Hillary Clinton: First Fighter

Hillary Clinton spent New Year's Eve in a safe place, a hotel ballroom in Hilton Head, S.C., surrounded by a thousand soulmates sworn to secrecy. She had come with her husband, for the 12th straight year, to Renaissance Weekend to share and care with people who believe in social uplift and the power of ideas. For nearly an hour, she went on about her deepest concerns: providing economic opportunity for women throughout the world, protecting New Deal and Great Society programs from rapacious Republicans, saving children everywhere. She got so involved that she seemed to almost forget to introduce her husband, whose speaking time had been cut back to about half an hour before the toasts and hugs at midnight.

A few days later, the First Lady was back in more forbidding territory: her home in Washington, where news of ongoing White House scandals--Travelgate and Whitewater--dominated. Sitting in the third-floor solarium of the White House Residence, she was pleasant and gracious with a couple of reporters from NEWSWEEK who had ostensibly come to talk to her about her new book, "It Takes a Village," but who were predict-ably asking about the latest revelations. Gracefully, if not always completely, she answered, denying any wrongdoing. She bridled only once, at the word "subpoena," as in: Will it take a subpoena to get her to testify before Sen. Al D'Amato's Whitewater committee? "I'm not going to predict," she coolly demurred. Her smile returning, she changed the subject back to saving children.

Hillary Clinton has enormous self-control. She will need it. Last week D'Amato was brandishing Rose Law Firm billing records--long under subpoena, but long missing-that detailed Mrs. Clinton's controversial work for Madison Guaranty, a failed Arkansas savings and loan connected to Whitewater. This came just a day after a self-described "soul cleansing" memo from a former White House staffer surfaced that made it appear that the First Lady had played a far more central role in Travelgate than she had earlier acknowledged. "I just don't have any memory of that," she told NEWSWEEK.

This week, as she kicks off her book tour, Americans will once again be trying to figure out who Hillary Clinton really is. After the collapse of her campaign to re-make the nation's health-care system, she was thought to have retreated into the role of a more traditional First Lady, visiting hospitals and worrying about her hairdo. In truth, her hairstyles changed more than her agenda. She is, and always has been, a missionary. Her all-consuming task is to do good as she sees it, especially for children. She has been called everything from "Saint Hillary" by her fans to the worst kind of sinner by her enemies, but in fact the two are not mutually exclusive. The same zeal that is so impressive in her fight for worthy causes can also lead her (at best) to be politically insensitive and (at worst) to be ruthless about getting her way.

Mrs. Clinton's latest vehicle is her book, which she will be flogging on an 11-city media swing. "It Takes a Village" (the title is taken from an African proverb) is partly a sweet and homey how-to guide to child rearing, and partly a policy-wonk discussion of seemingly every child-development program of the past three decades. Republicans will scoff at it: Supermom vying to outdo the GOP as chief defender of family values. Actually, the book is a fair reflection of who Mrs. Clinton is and what she stands for. It is closer to the "real Hillary" than all the familiar press cartoons.

The First Lady's social activism is not a pose; she is dead serious. Her code is simple: "We are all here to help someone else," says Melanne Verveer, one of her top aides. "She believes that to the core of her being." If Mrs. Clinton had lived in the 19th century, she might have saved souls in Africa. It is not a coincidence that she relishes traveling through the developing world, proselytizing about children's rights and basking in the adoration of women.

Understanding her sense of mission is critical to resolving the apparent paradoxes of her character and behavior. Hillary's do-good energy can make her warm, open and generous. It can also make her fierce, protective and suspicious to the point of paranoia. Above all, it makes her a fighter--"an advocate," she calls herself--who will let nothing stop her, particularly not D'Amato or vocal critics like the editorial writers of The Wall Street Journal.

Mrs. Clinton's immediate world is a mix of fluff and hardball. To hear her aides talk, life in what they call "Hillaryland" is like one big pajama party, albeit in the girls' dorm of a progressive religious college in the 1950s. The First Lady loves decorating and dressing up, sometimes goofily. This Christmas, she was seen wandering around wearing a necklace of flashing holiday lights. She enjoyed hanging a wreath with hyper-homemaker Martha Stewart. "I wish I could tell you she doesn't like that stuff, but she does," says Verveer. To her staffers, she is corny and a "bit of a prude," says one. Dressed in blue jeans and a ponytail after-hours at the White House, wearing her thick Coke-bottle glasses, she will use expressions like "Okey-dokey, artichokey," and ask, "What's up, buttercup?" She loves to sing, though she can't carry a tune.

She is the "big girl" in the "Big House" in the affectionate jargon of her aides (almost all of whom are female). Her staff is the most faithful in Washington. She fusses over them, asking about their children and their love lives and enjoying their jokes with a loud horsy laugh. But she reveals less of herself. "I was raised not to talk about myself," she has told aides. And she is incredibly demanding. A perfectionist--but a computer illiterate--she will call a staffer late at night to ask how to operate a fax machine. She expects absolute loyalty, and she gets it. Although her husband's staff is notorious for its turnover, only two of Mrs. Clinton's 16 staffers have left, one because her mother was sick. Her more easygoing friends sometimes wonder how Hillary could be so close to Susan Thomases, a tough-talking, take-no-prisoners New York litigator. The short answer, they understand, is that Thomases would do "anything" for Hillary.

But loyalty to Hillary Clinton can be costly. The Clintons built a bunker when they arrived in Washington, and the atmosphere of suspicion and fear-- of the press, of Congress, and occasionally of Mrs. Clinton her-self-wore down their closest aides. When Hillary's best friend, deputy White House counsel Vincent Foster, shot himself six months into the new administration, he was agonizing over what he felt was his personal failure to ward off scandal. Since then, several of Mrs. Clinton's aides, including chief of staff Maggie Williams, have run up hefty legal fees testifying before various investigators. They are uncomplaining, but not a few of their friends wonder why Mrs. Clinton is allowing her aides to slowly twist. Why didn't she just throw open her records and make herself available to investigators long ago ff she has done nothing wrong (page 28)?

But the First Lady remains dismissive. She thinks the persistent questions over Whitewater and Travelgate are a nuisance, to be ignored fiat all possible. In the late fall of 1995, when the then White House counselor David Gergen suggested turning over all Whitewater documents to The Washington Post to show that the White House had nothing to cover up, it was Mrs. Clinton who said no. Some press accounts have speculated that she had something personal to hide, but her intransigence may be more basic: she truly believes she has more important things to do. If it is necessary to stonewall to protect her larger purposes, then so be it.

Mrs. Clinton's righteousness may be softened by her girlish good humor, but its roots nm deep. Her zeal was shaped in large part by two institutions: the Methodist Church and Yale Law School. It is hard, in a more selfish and secular time, to appreciate the fervent strain of social activism that ran through the midcentury, mid-American Methodist Church. "Be doers of the word and not hearers only" was a familiar refrain in her parents' church in Park Ridge, Ill. For a nice suburban Chicago girl in the early '60s, that meant volunteering in the inner city and baby-sitting for migrant workers. At Yale, her missionary impulse turned grandiose. Ivy League grade grubbers who wanted to practice corporate law on Wall Street went to Harvard; idealists went to Yale, where they learned to use the law as a tool of social reform. This spirit was particularly intense in the Yale of the early 1970s--Hillary's Yale. It was liberal, high-minded and suffused with we-know-best paternalism: only courts, not state legislatures, could be trusted to guarantee social justice.

Throughout her political and legal career Mrs. Clinton has lobbied for children's rights. "There is no such thing as other people's children," she likes to say. With families breaking down and children increasingly consigned to poverty, it is up to society to step in. That is a central message of her new book. She is sensitive that conservatives will translate the word "Village" in her title to mean "Big Government." She talks instead of a "partnership" between government, churches and charities. But she.has a program for every problem. "The vii]age can do its part to help [with child nutrition]. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has started Team Nutrition," she writes. "The village can do much to give parents the time they need to establish their children's well-being in the first weeks and months of life. The Family and Medical Leave Act. . ."

While her policies are classically liberal, her personal code is quite conservative. She thinks everyone should wait until the age of 21 before having sex. She believes divorce has been made too easy and that couples should stay together for the sake of the kids. Her views on divorce were tested in a personal way. To stay married, she relates in her book, she sometimes had to "bite my tongue." She does not say about what, but both she and her husband have acknowledged rocky times in their marriage, apparently caused by reports of his philandering. Still, Hillary stuck it out. In true Protestant fashion, she says, she learned to will herself to be grateful for the blessings she did have.

And to make certain compromises. "You can't accomplish anything in government unless you win," Mrs. Clinton would say at Wellesley, her undergraduate college. Politics are distasteful, but necessary. During her husband's 1986 re-election campaign, Mrs: Clinton writes that she told her daughter, Chelsea: "You know, Daddy is going to run for governor again. If he wins we would keep living in this house, and he would keep trying to help people. But first we have to have an election."

One compromise she won't make is to expose Chelsea to the limelight, despite the obvious political benefits of showing off her family. In the White House, the rule is "don't even bring it up," says an aide. Mrs. Clinton's fierceness, as well as her pragmatism, shows when it comes to protecting her family. It has fallen mostly to Hillary to finance the Clintons' public service. (As governor, her husband never earned more than $85,000 a year.) To the outside world, her commodities trading--a $1,000 investment to make $100,000-looks suspiciously cozy. And the family's lost investment in the failed Whitewater land development has the smell of a sweet deal turned sour. The Whitewater independent counsel, Kenneth Starr, may still uncover shady doings by the First Lady. But Mrs. Clinton seems unrepentant. Although she would never admit it, she may feel that she was relatively restrained in Little Rock, given the temptations of her position and the culture of the place. For a governor's wife who was also a senior partner in a politically connected law firm, the opportunity for lucrative deals must have been huge:

Certainly, Hillary has felt victimized by the storm over Whitewater. "Remind me," she asked an aide when the scandal began to grow after Foster's death, "have I ever done anything right in my life?" She summed up the unfairness of it all with one of Chelsea's favorite nursery rhymes: "As I was standing in the street/As quiet as could be/A great big ugly man came up/And tied his horse to me." There is an element of denial in this self-pity. Mrs. Clinton has hardly been a quiet First Lady. In many of the published accounts about Clinton's presidency, Hillary emerges as the one who wants to strike back while her husband dithers. She agrees that she is generally the one in her family to "cut to the chase." "I think that's true for all women," she told NEWSWEEK.

Still, in the past year, she has become somewhat more circumspect. Michael Lerner, the editor of Tikkun Magazine, whose "politics of meaning" she embraced, thinks she has "backed away" from preaching values. Feminists watch Mrs. Clinton hanging wreaths with Martha Stewart, and wonder what happened to the woman who wanted to work and not be a ceremonial First Lady. "I miss her," says Gloria Steinem.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, a close friend of Hillary's, says her book "may be one of her ways of saying 'I'm still here,' but more quietly. I think it's a decision on her part to be lower key." But it doesn't mean that her internal sense of mission has dimmed. When she was handed the page proofs of her book after struggling for many late nights to get it right, her eyes welled up. She was overwhelmed with pride and determination. The Promised Land was in sight, if only the rest of us could see it clearly.