Originally created 08/29/98

First lady drawing admiration in time of trouble

EDGARTOWN, Mass. -- The woman once lampooned as Saint Hillary for seeking "the politics of virtue" is gaining new admiration.

After her husband's public admissions, people now use words like "loyal" and "brave" to describe Hillary Rodham Clinton. Two years ago, common descriptions included "dishonest" and "rhymes with rich."

Americans praise the first lady not only for a private commitment to her marriage but for accomplishing the public show of an intact White House team.

"If she can get us through this whole ordeal, she's got a lot to bring to American families and American women. The country could learn a lesson," said Carol Chase, 50, a registered independent but Clinton supporter.

The mom from Scarsdale, N.Y., spoke as she sat with her family outside the Chilmark Store on Martha's Vineyard. The Clintons have been vacationing on the island ever since the president's television admission of an inappropriate relationship with Monica Lewinsky.

Professing awe at Mrs. Clinton's fortitude and calling herself a "Hillary wannabe," Chase suggested she would put her own husband "through a meat grinder" if he were unfaithful.

Her growing respect for Mrs. Clinton is echoed by national opinion polls -- and among White House aides grateful for the first lady's show of commitment to her husband.

One top Clinton aide never considered close to the first lady voiced pure admiration: "I would walk on hot coals for that woman -- not her husband."

Asked to supply a one-word description of Mrs. Clinton, the top five responses in a national survey released this week were: strong, intelligent, brave, good and loyal. The top answers two years earlier: strong, dishonest, intelligent, smart and "rhymes with rich."

As soon as this island getaway ends on Sunday, the first lady's credibility and political clout will be weighed on both national and international scales.

Mrs. Clinton is to accompany her husband next week to Moscow, Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, making separate speeches on education and women's empowerment at each stop.

She then plans a week of "back to school" U.S. appearances.

Tied with Vice President Al Gore as the Democratic Party's second-highest fund-raising draw after the president, Mrs. Clinton also is slated for at least 15 fall campaign stops before she represents the United States at a first ladies' summit in Santiago, Chile, and another women-in-democracy forum in Uruguay.

On personal grounds, public opinion stands with her. In a Pew Research Center survey released Thursday, 66 percent of Americans said they admired Mrs. Clinton's decision to stand by her husband and 63 percent had a favorable opinion of her. Her favorable rating had been as low as 42 percent early in 1996.

Still, other polls have found that an even greater majority -- reaching 84 percent in a Newsweek survey -- said they don't believe Mrs. Clinton's contention that she did not know of her husband's affair.

Back in Chilmark, 18-year-old Becky Chase said that, as the wronged wife, Mrs. Clinton gets a free pass even if she was lying when she defended her husband and blamed the Lewinsky investigation on a "vast right-wing conspiracy."

"He's the jerk. Of course it's humiliating for her to admit," Ms. Chase said.

Republican pollster Linda DiVall cautioned that efforts by some Clinton supporters to portray Mrs. Clinton as the victim of her husband's deception only play into the White House argument that the Lewinsky matter is a wholly private one -- and not the stuff of impeachment.

Such a strategy could be ultimately destructive to the first lady's image, in DiVall's view.

"It's an enormous credibility problem," DiVall said. "Here's this leading feminist supposedly talking about women and men as equals."

"For her to have best of both worlds -- pretend she's a victim and also have a hand in the strategy, essentially condoning the president's behavior with her silence -- that puts her in a very dangerous position."

It is an odd straddle for the first lady who, in 1993, fumbled over catch phrases -- the politics of meaning, the politics of virtue ---- as she fought for Democrats to be heard in the conservatives' growing political debate over public morals, religious values and personal behavior.

Clinton detractors say the first lady must take a share of the blame herself.

Her husband's infidelities were "tolerated for all these years," said John Flaherty, 50, a teacher from Milford, Mass. "Whatever the fallout now, it's both their faults."


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