Hillary's Other Side

THE OCCASION WAS JUST THE SORT OF SOCIAL event that the Clintons are said to loathe: a gathering of Washington establishment insiders, clustered around candlelit tables for 10 to fete one of their own, media heavy Mortimer Zuckerman. Seated next to Hillary Clinton at this dinner party last week was Bob Woodward, the veteran Washington Post reporter. Famous for his role in uncovering the Watergate scandal, Woodward was only a few days away from publishing his latest investigative chronicle, ""The Choice,'' a narrative of the 1996 presidential campaign that is excerpted this week in NEWSWEEK. One of the principal subjects of Woodward's book is Hillary Clinton.

In his new book, Woodward writes that one of Mrs. Clinton's favorite sayings, borrowed from Alcoholics Anonymous, is ""fake it till you make it.'' Self-control, the First Lady tells her friends, is the key to survival. Woodward quotes Hillary as saying, ""I really believe you can change the way you think and feel if you discipline your-self.'' Sitting next to Woodward on this evening gave Mrs. Clinton an opportunity to practice her theory.

Hillary could not have felt relaxed about Woodward's book. The White House had picked up rumors about a ""bombshell'' that would embarrass the First Lady, as well as hints of other revelations that could possibly harm her husband's chances for re-election. The week was already shaping up as a rough one for the Clintons: Whitewater was bubbling once again, and Repub- lican congressmen, particularly House Government Reform and Oversight Committee chairman William Clinger, were gleefully beginning to probe Filegate, the latest White House scandal. Yet not once during the hour and a half she was seated beside the veteran investigative reporter did Mrs. Clinton mention either the scandals or Woodward's new book. Instead, she chatted graciously and amiably about Chelsea and asked Woodward about his daughter, who is a junior in college. Hillary's bitterness surfaced only once. Making conversation, Woodward remarked that that evening, June 17, just happened to be the 24th anniversary of the Watergate break-in. Mrs. Clinton dryly responded that Congressman Clinger ""will probably be blaming me for that soon.''

The First Lady could be excused for a momentary lapse into cynicism. Some of the scenes portrayed by Woodward's new book will be grist for late-night talk-show comics for weeks to come. According to White House insiders who spoke to Woodward, Mrs. Clinton, discouraged and wounded by the failure of health-care reform and the GOP rout in the '94 elections, came under the influence of a New Age psychic philosopher, Dr. Jean Houston, in the spring of 1995. During several ""reflective meditation'' sessions in the White House solarium, Houston persuaded Hillary to enact conversations with Eleanor Roosevelt and Mahatma Gandhi (the First Lady drew the line at talking to Jesus Christ -- too personal, she said).

Inevitably, Hillary's solarium sances will be mockingly compared to Nancy Reagan's astrology. The image of the First Lady, eyes closed, summoning up her ""mythic archetype'' is made to order for Jay Leno. Still, the joking is bound to exaggerate the depths of the First Lady's psychic revelation. As Woodward's account makes clear, Mrs. Clinton was only imagining what it would be like to talk with Eleanor Roosevelt and Gandhi, not literally trying to ""channel'' the spirits of the dead. A long-time searcher for spiritual meaning, Mrs. Clinton had conjured conversations with Eleanor Roosevelt before she met Dr. Houston. Mrs. Clinton is not even the first First Lady to dabble with psychics or mediums: the wives of Presidents Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, John Tyler, Woodrow Wilson and Warren G. Harding all tried, in one way or another, to communicate beyond the grave. Unlike Nancy Reagan, Hillary never tried to use psychic powers to influence her husband.

The White House understandably tried to play down Mrs. Clinton's relationship with the charismatic Dr. Houston. According to White House sources, the solarium scene was a daylong ""brainstorming session'' for Hillary's book, ""It Takes a Village,'' and the Eleanor Roosevelt ""conversation'' made up only a small part of the meeting.

The snickering about psychics will eventually subside. More troubling to the Clintons may be the scandals that swirled around them last week, particularly the latest flap to win the stale ""-gate'' suffix. How the Clinton White House kept the confidential FBI files of more than 400 people began as a tale of bureaucratic bumbling. But Filegate could end up looking like the plumbers operation of Watergate lore. GOP investigators are probing to find out whether high-level White House officials tried to use the files to dig up dirt on their enemies or expose leaky employees.

THE INITIAL EXPLANATIONS OF-fered for Filegate are crumbling. The White House first claimed that it had been working from an outdated list of White House pass- holders supplied by the Secret Service. But testifying last week before Congress, Secret Service official Richard Miller stated, ""I have no idea where the list came from.'' Nor does the FBI. White House officials are no longer trying to explain. White House counsel Jack Quinn somewhat lamely argued last week that any internal inquiry by the White House would simply lead to charges of a cover-up.

White House aides do not try to disguise their lack of confidence in the two main figures of Filegate, personnel security chief Craig Livingstone and his old crony Anthony Marceca, a civilian investigator for the army who handled the FBI files at the White House. Livingstone, a onetime bouncer in a bar, has a reputation for bluster and for taking the political low road. Dennis Casey, a Democratic campaign consultant in Pennsylvania who worked with Livingstone on the 1984 Gary Hart campaign, told congressional investigators last week that Livingstone had offered dirt dug up on the supporters of Hart's opponent, Fritz Mondale. Casey told him to ""cut it out.'' When Casey ran into Livingstone's sidekick, Marceca, later that day in a restaurant, Marceca remonstrated, ""You've got to play hardball.'' Casey told Newsweek: ""These guys are sludge.''

Both Livingstone and Marceca are slated to testify under oath this week before Representative Clinger's committee. Investigators also want to examine the role of Bruce Lindsey, President Clinton's closest personal aide, longtime Arkansas chum and deputy White House counsel. Lindsey is already under pressure on another front: last week he was named as an ""unindicted co-conspirator'' in the Arkansas trial of two bank officials who are charged with illegally trying to siphon money into Governor Clinton's 1990 re-election campaign.

There are hints the blame in Filegate could go higher. Clinger's committee will also interrogate Gary Aldrich, a former FBI agent stationed at the White House who has publicly charged that Livingstone had demanded FBI investigations of White House staffers deemed to be ""disloyal'' to the First Family. Aldrich claims that Livingstone was under orders from Mrs. Clinton. Specifically, he says, Mrs. Clinton wanted to know who was leaking stories that she had thrown a lamp at President Clinton. Confirming at least parts of Aldrich's account last week was Chris Emery, a former White House usher who was fired from his job in early 1994 after being told that the First Lady disapproved of his speaking on the phone to her White House predecessor, Barbara Bush. (Emery says he was helping Mrs. Bush retrieve a lost file on her personal computer.)

The Clintons can hardly be blamed for wanting to ensure the discretion of their household staff. But misusing confidential FBI files is not the way to do it. Top White House aides are already under scrutiny by Whitewater prosecutor Kenneth Starr. Filegate only adds to the impression that they have something to hide.

Actually, most people simply assume that the White House is covering up. Polls generally show voters disbelieving White House explanations for Whitewater, Travelgate, Filegate and all the rest. But it isn't yet harming Clinton politically. The same polls show Clinton maintaining a strong 10- to 20-point lead over Bob Dole.

And to many women, Hillary Clinton is not a cold-eyed conspirator but a martyr. Last week 1,200 professional women clambered into a $250,000 fund-raiser for the Democratic Party in Boston to see Hillary speak. Women teetered on high heels standing on precarious plastic folding chairs to catch a glimpse of the First Lady as she worked the crowd. Is there anything to Whitewater? ""Noooo, she's just being bashed by the press,'' said Joan McGrath, a retired telephone worker. Why? ""A lot of people don't like a strong woman.''

To voters like McGrath, Hillary looks just the way she does to her philosopher friend, Dr. Houston -- as a Joan of Arc figure, persecuted for her righteous crusade.