Hillary Clinton: The Better Half

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

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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.

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