In a graduation speech to Wellesley College classmates in 1969, Hillary Rodham defined politics as "the art of making what appears impossible, possible." If so, this may be her finest hour in politics.
At least for a headline or two, Hillary Rodham Clinton's TV broadsides against a "vast right-wing conspiracy" out to get her husband succeeded in shifting attention from the president to the character of his accusers.
But there's more at stake than just standing by her man. She's also standing by a quarter-century political partnership that has given her scope to weigh in on life-long commitments to issues such as child care and education.
"She is a fighter. What we are seeing is Hillary Clinton being Hillary Clinton. It is consistent with how she is in situations such as this, which are not the best of times: She is resilient, engaged, focused, and disciplined," says Lisa Caputo, press secretary to Mrs. Clinton from 1992 to '96.
Just two weeks before allegations broke about the Monica Lewinsky affair, the president proposed a $21.7 billion child-care plan. The plan could have come straight from Mrs. Clinton's 1996 bestseller, "It Takes a Village." If passed, it would be the biggest program of the Clinton presidency.
Children's-rights groups were bitterly disappointed by Mr. Clinton's 1995 welfare reform. But the child-care plan seemed to signal that Hillary's priorities again carried clout in the West Wing. In announcing the plan, Clinton credited his wife, "who has been talking to me about all these things for more than 25 years."
In the 1993 health-care debacle, Mrs. Clinton's leadership became a main argument cited by critics to defeat the plan. After the 1994 Republican landslide, she kept a lower profile. She wrote her book, traveled, consulted, and quietly organized two 1997 symposiums on children.
And then came the Lewinsky headlines. Mrs. Clinton is not the first first lady to claim or feel that she and her husband are targets of a conspiracy. "Almost all of the first ladies either spoke or, more often, wrote in their journals or letters of feeling totally embattled," says Cheryl Heckler-Feltz, author of a history of first ladies.
Edith Wilson, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Helen Taft were also First Defenders. And Mrs. Reagan's spirited defense of her husband was the stuff of legend.
But Mrs. Clinton's use of the word "conspiracy" to describe the president's detractors "was an unfortunate choice," says James Rosebush, long-time chief of staff to Mrs. Reagan: "It discredited what she was saying as a character witness for her husband."
Those in Mrs. Clinton's sights, including independent counsel Kenneth Starr, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, and editors of The American Spectator magazine, deny charges of conspiracy. "If this were a Republican first lady, she would be viciously attacked for McCarthyism and not living up to the dignity of the office," says Wlady Plexzczynski of The American Spectator, an outspoken critic of the Clintons.
At least for now, many are taking Mrs. Clinton's counterattack seriously. Polls taken after her television appearance Tuesday signal that 44 percent support her interpretation of events. And Democratic Party officials say fund-raising, in a slump since the Jan. 21 allegations, rebounded after the first lady's statements.
At Wellesley College in Massachusetts, students in Marion Just's political science class also found Mrs. Clinton's conspiracy theory credible. "There was a general feeling that President Clinton's personal life was well-known before, and there were more important things at stake than what bothers the news media and Washington insiders," says Professor Just.
"Women are on Clinton's side on this issue, but it has more to do with what they like about his policies than how they feel about infidelity," she adds.
It's an assessment Mrs. Clinton may well share.