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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

The Shadow of Her Smile

By Margaret Carlson

TIME magazine

It was nearing midnight in the solarium, the informal room on the third floor of the White House. The Mexican food had been cleared away, and a few dinner guests were hanging out waiting for the President to come back from taking a phone call. Just as he was returning, the First Lady noticed out of the corner of her eye that the TV was on, tuned to the David Letterman show. Casually, she leaned over, picked up the remote control and switched the set off before the President could hear a barrage of scandal jokes.

It's hard to believe she would need to protect him from the Top 10 Reasons Monica Is a Babe. But Hillary's gut response is always to defend the President against incoming fire. What's different this past month is her failure to go on the offense. For the first time, she hasn't scraped the staff off the floor, quarterbacked the Hail Mary pass or given her own statements. And when she said, just before the worst performance of his life on Aug. 17, "It's his speech. Let him say what he wants," it wasn't helpful, nor meant to be.

What a time for a work slowdown. The First Lady may not be able to save the President the way she saved the candidate, but she surely will hurt him if she doesn't stand by him once again, and not like some potted plant. Within days after the Lewinsky scandal broke, Hillary was on the Today show shouting her husband's praises. But for weeks now, there have been only perfunctory remarks during icy cameo appearances, bad body language and her failure to refer to the President with her usual "my husband" at a Moscow event.

Like so much coming out of the White House, Hillary's anger could be one more piece of spin, which makes it hard to interpret her switch to a hyper-smiley face during a flurry of public appearances at the end of last week. If Hillary had been faking anger because that's what any normal person would feel, she did it well. Rather than say anything herself, she issued a chilly statement of forgiveness through an aide. The Administration seemed eager to disclose that the Martha's Vineyard vacation was a time for "healing." It certainly wasn't a time for fun. She sulked behind sunglasses, stared straight ahead and answered in monosyllables. There were no late evenings singing around the piano with Carly Simon and Beverly Sills, no going out every night till all hours, no golf. The guest house where the President spent most of his time alone was akin to the woodshed.

Like most marriages, the Clintons' is a mystery, only more so. How can she stand his repeated betrayals? Does she yearn for power that much, or does she, in the words of Sara Ehrman, the friend who reluctantly drove her across the country from a promising legal career in Washington to instant obscurity practicing law in Arkansas, still "love him something awful"? The Clintons nearly separated in the late '80s, after the then Governor had an affair. But several years ago, a friend noticed that the marriage was much improved. "Hillary liked living above the store. He was under a kind of White House arrest, almost always home for dinner with her and Chelsea."

It's just this proximity that fuels the current Capitol parlor game: What did Hillary know, and when did she know it? Writer and television producer Linda Bloodworth-Thomason says it's ludicrous to think that Hillary knew her husband had been involved with Lewinsky in her very own house but defended him anyway. "Anyone who thinks Hillary knew what happened before the two of them had their conversation wasn't there that weekend. The second floor of the White House was a somber place." Until then, the President had told Hillary that he had befriended Monica and that she had taken his attentions the wrong way. In the face of so many awful rumors, including one that the Clintons murdered Vince Foster, the Monica accusation was just more gunk from the sewer.

The aftermath of the confession was brutal. Hillary spent several days in her room, talking only to her mother who was staying at a cabin in Pennsylvania, going to church and then meeting, along with Chelsea, with Jesse Jackson. One friend says the First Lady will rally to keep Kenneth Starr from prevailing but won't be out there waving the flag. "That old feeling has really suffered. She won't be getting over this for a very long time." Hillary has also taken to vigorous workouts. "She's so enthused about her state-of-the-art exercise equipment," says a former aide, "that she talks about it as if she's hosting an infomercial." When you've lost control of so much around you, you can at least get thin.

By Friday, a friend says, Hillary had "reconnected the President's oxygen tube" and rallied to help absorb the incoming fire from Starr. She had resumed the "my husband" business in her introductions and adopted a modified Nancy Reagan gaze as she listened to the President at Friday's prayer breakfast, although a friend jokes that if the President apologizes one more time, Hillary will kill him. Sensing an opening, aides are pushing her hard to go on TV to shore up the President. But if she reads the report and has any feelings left at all, the only honest reaction will be to let him this time twist slowly in the wind.


Cover Date: September 21, 1998

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