Stuck In The Spin Cycle

The debut issue of Tina Brown's magazine Talk runs 254 pages. But page 174 made all the news. Hillary Clinton's startling assertion that her husband was "scarred by abuse"--and her apparent attempts to partly blame his philandering on his unhappy childhood--sent scandal-starved tabloids and talking heads into a gleeful feeding frenzy last week. Within hours after the article was "leaked" in time for the Sunday chat shows, talk about Hillary eclipsed talk about Talk. HILLARY BOMBSHELL: WHY I STUCK WITH BILL, said the New York Daily News. HE WAS AN ABUSED CHILD, SHE TELLS NEW MAG.

The pundits glommed on, attacking Mrs. Clinton for yet again trying to excuse the inexcusable. Aides scrambled to explain her remarks and make clear that the president hadn't actually been beaten as a child. But by then, the damage was done. On Wednesday Hillary herself issued a terse explanation. "Everyone is responsible for his or her behavior--including the president and all the rest of us," she said at a campaign stop in Jamestown, N.Y. She vowed not to answer reporters' questions about the subject again. "I've said all I'm going to say on that," she insisted.

The Clinton White House has a familiar ritual for responding to eruptions like this: deny, or at least rely on a hairsplitting reading of the coverage to say the press is misinterpreting; then counterattack. And so it was last week. The First Lady and her aides chided the press, insisting that anyone who read the Talk article would see that she wasn't excusing her husband's behavior, just trying to explain it. It was the first significant spin cycle in the First Lady's all-but-certain Senate race, and her reaction suggested she will use the damage-control reflexes in New York that the Clintons have honed through seven years of scandals in Washington.

The "abuse" story wasn't entirely new. Clinton biographer David Maraniss and the president's mother, Virginia Kelley, had recounted his hardscrabble youth in books. But Mrs. Clinton, who had always been tight-lipped about her marriage, seemed to add a new dimension. "There was terrible conflict between his mother and grandmother," she told journalist Lucinda Franks. "A psychologist once told me that for a boy being in the middle of a conflict between two women is the worst possible situation. There is always the desire to please each one."

Hillary hadn't intended to tell all to Talk. Back in February, when she agreed to give Franks close access for a wide-ranging magazine profile, she didn't even know where the story would be published. Franks told NEWSWEEK she had pursued the interview for more than two years, pitching the story as a "portrait of her as a whole woman" that would dispel stereotypes of the First Lady as cold and calculating. At the time Hillary was beginning to seriously mull a bid for the Senate, and knew she would have to answer uncomfortable questions, including why she had endured her husband's affairs. Over the next few months Franks interviewed Mrs. Clinton several times, and the First Lady became fond of the reporter, a Pulitzer Prize winner and fellow Chicagoan. After the two developed a rapport, Franks began nudging the First Lady to tell more about her marriage. But Hillary resisted. Then, on an early-morning flight from Belfast to London last May, Mrs. Clinton unexpectedly bared her soul. Speaking quietly so her ever-present aides couldn't overhear, Franks recalls, Hillary "haltingly" admitted what she'd previously told only her closest friends.

Hillary's staff was caught off guard by the First Lady's candor, only alerted to her quotes when a London paper called for comment in the middle of the night on Saturday. The next morning Hillaryland braced for the onslaught. "Sunday at the White House was not a pleasant day," says one insider.

Things only got messier when spin doctor James Carville decided to help his old friend Hillary. He offered to pay $100,000 to his alma mater, Louisiana State University, if anyone could prove that she "linked the president's sexual misconduct with his childhood." Typically, he hadn't bothered to clear the maneuver with Hillary's campaign team, which quickly moved to shut him up. Carville rescinded his offer after Franks publicly denied Mrs. Clinton had made the connection.

The move might have saved him some money. In the interview, Mrs. Clinton does come close to saying she believes her husband's infidelities can be traced back to his rough childhood. "He has been working on himself very hard in the last year," she says at one point. "He has become more aware of his past and what was causing this behavior."

As it turned out, the interview was just an appetizer for the rest of the week's Hillary dish. On Friday the tabs got another shot at the First Lady after The Forward, a Jewish weekly, reported that her maternal step-grandfather and his daughter were Jewish--facts she had never publicly disclosed. OY VEY! HILLARY'S ALMOST JEWISH, quipped the New York Post. Mrs. Clinton's weary staff explained that she hadn't considered it important enough. Some Republicans nonetheless accused her of leaking the story to pander to Jewish voters--which the reporter and the campaign denied.

Despite Hillary's travails, in the end it was the GOP that appeared nervous about the race. On Friday New York Gov. George Pataki joined former senator (and Hillary nemesis) Al D'Amato in embracing their longtime political foe, Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Until then, they had backed upstart candidate Rick Lazio, in part to irritate Giuliani. But polls last week showed Mrs. Clinton in a dead heat with Giuliani--and the Republicans decided it was time to unite against her. The GOP once laughed off Hillary's Senate aspirations. Now, they've begun to worry that the First Lady's campaign is more than just talk.

Stuck In The Spin Cycle | News