The better half
During her husband's greatest crisis, Hillary has come into her own
By Karen Tumulty and Nancy Gibbs
December 21, 1998
One Monday in January, five days into the longest year of her life, Hillary Rodham Clinton was making her usual rounds. At the Harriet Tubman school in Harlem, third-graders told her they were studying the four values: honesty, caring, respect and responsibility. "Those are really important values," Mrs. Clinton said. "Boy, that's a big word--responsibility--isn't it?" She went on to visit a literacy program before heading to a 50th anniversary gala for unicef. She was talking about the things she has always cared about, normally to rooms full of earnest activists and an indifferent camera or two. This time CNN carried her live, and the UNICEF ballroom was packed with reporters, all wanting to see if she was falling apart, since her marriage looked as if it had.
"Well, it's nice to see," she told an aide as they drove away in the limousine, in pursuit of silver linings, "that the press now cares about children's issues."
It would not be the last time she would put that rude spotlight to use. All through the year, as she pursued the private rescue of a marriage and the public rescue of a presidency, she was the one person who seemed to see the larger story and shaped its telling. When talk of resignation spread, she was the one who said, Let this unfold. "We've got a fight on our hands," she told top adviser Doug Sosnik. "You be focused on that and not how bad things are." When everyone thought the story was about Bill Clinton, she said it was about Kenneth Starr. When her husband's confession finally confronted her and us with the truth of his lies, she led the way, from denial through fury to a grudging acceptance. The code was always clear: if she can stand by him, she who has been so directly wronged, so should we. And in the fall, when the Republicans promised an election that would give Clinton his comeuppance, she went out and gave the Democratic faithful, many of whom she had let down in the past, something to cling to, straight on to victory in November.
Now at year-end Hillary Clinton finds herself in places she has never been: embraced and admired by more Americans than at any other time in her public life, freed to work on her own causes--and cast as the "single most degraded wife in the history of the world," as Maureen Dowd lethally put it in the New York Times. Public pity, for Hillary Clinton, is an enormous price to pay for popularity. Frustrated feminists and cutting commentators note that her apotheosis comes not in the Congressional Record but on the cover of Vogue, not for what she achieved but for what she suffered. The role was not trailblazing but utterly traditional, born of a mythology of humiliation shared by Princess Diana and Kathie Lee Gifford.
Even beatification, if it comes on these terms, is a kind of punishment for a First Lady who swept into Washington wanting to put her stamp on social policy and bring government back into fashion. Instead she handed Newt control of Congress with her health-care plan and had her place in history established as the first First Lady ever to be forced to testify before a grand jury.
But with those defeats, Hillary also began to accept what Dolley Madison and Lady Bird Johnson had taken for granted, and what Eleanor Roosevelt must have told her when the two communed. As her former chief of staff Maggie Williams put it, "One of the things she's learned about being First Lady is, it's not just about doing, it's about being a symbol." Whatever judgments voters were asked to make about the flaws they would tolerate in a reckless politician whose leadership they valued, she mirrored in her own decisions about a faithless husband whom she loved. She was his salesman, but also our surrogate.
In a sense, it has been ever thus: the history of the Clinton presidency is and always has been the history of the Clinton marriage, which is why the distinction between public and private in this presidency has always been messy. From the start their union was a vessel not only of love but of ambition, a shortcut for two stars in a hurry to reach heaven. She signed on to be wife and business partner in the hope that they could have great fun and do great things by pooling her discipline, his charisma, her vision, his guts. And there was always the risk that if one stumbled, it would bring down the other too.
So it should be no surprise that as the presidency is teetering, people are quick to look for hints that the marriage is too. Those who have socialized with them in recent months see signs both that healing is under way and that it will be a very long, steep climb. The President shows a new tentativeness when he is with his wife, looking to see if she thinks a joke is funny before he laughs, and for the first time deferring to her choice in what movies they select, watching fewer car chases and more dramas. Where she used to have to nag him to get his sleep, the night-owl President can now be persuaded to retire when his up-with-the-birds wife is ready.
Their moments of open affection, when they happen, now have a sepia tone to them. "Flashbacks" is what one friend calls them, because they are brought on by a Christmas carol they both love or a recollection of a long-ago vacation. But those close to them also find reassurance in the fact that they talk of their future together in very concrete terms, musing aloud about where they might live and whether either might land a job that comes with a plane.
Chapter One: January
There was some justice in the fact that Hillary saved her husband time and again, since her actions helped sow his troubles in the first place. She did not make him a philanderer, though even her allies argue about whether she may have enabled it. But she did help create the atmosphere that swallowed him whole this year. Until Monica Lewinsky came along, it was always Hillary who was Starr's prime target: Hillary whose fingerprints were all over Travelgate, whose resistance to releasing any documents or answering any questions helped make Whitewater a four-year saga rather than a two-day story, who opposed settling the Paula Jones case and making all those prying lawyers go away.
At the same time, no one was hit harder by the shock wave in January than Hillary. Her marriage was on gruesome display; even if she believed Clinton's denials, she could still foresee the toll. For 22 years they had worked to get to this point, a liberated, second-term presidency with a merry economy, a contented public and the time to spend on the issues she cared about. Instead, every last dime of their joint political capital was going to have to be invested simply in surviving in office.
When the Washington Post first reported on Wednesday morning, Jan. 21, that Starr was officially pursuing charges of an affair between the President and an intern, the White House stopped in its tracks, clutched its heart and crumpled. Hillary's reactions, both private and public, were crucial. In that sense, her calculation was clear: the presidency first, the relationship later. She was virtually alone in her will to fight. "I don't think there was a person in the White House who gave him a snowball's chance in hell, except Hillary," says a former official. "Neither one of them is a quitter. He's a sniveler and a whiner, but when push comes to shove, he's got a backbone of steel--exceeded only by hers."
That force, for a while, was all Clinton had. No one in the White House could manage a convincing denial of the Lewinsky charges. Clinton himself was practically in the fetal position, "freaking out," an associate said, a sort of response that was enough to convince many who had watched him over the years that the stories were substantially true. Only Mrs. Clinton seemed more angry than broken, appalled by the very notion of a sting operation against a President, reminding people how offended everyone had been to learn about J. Edgar Hoover's wiretapping Martin Luther King Jr. and spreading stories about his sex life. Wasn't Starr doing the same kind of thing to the President?
She plotted the counterattack very quietly, in phone calls and by pulling people aside before photo ops and between meetings. But she knew she could not fight alone, and she had little use for the available recruits. Of her husband's staff, says a close ally, "she thinks they are fairly weak, with little backbone and little courage." At the worst moment of his presidency, after the 1994 election wipeout, sources tell TIME, Hillary was even privately advocating the firing of much of the upper echelon of the White House staff. So she needed some kindred spirits to shape the strategy, people who could double as surrogates in the conversations that could not possibly take place in front of her.
David Kendall was a natural choice: unlike Robert Bennett, Clinton's garrulous lawyer in the Jones case, Kendall was Hillary in a gray suit, polished to a smooth, tough sheen, fast on his feet, discreet and unflinching under pressure. Hillary viewed him as that rarest ally, "someone I could count on and trust implicitly," the First Lady told TIME in an interview.
If the months to come brought a fight between the President's legal advisers, arguing to add another brick to the stonewall, and his political aides, urging confession, the fact that the lawyers kept winning said a lot about who was really in charge.
Throughout Hillary's public life, people have looked at these moments, and at her whole partnership with Bill Clinton, with a jaded eye. As far back as 1992, when the couple emerged as a unique partnership in American politics, more than half of those surveyed thought the union was some kind of stock swap; only 22% thought it was a "real marriage," according to a poll done for Vanity Fair. But critics who dismiss her as a faux feminist, someone who craved power and got it the old-fashioned way--by marrying it--miss the point: she didn't need to. At Yale Law School, it was Hillary who was the star, not the husky, glad-handing boy from Arkansas. Her classmates were struck by her fervor to go out and do good, a specific Methodist view of her life as a chance to express her gratitude by serving others. So when she left Washington in 1974 to join Bill Clinton in Arkansas, she probably thought the move was only temporary; he was, after all, already running for Congress.
She maintained her Washington profile, lobbying for children's issues, serving as chairwoman for the legal-services corporation, enjoying a dual life right up until the day it helped cost Governor Clinton his job in 1980. Arkansas voters had had it with the charming, unfocused boy Governor who stayed up all night playing pinball in the basement of the Governor's mansion. And what was that business of his wife's keeping her name? Bill lost to Frank White, a savings-and-loan executive who acted grown- up and had a very shiny, inseparable spouse.
It was Hillary Rodham--soon calling herself Hillary Clinton--who understood the price that would have to be paid. She scraped off the identity she had forged, began applying makeup, bleached her hair, fired Clinton's operatives and recruited Dick Morris to help run an operation that would bear Hillary's stamp of decisiveness and discipline. "She kind of pegged [her husband] as a woolly-headed dreamer who would get killed in the world of practical politics," Morris says. "She acquired a role as his guardian."
Here enters for the first time the Lady Macbeth view of Hillary that has followed her since. But to assume all her efforts were designed to save his job misses the point that she also had to save her marriage. It was at just this time that the rumors of Bill's affairs were rampant, the days when Clinton, according to his masterly biographer David Maraniss, would soothe his 1-year-old daughter with the lullaby, "I want a div-or-or-or-orce." Once Clinton acquired his reputation as a serial philanderer, the questions about the marriage took a very pointed turn: Was she his co-conspirator, who kept cleaning up after him because she was so intent on holding on to her power? Or was she the ultimate family-values conservative, holding her family together for better or worse and in denial about how much worse it could be?
As this year's scandal unfolded, people's assumptions about what Hillary knew and when she knew it often reflect more about them than her. Conservatives from the Lady Macbeth camp and feminists who hated the image of Hillary as victim both held to the view that there were no secrets in this marriage. But this time, at least some of the First Lady's confidants argue otherwise. No, they say, she didn't quite buy the internal White House cover story; that an employee named Monica had a crush on the President; that it had got out of hand; that he had tried to "counsel her," talk about her family problems, her job hopes; that she had eventually been banished; and that the rest was a fabrication by the President's enemies.
Instead, says a person who has talked to her about it, Hillary "believed he did something peculiar that was not appropriate, something he was going to be accountable for to her. But the enormity of it hadn't anywhere close to crossed her mind. They both have kind of built-in avoidance mechanisms... That's why he's a survivor. If he sat there and confronted the enormity of how awful it was with his wife, he never would have transcended it."
In Bill Clinton we call it "compartmentalization." Hillary's allies bristle when the same term is applied to her. Says one: "You call it compartmentalization. I call it focus... Her natural reaction is to remain clear-headed and not let the emotional part guide her thinking. If there is an emotional part, it is something for her to take home."
And if, upon hearing of the latest charges, there was one thing she could focus on to the exclusion of whatever she was thinking about her husband, it was her hatred of Starr. She was predisposed to view Clinton as more victim than villain because she has always taken his enemies seriously, and none more so than the prosecutor who had questioned her integrity, made her run the gauntlet of cameras to testify before a Washington grand jury, implicated her in every alleged White House misdeed. "This is a fight that she is goddam well not going to lose," said a former top White House official. Whatever humiliation she felt, "it would be more humiliating to be run out of town and be beaten by him."
Hillary's feelings about Starr served a useful private purpose in steeling her for the fight, but in the end they may have been even more helpful in what became her public defense campaign. Right up until Hillary appeared on the Today show six days into the scandal-- the round-the-clock commentary had been entirely about the scandal: what Clinton had done, whether he could survive--with virtually no one out to defend him. Then Hillary sat down across from co-host Matt Lauer and challenged the press to pay attention to a different story: "this vast right-wing conspiracy that has been conspiring against my husband since the day he announced for President." She shone the light on Starr--his agenda, his henchmen, his ideological gene pool--and suggested that this was the real story, the real danger, rather than anything her husband might have done.
From the commentariat, at least, her "right-wing conspiracy" theory was mocked as the last resort of a woman in denial about the cad she had married. But that perception would change: By the end of the year, a majority of the public had come to agree with her about Starr, their fear of unaccountable government agents more intense than their distaste for even a lecherous, lying President.
Yet if Hillary's Today show performance gave Clinton a lifeline, it was at great personal cost. People close to her say that of all the year's betrayals, this was one of the most painful--that he sent her out there alone, risking her reputation by having her defend him, effectively lie for him, to buy himself some time. "Oh, that did not make her happy," says a close friend. He used her, and she saved him.
Chapter Two: August
Though no one may ever know how the Great Confession went between the two of them, everyone seemed to have an opinion about it, most revealingly within the White House itself. Two irreconcilable story lines began seeping out, one so painful it was hard to hear, the other so cynical it was hard to believe. The President's men were saying Hillary had known all along; the First Lady's press secretary Marsha Berry was calling reporters and telling them no, she hadn't; he deceived her too. It was as though there were an internal debate over whether it was worse for Hillary to appear as a stupid, duped wife or as a conniving hypocrite who had been covering for her husband all year.
Close associates of Hillary's presented the portrait of pain in the days leading up to the President's Aug. 17 testimony: Clinton's fear of this moment had been palpable, says a friend in whom he confided on the eve of his private confession. He had to tell Hillary not only what exactly had been going on in their own house but also admit the fact that he had handed their mortal enemy the weapons that Starr could use to kill them. The next day, the friend could sense how badly it had gone: Hillary seemed a different person--not speaking, not touching, not smiling, barely breathing. She disappeared for the weekend, save for church and a prescheduled birthday party for her husband on the South Lawn, and didn't emerge until moments before he semi-confessed on national television. "It's your speech," she said. "You say what you want to say," which turned out to be bad advice.
If his revelation made a very smart woman appear to have been very stupid about her own husband, her friends make a case that this was nothing new. They say Hillary has always been a bit dense about herself and those close to her in a way typical of a certain kind of overachiever: a woman who can talk about school vouchers, Medicare Part B and the Third Way of post-cold war politics but who didn't see the psychological implications of taking her family along on her honeymoon; who thought it would be a good idea to toughen up six-year-old Chelsea at the dinner table by telling her all the terrible things being said about her father; who didn't know her close friend Vince Foster was in trouble until the day he shot himself. "She has always thought psychological analysis for her was kind of a petty self-indulgence, says one of her closest friends. "She's not interested in it. It's not her thing."
The first time she showed a real curiosity about psychological pain was right after Foster's suicide in 1993. She picked up books about depression and started to think of the subject as a real disease. Tipper Gore, for one, helped with Hillary's education in this regard, as did some clergymen, says a friend, whom she consulted about the roots of Bill's recklessness. She hoped to convince herself that "it stems from his screwed-up childhood and his own insecurities, that this is not about her."
That idea--that it was never about her--had always been some comfort in the face of Clinton's infidelities. One friend, at least, says Hillary has never thought of Clinton's dalliances as a commentary on their marriage. Never. "It doesn't occur to her that he doesn't love her," she says. She sees his sexual escapades "as a weakness, a vulnerability, the stuff of junior high school. And as a very small part of his life." And that's why, over the years of rumors and revelations, Hillary was not fundamentally insulted by it. "She doesn't feel it's because she's let him down in some way."
But if over the years she had made a sort of don't-ask-don't-tell marital contract, that still did not fully equip her to handle Lewinsky. That he had continued to carry on right in their home, when she was out of town, after church on Easter, once on their anniversary, with at least the complicity of co-workers, was demeaning to her; his choice of paramour, meanwhile, demeaned him. "It wasn't an adult relationship. It was a man thinking he was 14 years old," says a friend.
But the way that dramatic weekend played out also raised some suspicions: Sunday morning dawned, and it was time for church. He held his Bible. She held his hand. It all seemed just a little too tidy, this tableau of grief and rage and reconciliation. With White House operatives leaking that Hillary had known all along, the showdown in the private quarters looked as though it was being carefully stage-managed for the benefit of an audience that was looking to Hillary for its own cues. If that view was surpassingly cynical, it had its own history. Back in January, as Clinton was preparing for his deposition in the Paula Jones case, the cameras had "caught" him and Hillary in a private moment, dancing on the beach in the Virgin Islands. As the year unfolded, casual friends of the Clintons noticed something a little creepy in the occasional offhand remark from the First Couple--as in "Buddy jumped in bed with us this morning"--whose only purpose seemed to be to signal the connubial geography. Privacy, it seemed, could be auctioned off for the right price.
The ultimate public display of private drama came, of course, on Tuesday afternoon, the day after Clinton's testimony and speech, when husband, wife and daughter, hand in hand in hand, did their "it's nobody's business but our own" walk across the endless South Lawn to a helicopter waiting to swoop them off to Martha's Vineyard for family therapy. Hillary wore blue, with dark glasses. Her eyes never met the camera. The President smiled slightly. Had the family temperature at that moment seemed too warm, it would have been dismissed as phony; too cold, and it would have invited the audience to give up on the rogue husband. Hillary, without saying a word, had to get it just right.
It is possible, of course, that the false choices of August--Was this pain real, or was it all being staged?--obscured what was in plain sight. For a family braced for invasion, hardened to humiliation and threatened with oblivion, what more natural course than to take a moment of pain they could no longer avoid and try at least to put it to some use? By letting people see enough of the healing process, Hillary could let their imagination do the rest. Maybe it would help. Nothing could make it hurt more than it already did.
Bill and Hillary had had hard conversations before, but friends of hers put their Martha's Vineyard talks in a category all their own. Up until then, her image was always shaped by his needs; don't be too visible, too feminist, too liberal. But however willing and complicit she was in all her physical and ideological makeovers along the way, the crisis in August went directly to the soul of her identity as a devout, practicing Christian. In the days following his confession, Bill Clinton left her with an excruciating choice. She might want to kill him for what he had done to her and their daughter, refuse to let him get away with it--but she could not do that and still call herself a Christian.
And so when he raised this very question with her--the question of what it means to be a Christian--it went straight to the most basic requirement: God forgives a great many things, except being unforgiving. This is so much a part of who she is that she effectively had no choice, and they both knew it, and so there followed what several close friends describe as "a lot of Christian talk" between the Methodist First Lady and her Baptist husband.
It has been said that the difference between Methodists and Baptists is that Methodists are always looking for a mission, while Baptists think they are the mission. Bill Clinton set out to pave a road to personal redemption with apology after apology after apology--all in his fashion, without saying precisely what he had done wrong. Hillary refocused on their life's plan. "Acting on our faith is never easy," she told the Methodist General Conference in 1996. "And it is often a test of our own resolve as much as anything else."
Chapter Three: October
Maybe Hillary had fought for her husband in January because her reflexes told her to. And maybe she had stood by him after his August testimony because a First Lady does not have the option of tossing her husband's things over the Truman Balcony onto the lawn. But as summer turned to fall, the state of their union was becoming a burning political question. Republicans didn't have to talk up the prospect of his resigning; Democrats were doing it for them. Even his most reliable friend, luck, was giving Bill Clinton a cold shoulder: Saddam was mocking him, Russia was collapsing, and so were the world markets.
Once back on the job, Hillary found that her every shudder invited scrutiny. There was the way she ignored the President's touch at a speech in Moscow, and the way she charged half a block ahead of him while working a crowd in Ireland. She spent their 23rd anniversary at a women's conference in Bulgaria; he spent it in budget talks at the White House. But the First Couple danced together three times at a state dinner for Vaclav Havel. "Hillary and I, we're doing fine," her husband said.
No one was buying it, any more than they had his public apologies--particularly after the delivery of the Starr report on Sept. 9. "She's never read it," says Berry, "but she certainly has the gist." Clinton himself, sources tell TIME, has complained to confidants that the independent counsel seemed to be going out of his way to hurt the First Lady and make the marriage unhealable. Why else include not only every last soul-destroying sexual detail but also Lewinsky's testimony that the President had told her that he expected to be alone after he left office and that he had had "hundreds" of affairs before he turned 40?
What the gods of conventional wisdom were demanding was another offering: the First Lady must undress her pain before Diane or Oprah so Americans would be convinced that she was--and they were--really capable of forgiving him. This was where Hillary drew the line. "She's tried so hard to protect her privacy and her child," says her top aide Melanne Verveer. "There was enormous pressure for her to say something, but she was adamant that whatever she did she would do in her own time and her own way."
In the meantime, there were serious problems to fix. The fall campaign season could hardly have looked more dire for the Democrats. In mid-September, two dozen Democratic Congresswomen came to the Yellow Oval Room and laid out their desperation to Hillary over coffee and Danish. Their problem was what they called, out of politeness, "the clutter." Clinton himself was useless to them as a campaigner; he was a prisoner of the briefing room and the fund raisers. She was the one politician in the country who would not be interrupted with questions about the scandal. In the miraculous month of October, while her husband made peace in the Middle East, the markets rebounded and John Glenn lifted off, Hillary barnstormed the country. Voters heard her on their car radios when they left for work in the morning and on their answering machines when they came home. The last week of the campaign saw her hitting nine states, with two stops each in Florida and New York. Her appearance in Iowa on the last weekend of the campaign fueled the surge that gave Tom Vilsack the surprise win that made him the first Democrat to be elected Governor there in 30 years. Said his media consultant David Axelrod: "Our voters had a lot more energy than theirs, and she was the major factor in that."
She worked offstage as well, taking on the cases that others thought hopeless. Hillary herself recruited topflight political hand Tony Podesta to set up shop in Illinois and take control of Senator Carol Moseley-Braun's doomed re-election campaign in its final days. "The First Lady was calling me up at home, in the office, from the road and from the White House with suggestions and ideas and a clear sense of what my personal priorities ought to be for October," Podesta says. Infuriated that even women had given up on Moseley-Braun, the First Lady assembled about 50 influential Democratic women in a hotel meeting room and gave them hell. "She talked about strategy and why one election matters, even if you don't live in Illinois," said Adlai Stevenson's III's wife Nancy. "What surprised me the most was how candid she was about what the situation was. [Her speech] was frank and clear and exceedingly personal." Hillary spoke without notes, says Mrs. Stevenson, "but she knew her facts down to the last detail."
On election night, as the President downloaded results in chief of staff John Podesta's office, a television commentator caught Clinton's attention with the observation that Hillary had won the day for the Democrats. "That's right," he announced to the crowd around him. Hillary's morning-after assessment: "We could have done better."
There is a faraway sense in virtually everything Hillary does now, a hint that she is already on her way to something else. It is hard to believe there is anything accidental about the fact that her schedule of late has kept her away from the White House and Washington, where her husband was devoting an unseemly amount of his time to golf. Her visit to New York City earlier this month, something the White House would usually book as a day trip, stretched over three long days and two late nights, all packed with events nourishing her ego and her image and her agenda. Hillary gamely crooned a funny, off-key duet with Rosie O'Donnell. She lighted the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree with Garth Brooks under a full moon, and lingered later than anyone expected at a movie premiere.
It is easy to imagine her having a far better ex-presidency than her husband will. Those who know her dismiss the notion that she might run for the Senate, from Illinois or New York. If anything, it would seem a comedown and would tie her to a capital she has come to hate. A more likely possibility, they say, is that she might head a child-advocacy organization, or run a think tank, maybe connected with his presidential library, or continue the overseas work she has come to love so much, perhaps as U.N. ambassador or head of a major international organization. She also expects to write at least two books: one a memoir, the other on health care.
For now, there is a battle to be fought and a family to heal. During their Middle East trip, at the gravesite of slain Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Hillary yanked her arm from her husband's grasp. The New York Post called it an "icy graveyard brush-off." And yet as Air Force One prepared to take off from Ben Gurion Airport early Tuesday evening, returning to Washington and the impeachment ordeal, Congressman Sander Levin encountered the First Lady as he made his way back to his cabin. She talked for 15 minutes about the history that her husband had made during that trip, how inspired she had been by his speech to Israeli youth, how awed at the importance of his address to the Palestine National Council and how unfair a judgment the House was about to make of his presidency. "You know, he's my President too," she told Levin.
It was more an endorsement than an embrace--but still, Levin found himself wishing the whole country could hear her talk like this. As the House vote neared on Friday, Hillary spoke out for the first time since January. She called for reconciliation. She counted blessings. She invoked the needs of those less fortunate. It was a Christmas card, to us and to him, preprinted but a keepsake nonetheless. Hillary had brought her husband and the country this far, and there was little chance she would let go now.
--With reporting by Jay Branegan and Margaret Carlson/Washington and Priscilla Painton/New York
MORE TIME STORIES:
Cover Date: December 28, 1998
The story of the year
The Clinton in us all
The better half
How Starr sees it
The Starr report
The outrage that wasn't
Where the Right went wrong
On to the Senate
The rest of Monica
The friend from Hell
The indiscreet charm of Lucianne
The Speaker who never was