Never underestimate Mrs. Clinton

By now reams have been written about Hillary Rodham Clinton's interview in Talk magazine in which, for the first time, she provided an explanation for the president's relationship with Monica Lewinsky - other than blaming it on "a vast right-wing conspiracy."

Although she later protested that her words had been misinterpreted, she clearly had implied that Mr. Clinton's dalliances stemmed from being "scarred by abuse" when as a little boy he was in between "a terrible conflict between his mother and grandmother."

After this explanation met with widespread ridicule, Mrs. Clinton alleged that what she really had been saying was that all children suffer if exposed to tensions of this kind - and that the president was fully responsible for his conduct.

But why did she speak up in the first place? The subject had pretty much disappeared in columns and on talk shows. Why not let sleeping dogs lie?

My own experiences with her convince me the decision to open up on her husband's sexual problem was no impromptu response to a reporter's pressuring. She did it to put the question behind her for the New York senate race.

Back in September 1991, Gov. Bill Clinton had that often-cited visit to a Monitor breakfast in which he addressed his "women problem" as a step to making a run for president.

I now know, through the work of diligent researchers like Pulitzer Prize-winner David Maraniss, that Mrs. Clinton was behind that effort to deal with her husband's many dalliances in a way that would prevent the subject coming up in the campaign. Indeed, she had strong reservations about Clinton running - unless he could somehow rid himself of this baggage.

I had invited Governor Clinton to breakfast. But just a day or two before the event, I heard he wanted to bring Mrs. Clinton with him. Of course, I said "yes." But I had no idea then that she was going to be there mainly as a result of her own urging - her own planning. She saw that it was absolutely necessary to be a part of the explanation that her husband would be giving.

To implement the plan, the Clintons had asked several reporters who were to be at the breakfast to ask a question about Clinton's sex life. But, as the session moved along, no one seemed eager to ask the question. Then late in the hour, the question finally came. At first Clinton replied that this was the sort of trivia people obsessed about when Rome was in decline. But then, with Mrs. Clinton fully nodding her head vigorously as her husband talked, Clinton added:

"Like nearly anybody who has been together for 20 years, our relationship has not been perfect or free from difficulties, but we feel good about where we are and we believe in our obligation to each other, and we intend to be together 30 or 40 years from now, whether I run for president or not."

This assertion that the two of them had worked out their sex-related problems quieted questions for months - until Gennifer Flowers' accusations. Then on "60 Minutes" the Clintons said, again, they'd dealt with these problems and put them behind them. That explanation helped Clinton to surmount that scandal and make him the "Comeback Kid" in the ensuing primaries.

On "60 Minutes" Mrs. Clinton was again the chief planner of how the response to the Flowers charges was to be made.

And I am persuaded that she brought up the Lewinsky-related incident recently in Talk because she wanted to - and only after much careful thinking. She didn't accidentally blurt it out.

But did her planned utterances fail this time? At first it appeared she'd made a gigantic blunder - opening herself up to ridicule and all kinds of further questioning on the subject. But then new polls showed that her words had somehow stirred up a lot of sympathy for her among New York voters. Her approval ratings that had been sagging suddenly shot back up.

Never, never underestimate Mrs. Clinton.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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