Hillary Clinton: The Better Half

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

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No one was buying it, any more than they had his public apologies--particularly after the delivery of the Starr report on Sept. 9. "She's never read it," says Berry, "but she certainly has the gist." Clinton himself, sources tell TIME, has complained to confidants that the independent counsel seemed to be going out of his way to hurt the First Lady and make the marriage unhealable. Why else include not only every last soul-destroying sexual detail but also Lewinsky's testimony that the President had told her that he expected to be alone after he left office and that he had had "hundreds" of affairs before he turned 40?

What the gods of conventional wisdom were demanding was another offering: the First Lady must undress her pain before Diane or Oprah so Americans would be convinced that she was--and they were--really capable of forgiving him. This was where Hillary drew the line. "She's tried so hard to protect her privacy and her child," says her top aide Melanne Verveer. "There was enormous pressure for her to say something, but she was adamant that whatever she did she would do in her own time and her own way."

In the meantime, there were serious problems to fix. The fall campaign season could hardly have looked more dire for the Democrats. In mid-September, two dozen Democratic Congresswomen came to the Yellow Oval Room and laid out their desperation to Hillary over coffee and Danish. Their problem was what they called, out of politeness, "the clutter." Clinton himself was useless to them as a campaigner; he was a prisoner of the briefing room and the fund raisers. She was the one politician in the country who would not be interrupted with questions about the scandal. In the miraculous month of October, while her husband made peace in the Middle East, the markets rebounded and John Glenn lifted off, Hillary barnstormed the country. Voters heard her on their car radios when they left for work in the morning and on their answering machines when they came home. The last week of the campaign saw her hitting nine states, with two stops each in Florida and New York. Her appearance in Iowa on the last weekend of the campaign fueled the surge that gave Tom Vilsack the surprise win that made him the first Democrat to be elected Governor there in 30 years. Said his media consultant David Axelrod: "Our voters had a lot more energy than theirs, and she was the major factor in that."

She worked offstage as well, taking on the cases that others thought hopeless. Hillary herself recruited topflight political hand Tony Podesta to set up shop in Illinois and take control of Senator Carol Moseley-Braun's doomed re-election campaign in its final days. "The First Lady was calling me up at home, in the office, from the road and from the White House with suggestions and ideas and a clear sense of what my personal priorities ought to be for October," Podesta says. Infuriated that even women had given up on Moseley-Braun, the First Lady assembled about 50 influential Democratic women in a hotel meeting room and gave them hell. "She talked about strategy and why one election matters, even if you don't live in Illinois," said Adlai Stevenson's III's wife Nancy. "What surprised me the most was how candid she was about what the situation was. [Her speech] was frank and clear and exceedingly personal." Hillary spoke without notes, says Mrs. Stevenson, "but she knew her facts down to the last detail."

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