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

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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.

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