Hillary Clinton: The Better Half

During her husband's greatest crisis, Hillary has come into her own

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Diana Walker / Time Life Pictures / Getty

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.

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