Women may side with 'roughed-up' Hillary

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 September, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 September, 2000, 12:00am

THE past eight years have seen their fair share of rough weeks in the life of First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, and the past week has not been one of her better ones.

After eight years of the Clinton administration, Americans still really can't figure out Mrs Clinton, whose life seems torn between towering ambition and tragedy. This week has thrown up all the contradictions her image presents.

Mrs Clinton had to face a particularly bruising encounter in a televised debate with Rick Lazio, her rival for the Senate seat for New York. Then she also had to endure one more leak about the scandal two years ago when her husband's affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky nearly forced him from office.

A respected new book on the president's relationship with Ms Lewinsky suggested that in August 1998, Mr Clinton sent his personal lawyer to the residential wing of the White House to break the news to Mrs Clinton that he had been lying all along - that, yes, he did have an affair with a woman half his age.

In his book The Breach: Inside the Impeachment and Trial of William Jefferson Clinton, Peter Baker writes that the president relied on lawyer David Kendall's 'soft and understated' manner to 'pave the way'. Mr Kendall had worked with both Mr and Mrs Clinton through a series of troubles and knew each personally.

'So it fell to him at that critical moment to play emissary from husband to wife, to disclose the most awful secret of any marriage,' Mr Baker writes. 'It was not an easy confession to make. Only after Kendall laid the foundation did Clinton speak directly to his wife.'

A looming grand-jury appearance had forced the hand of the president, who seven months earlier had taken secret polls to gauge whether or not he should tell the truth. In the frenzy of an election campaign now in full swing, the revelation did not garner a great deal of attention within the United States, where voters are noticeably tired of such news. Even The Washington Post, Mr Baker's employer, buried it.

Internationally, it was another matter. When the full history of Mr Clinton's presidency is written, the revelation will prove a lot more than a footnote. It was another reminder that this leader, though touched by political greatness, is capable of the cheapest of stunts.

The news broke just as Mrs Clinton was preparing to take on Mr Lazio in a debate expected to reach as much as four-fifths of New York's electorate. Mrs Clinton wanted to focus on issues: a lagging economy in upstate New York, health care and education, as well as rounding her experience as an unconventional First Lady.

For Mr Lazio, a late entry to the race after the pugnacious Mayor of New York City, Rudolph Giuliani, was forced to pull out due to his own personal troubles and illness, it was a chance to beef up his own lightweight persona. Aged just 42, Mr Lazio still looks 10 years younger. The pair are vying to replace the retiring Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a veteran of considerable political gravitas.

What followed was one of the most hard-headed encounters of the 2000 election season to date. Mrs Clinton happily sneered at Mr Lazio's voting record as a young congressman, linking him to the former Republican leader Newt Gingrich, an arch-conservative whose name invokes a most bitter hatred in liberals.

Mr Lazio, whose appeal up to now has been all dimples and boyishness, appeared suddenly stern and feisty, warning Mrs Clinton that she should be the last person to use 'name association'. He exploited any opportunity to remind voters of her sudden interest in the affairs of New Yorkers and her record of untruthfulness.

In a throwback to the early political trickery of his hero Richard Nixon, Mr Lazio crossed the floor to shove an agreement to ban political financing under her nose. When Mrs Clinton snidely praised his 'performance', Mr Lazio shot back: 'I'm not asking you to admire it. I'm asking you to sign it.'

Things reached a head when debate moderator Tim Russert took the controversial step of playing Mrs Clinton's famous claim that a 'vast right-wing conspiracy' lay behind the allegations against her husband. It was taped eight months before Mr Kendall's mission upstairs. Visibly annoyed, Mrs Clinton kept her composure as she refused Mr Russert's appeal for an apology. 'Obviously I did not mislead anyone. I didn't know the truth.'

Mr Lazio could not help himself. He chimed in with a reference to 'blaming others' and concerns that it only seems to matter what you say 'once you've been caught . . . character and trust is about well more than that'.

The bloody spectacle has resonated far beyond the state, taking attention away from the more important battle for the White House between Vice-President Al Gore and Texas Governor George W. Bush.

Reflecting the closest of races and the enigma that surrounds Mrs Clinton, polls after the event have been mixed, too.

Some claim Mr Lazio's attempt to show backbone will misfire, particularly with women. 'Mr Lazio's action, in which he brandished a document like a weapon, looked very different to women than to men,' wrote one inflamed reader of The New York Times. 'This is a prime example of a woman's space being invaded by a belligerent man. Mrs Clinton is to be commended for holding her ground.'

Not surprisingly, Mrs Clinton received little sympathy on the right-wing editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal. 'The political parsons are now tut-tutting that he was too tough on poor Mrs Clinton, but it seems to us that he accomplished his strategic aim of showing himself to be someone who can play in her league,' it thundered in Friday's edition. 'Senator Clinton would represent the perpetuation of the myths of the Clinton presidency, a vindication of its lies, large and small, and an absolution of her husband's moral and ethical standards.'

With such powerful views out there being so forcefully expressed, basic political courage is one thing Mrs Clinton does not seem to lack.

Greg Torode is the Post's Washington correspondent

Graphic: inuscglo




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