First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton launched a vigorous counterattack Tuesday on behalf of her husband’s beleaguered presidency, declaring that the president is the victim of a “politically motivated” prosecutor allied with a “vast right-wing conspiracy.”
Using a nationally televised interview as her forum, she assumed a familiar and crucial role as Bill Clinton’s first defender. She said she knows him better than anyone else in the world, still loves him and fully believes his denial of allegations that he had entered into a sexual relationship with a White House intern and then had urged the young woman to lie about it.
The first lady’s determined performance on NBC’s “Today” show dramatically reshaped the debate over the sex scandal that erupted last week and now threatens President Clinton’s political survival. Her words at once established a clear line of counterattack for Clinton’s loyalists, whose defense strategy until Tuesday had seemed confused if not halfhearted, boosted morale at the White House and drew a swift rebuttal from her main target, independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, who labeled the conspiracy claims “nonsense.”
While Hillary Clinton had nothing new to add to the president’s sketchy explanations of his relationship with the White House intern, Monica Lewinsky, she said she has talked to her husband at great length about the subject and is satisfied with his answers.
“I think, as this matter unfolds, the entire country will have more information, but we’re right in the middle of a feeding frenzy right now, and people are putting out rumor and innuendo,” she said. She urged the press and public “just to be patient, take a deep breath, and the truth will come out.”
Throughout the interview with Matt Lauer, the “Today” host, Hillary Clinton displayed the cool and unruffled style that has become her trademark in times of trouble. She easily and quickly diverted the toughest questions about her husband’s behavior, suggesting that his difficulties are either the “mean-spirited” imaginings of people out to get him or the unwitting misinterpretations of his garrulous and friendly personality.
When Lauer began a sentence by saying, “So where there’s smoke …” she quickly punctuated it with the negating variation of that turn of phrase: “There’s no fire.” In her version of events, even the first conversation that she and Clinton had about Lewinsky’s allegations seemed almost routine. She said the president had woken her up last Wednesday morning and said with a tone of bewilderment, “You’re not going to believe this, but …”
The decision to transform Clinton’s public defense into a rhetorical war with Starr and the political right wing was made at the White House in a series of meetings over the past four days, according to several administration sources. In every discussion in which she participated, the first lady was a leading advocate of an aggressive strategy attacking Starr, but it was not until her remarks Tuesday morning that they realized that counterattacking was their most effective choice and that she was their most effective weapon.
In the days after Lewinsky’s allegations - made in conversations tape-recorded by a friend - first surfaced, the White House seemed virtually paralyzed by an intense struggle between Clinton’s lawyers and political aides. The lawyers urged a cautious response because of the immense legal stakes, which included possible felony convictions or impeachment if it could be proved that Clinton asked the intern to lie about their relationship. His political advisers urged some sort of strong denial and counterattack.
With Hillary Clinton leading the way, the political side eventually won.
After a series of carefully worded denials that in their vagueness only prompted more questions, the president changed course on Monday. At a routine White House function on education, with his wife and Vice President Gore standing on either side of him, Clinton ended a short speech by gritting his teeth, tightening his face into an angry glare and stating, “I want you to listen to me! I’m going to say this again, I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky. I never told anybody to lie, not a single time. Never.”
White House aides said that the president had offered denials of similar intensity in several private meetings, and from that point, the mood of his loyalists began to change, and they began to consider more determinedly a full-bore plan of attack.
Hillary Clinton, as she has been at every point in his career, was at the center of that strategy. It was no accident that she would take it to Starr when she reached the “Today” set in New York Tuesday morning.
Even before Lauer’s questioning had turned to Starr, the first lady said that she was “very concerned about the tactics that are being used and the kind of intense political agenda at work here” - and she returned to that topic at every opportunity.
She said she was calm in the midst of the “firestorm” because she and her husband had become accustomed to spurious conspiracies concocted against them. “So having seen so many of these accusations come and go, having seen people profit, you know, like Jerry Falwell, with videos accusing my husband of murder, of drug-running, seeing some of the things that are written and said about him, my attitude is, you know, we’ve been there before. We have seen this before.”
She portrayed Starr as an obsessed prosecutor in league with Falwell and others on the far political right whose only mission has been to “undo” the results of the last two elections. She called Starr a “politically motivated prosecutor who is allied with the right wing opponents of my husband, who has literally spent four years looking at every telephone … call we’ve made, every check we’ve ever written, scratching for dirt, intimidating witnesses, doing everything possible to try to make some accusation against my husband.”
Starr, she said, was just part of what she called “an entire operation.”
Later in the day, Starr’s office denounced the first lady’s offensive as “nonsense.”