Hillary Clinton: The Better Half

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

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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."

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