Who'll vote for the liar's wife?

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Remember the "vast, right-wing conspiracy" blamed by Hillary Clinton when her husband faced allegations about Monica Lewinsky at the beginning of last year? Now she admits he lied, claiming he was upset by the death of his friend Vince Foster and anxious to spare her feelings. "He couldn't protect me, so he lied,"she told the launch edition of Talk magazine last week. This comes as no great surprise, given that the truth and Mr Clinton are very distant acquaintances, like people who once met at a party and did not get on. Whether Mrs Clinton was really convinced by her husband's denial at the time is another matter, for only a besotted wife could have failed to notice a pattern in the accusations made against him.

It was not just that Mr Clinton was "a hard dog to keep on the porch", in Mrs Clinton's revoltingly folksy formulation. His name had been linked with a string of women and at least one credible accusation, from Paula Jones, of sexual harassment. Since then, he has even faced a public allegation of rape from Juanita Broaddrick, the owner of an Arkansas nursing home. In a sense, none of this matters as much as it did even 18 months ago; Mr Clinton is a busted flush, who will go down in history as a third-rate JFK for his habit of assuming the sexual privileges of rank when they were no longer freely available - certainly not without cost.

As a member of the baby-boom generation, raised during the early battles of the women's movement and married to a feminist, this makes him appear not just mendacious but unbelievably stupid. The more urgent question, however, is where it leaves Mrs Clinton as she begins her run for the Senate. Her ambivalence is neatly summed up by her name, which remained Hillary Rodham for quite some time after her marriage, transmogrified into an uneasy compromise - Hillary Rodham Clinton - when her husband sought the highest office, and then settled down as the vote-pleasing Mrs Clinton.

It would be a sad irony if this smart, ambitious lawyer finally established her own political career under the name of the man who has serially lied to her. But the problem is worse than that. Mrs Clinton's statements about her husband's affairs, from her "stand-by-your-man" gaffe on TV in 1992 to last year's conspiracy theory and her current portrayal of him in Talk as a helpless victim of something or other - childhood abuse, sex addiction - are frankly irreconcilable. (Thankfully, the First Lady stopped short of suggesting alien abduction as an explanation for his habit of compulsively propositioning women.)

Equally to the point, they sound like carefully calculated positions. There is actually no obligation on Mrs Clinton to talk about her true feelings in regard to her husband, fascinating though the rest of us would no doubt find them. What she has said in recent days tends to infantalise him, as well as shouldering some of the responsibility for keeping him faithful. There is a parallel here with the demand placed on Monica Lewinsky by interviewers who suggested she should not have had an affair with Mr Clinton because of the hurt it would cause his wife; it is an archaic view of gender relations which requires women, married and single, to conspire to limit men's sexual urges, as though they are too childlike to do it for themselves.

What Hillary feels about Bill remains a mystery, in spite of all the words that have been expended on the subject. What matters is whether she can shake off the mud which has stuck to the Clinton name, indelibly stained by her husband's reluctance to tell the truth and his repellent habit of political expediency. Many of us recall his failure, at a key point in his first presidential campaign, to prevent the execution of brain-damaged black man for fear of looking soft on crime: Mrs Clinton, who used to be accused of being far more radical than her husband, has never criticised him on this score.

She already inspires unease, not because of her politics but because she has achieved power and status through her relation to her sleazy husband. Her defence of him last week has done little to dispel the impression that theirs continues to be a shared project, recalling the "two for the price of one" rhetoric used by her husband when he first ran for the presidency. Even in those days, the so-called joint candidacy was not judged to have gone down well with electors, and was soon dropped. After the revelations which have followed, it is hard to imagine that even a whiff of "Hill and Bill" will impress wavering voters in New York.

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