy limbo, knowing that Kenneth Starr had delivered his report to Congress but not knowing definitively what it contained, his wife Hillary played out a drama that was surreal even by the standards of the past week. Surreal, but infinitely telling: about her past, present and probable future.

The woman who had said memorably in 1992 that she was not a little woman, standing by her man like Tammy Wynette, was doing just that - but with such bravado and presence, that there were times when she and not her husband seemed the one ensuring the continuity and dignity of the US presidency.

Her chief public engagement of that day, Thursday, was an afternoon address at the White House to launch a campaign against cancer of the colon. She spoke at the beginning and end of the proceedings, alluded with thanks to the many people who had shown her support, and warmly hugged Health Secretary Donna Shalala. Unbeknown to the audience, Ms Shalala - one of three women members of the Cabinet to have publicly endorsed his denials of a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky in January - had broken ranks with her colleagues only that morning to denounce Mr Clinton's conduct to his face.

A couple of hours later, Mrs Clinton appeared alongside her husband, without explanation and without speaking, when he went into the White House Rose Garden at 7pm to announce the end of the NorthWest Airlines strike. An hour later, wearing the same (by now somewhat creased) powder- blue trouser-suit that she had worn through the afternoon, she was again at her husband's side, introducing him in eulogistic terms as keynote speaker at a Democratic Party business dinner.

Here, Mrs Clinton's public loyalty was at once rewarded - or perhaps exploited? - by her husband. With the sheepish look he has adopted of late, he paid her numerous compliments before wrapping her in a tender embrace and indulging in one of their very few public kisses. Like all the Clinton's public appearances that day, separately and together, this too was televised, and few Americans could have watched "the kiss" without being reminded of another, equally public, kiss - the one caught on camera between the President and Monica Lewinsky, as she waited for him in a crowd behind a security cordon.

Was Bill trying to make it up to Hillary? Was he trying to erase the Monica kiss? Was he trying to signal that he aspires to be as loyal a husband as she is a wife, at least in public?

Never has the Clintons' relationship been as closely scrutinised as it has been in the past nine months. The last time it was under the microscope was around the time of Mrs Clinton's celebrated appearance with her husband on CBS television six years ago - the occasion of the Tammy Wynette remark - when she saved his presidential candidacy from allegations about the affair with Gennifer Flowers. Mr Clinton admitted to having causing `pain in my marriage', but Mrs Clinton's presence said more firmly than any words that they were committed to each other for the long term.

Mrs Clinton's solidarity gave America's feminists their standard response to subsequent charges that they were "soft" on Mr Clinton's rumoured philandering. If it's all right by Hillary, a woman of feminist persuasion herself, their argument ran, who are we to interfere?'

The word was that Mrs Clinton knew pretty much all there was to know about her husband before she married him and that they had reached an "arrangement". One description of it was "don't ask, don't tell" - similar to the policy towards homosexuals Mr Clinton forced on a reluctant military soon after he came to office.

To some commentators, including Mr Clinton's biographer, David Marannis of the Washington Post, the Clintons' marriage was always as much of a professional partnership as anything else. Mrs Clinton, this theory goes, backed her husband as a potential president from the start and consciously subordinated her own professional ambitions, whether as lawyer or politician, to the greater goal of jointly running the most powerful country in the world.

Intimates of the Clintons say, however, that whatever the (considerable) ups and downs of their marriage, they remain devoted to each other. And it is possible to divine a genuine attachment between them even from a distance. Some went so far as to say that the coolness observed during their public appearances during their holiday last month was fabricated by White House spin doctors to give the impression of a president paying his dues.

There is also - ultimately futile - journalistic debate about whether Mrs Clinton really knew nothing of her husband's relationship with Ms Lewinsky until last month or whether she knowingly lied on his behalf in January, when she described the allegations as part of a "vast right- wing conspiracy" against him. Whatever the truth, there is no doubt that she possesses a strength that thrives on adversity.

Anguished or not, her actions have made clear that she has decided to stand by her husband and, if possible, to save his presidency. And, however unsatisfactory this may be for feminists and for Mrs Clinton herself, Americans find her much more appealing in the role of loyal wife than as professional woman and political partner. She has never been more popular.

Whether she could or would use this public approbation in future is a matter of much speculation. There is talk that she might seek a Senate seat or, more likely, a United Nations or charity post, when her husband ceases to be President. Her qualifications and reputation as a top lawyer and the experience gained from her time as First Lady equip her well for such a post.

Some say that the Clintons will then go their separate ways. But there is next to no evidence for this; indeed, the signs now point in almost the opposite direction, so dependent does Mr Clinton now seem, politically and personally, on his wife. What Mrs Clinton is probably least likely to do - despite pressure from some quarters of the Democratic Party - is to run on a presidential ticket. The scars she bears from the past six years run too deep for that.

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