Open and Unflappable

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White lilies perfumed the air outside the State Dining Room last Friday afternoon as Hillary Rodham Clinton walked in, sat down in a shiny wooden armchair under a portrait of a pensive Abraham Lincoln and asked, "Are we ready?"

Ready? By the time it was suddenly announced at noon that she would hold a genuine press conference later in the day, most reporters had been waiting 3 1/2 months to fire questions at the First Lady about Whitewater. What happened was a riveting hour and 12 minutes in which the First Lady appeared to be open, candid, but above all unflappable. While she provided little new information on the tangled Arkansas land deal or her controversial commodity trades, the real message was her attitude and her poise. The confiding tone and relaxed body language, which was seen live on four networks, immediately drew approving reviews.

A cathartic, get-it-all-out press conference had been under consideration for weeks but was on hold until "Hillary really felt it was time," said a senior official. Then, on Thursday, the Los Angeles Times reported that her approval rating had dropped since January from 56% to 44% -- a damaging shift. Thus the session was more or less spontaneous; Mrs. Clinton discussed the idea with her husband only the night before.

Still, she was well prepared. When she could, the First Lady referred to the failed land deal not as Whitewater but as "north Arkansas." She called on nearly every reporter, but answered their questions carefully and selectively. She rarely strayed from her original defense of Whitewater, that the deal simply "lost money," and mounted a new defense for her speculation in cattle futures: "I don't think you'll ever find anything that my husband or I said . . . that in any way undermines what is the heart and soul of the American economy, which is risk taking and investing in the future."

Mrs. Clinton was the most forthcoming about her relationship with Jim Blair, a lawyer for Tyson Foods, who placed most of her commodity trades during her brief speculation with cattle futures in 1978-80. Blair, she explained, came to her with what she said was "a great opportunity to make money." Mrs. Clinton admitted that she relied heavily on Blair, an active commodities trader, when she turned a $1,000 investment into a $105,000 profit. "I relied primarily on his advice," she said, "because he really spent an enormous time studying the market." If Mrs. Clinton was worried about the perception of a sweetheart deal between herself and someone who represented the largest agribusiness in Arkansas while her husband was Governor, it didn't show. "He and his wife are among our very best friends," she explained.

On other subjects, she gave no ground. When she was asked about the mysterious first day of cattle-futures trading, when she turned a $1,000 investment into a still unexplained $5,300 profit, she said, "I do not remember any of those details." And she twice professed ignorance about the generous way Whitewater partner Jim McDougal absorbed most of the losses from the land deal despite an agreement to split profits and losses on a fifty- fifty basis with the Clintons. "We did whatever he asked us," she said.

Mrs. Clinton seemed to deliberately back away from her earlier description of the Whitewater controversy as a conspiracy fueled by Republicans and other political opponents. And the First Lady was at her most contrite when she admitted that much of the confusion about Whitewater is "really a result of our inexperience in Washington." For months, she had been trying to maintain a "zone of privacy" around her family because, she said, she had been reared by her parents to ignore the judgments of others because "you have to live with yourself." That has led her, the First Lady added, "to perhaps be less understanding than I needed to of both the press and the public's interest, as well as right, to know things about my husband and me." Then she added, "I feel, after resisting for a long time, I've been rezoned."

Yet her most disarming observation came near the end, when she suggested that she and her husband were merely "transition figures" in the White House. The attacks on her, she implied, were attacks on her influence in the White House. "We don't fit easily into a lot of our pre-existing categories . . . And I think that, having been independent, having made decisions, it's a little difficult for us as a country, maybe, to make the transition of having a woman like many of the women in this room, sitting in this house. So I think the standards and to some extent the expectations and the demands have changed, and I'm trying to find my way through it and trying to figure out how best to be true to myself and how to fulfill my responsibilities to my husband and my daughter and the country."

With lines like that, it's a wonder she waited so long to deliver them.