August 13, 1998
A THURSDAYChelsea brushed her newly permed hair away from her face, then turned to wave goodbye to her mother before leaving the White House to spend the evening with friends. Hillary Rodham Clinton, looking small and drained and vulnerable at the far end of the cavernous Center Hall in the second-floor family quarters, smiled back bravely. “Have fun,” the First Lady said wanly as the Stanford coed, shadowed by her ever-present Secret Service detail, stepped into the elevator that would take her downstairs to a waiting bulletproof sedan.
There was some comfort in having Chelsea home from Stanford University for the summer. Although a continent apart, the two women had nonetheless been riding the same emotional roller coaster for the better part of seven months — seven months during which the most important man in their lives swore to them and to the country that he had never had sexual relations with a twenty-two-year-old White House intern named Monica Lewinsky.
This time Hillary, all too aware of Bill Clinton’s past indiscretions as Governor of Arkansas, needed to believe him. During their six years in the White House, Bill and Hillary stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the face of Whitewater and Travelgate and Filegate and Vincent Foster and Paula Jones — not to mention a dizzying array of lesser scandals and investigations. In each case, in fact, it was Hillary who met with White House lawyers to devise strategies to discredit their accusers and mount counteroffensives.
To be sure, the sexual harassment lawsuit brought by former Arkansas state employee Paula Jones had made Hillary cringe. But the allegations — that he had lured Jones to his hotel room, lowered his pants, and then tried to coerce her into performing oral sex — dealt only with Bill’s behavior before he stepped onto the national stage. Besides, while Hillary knew that her husband had been unfaithful in Arkansas with a lounge singer named Gennifer Flowers, when it came to Paula Jones she believed Bill’s denials. Paula was merely a pawn of her husband’s political enemies, Hillary firmly believed. Over the fervent pleas of the President’s advisors, she adamantly opposed any out-of-court settlement in the Jones case — a fatal miscalculation that would ultimately lead to the Lewinsky debacle.
At the time it was inconceivable to Hillary that her husband would have reverted to his old ways — not here under the White House roof they shared, not with the Secret Service lurking in every corner, and certainly not now with the outcome of the Paula Jones lawsuit uncertain and Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr still breathing down their collective necks.
Although Hillary was blissfully unaware of it back then, things had begun to unravel on January 17 when the President gave his deposition in the Jones case. Judge Susan Webber Wright, wearing her best poker face, listened as Bill Clinton denied that he had ever had sexual relations of any sort with Monica Lewinsky. With some coaxing, he did vaguely recall buying one or two small gifts for the intern, but little about what she might have said to him in person or over the phone.
secretary, Betty Currie, and told her to come to the Oval Office the next morning. “Betty,” he said, “I want to have a little chat with you about Monica’s visits to my office.” As she hung up the phone, it occurred to Currie that in all the years she had worked for him, Bill Clinton had never prevailed on her to come to the White House on a Sunday — not during any of the budget showdowns, not after the Oklahoma City bombings, not following any natural disaster, not even during the dramatic brink-of-war confrontations with Saddam Hussein.
Hillary, meanwhile, needed to be told something. The First Couple canceled their dinner plans with White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, and Bill told Hillary what he hoped she would believe: that he had taken pity on a disturbed young friend of Currie’s, that he had tried to help her through some “emotional problems,” and in the process the poor deluded girl had convinced herself there was something more between them. As she had in the past, Hillary accepted what she was being told at face value and channeled her anxiety into something constructive: “We spent the weekend,” she later said with no hint of sarcasm, “cleaning out closets.”
The next day the President, as was his habit, kept Betty waiting for over an hour before emerging alone in shirtsleeves from the Oval Office to speak with her at her desk. She could tell that her boss, who kept his Vesuvian temper hidden from the public, was agitated: A vein in his forehead began to throb, and he drummed his fingers on her desk as he spoke.
“Well, they asked me several questions about Monica during the deposition yesterday,” he said, shaking his head. “Now, there are several things you may want to know.”
Currie had always willingly covered for her boss. But the little white lies to Hillary about the stream of attractive women in and out of his office was one thing. Lying under oath was quite another.
“You were always right there when she was there, right?” he said.
“Well, Mr. President, I’m not su — The President, standing by the desk, leaned toward her. “Right?”he demanded again. Curie, intimidated, nodded her head.
“We were never really alone,” the President continued. “Monica came on to me, and I never touched her. Right?”
Currie nodded again.
“You can see and hear everything, right?”Clinton went on. Currie kept nodding. “You know, Betty, she wanted to have sex with me, but I couldn’t do that.”
“No, Mr. President,” she replied. “No, you couldn’t.”
“Right. Now, get Monica on the phone,” he said, turning back toward the Oval Office. “I want to know what she’s up to.”
Currie tried four times to page Monica — all without success. The following morning she tried nine more times to locate Lewinsky — to no avail. Shortly before noon she told the President that Monica had returned none of her pages or calls. Clinton merely shook his head and sighed.
On Tuesday evening, January 20, 1998, shaken Press Secretary Mike McCurry called the President. McCurry held in his hand the lead story for the following morning’s edition of the Washington Post. He hesitated a moment before reading the headline to the President:
CLINTON ACCUSED OF URGING AIDE TO LIE
STARR PROBES WHETHER PRESIDENT TOLD WOMAN TO
DENY ALLEGED AFFAIR TO JONES’S LAWYERSThe President glanced at his watch. It was midnight. At 12:08 he placed a call to his personal lawyer, Robert Bennett. “I’m telling you, Bob,” he said, “it’s all lies. There was no sex of any kind, period.”
No sooner had he hung up the phone than Bill called Deputy White House Counsel Bruce Lindsey. A half hour later, at 1:16 on the morning of January 21, the President woke Betty Currie at home, warned her about the upcoming Washington Post article, and went over their story for a second time. Then he called Lindsey again…
It was 6 A.M. and still dark in New York City when Vernon Jordan, an influential Washington attorney and longtime presidential confidant, was jolted awake by the sound of his ringing phone. Jordan, who at the President’s behest had been trying to find Monica Lewinsky a job out of harm’s way in New York, listened as his old friend told him about the story appearing in that day’s Post — and that it was all “a damned lie.” At 7:14, Bill talked to Deputy White House Counsel Lindsey a third time.
Now Bill Clinton faced the most daunting task of all: telling his wife. Hillary had gone to bed shortly before 11 P.M., and had been sound asleep since then-blissfully ignorant of the breaking Post story and Bill’s frantic efforts to counteract it. It was not unusual for the First Lady to be unaware of her husband’s nocturnal activities; like their idols Jack and Jackie Kennedy, Bill and Hillary Clinton slept in separate bedrooms. In fact, the Clintons had not shared the same bedroom –much less the same bed — for at least seven years.
A copy of the newspaper with its damning front-page headline clenched tight in his left fist, the President made his way to “The Residence,” the First Family’s private quarters on the second floor. Bill walked purposefully past the Center Hall hung with Cassatt, Cezanne, and de Kooning, past the dark Lincoln Bedroom crammed with heavy American Victoriana and the rose-colored Queen’s Bedroom before stopping at the First Lady’s bedroom at the end of the corridor.
The President raised his hand to eye level and gently knocked on the door, then pushed it open slowly without waiting for an answer. He walked in and sat on the edge of the bed. It was only now that Hillary, like her husband a self-described “dead to the world” sleeper, began to stir.
“What is it?” she asked, propping herself up on one arm.
“Here,” Bill said, handing his wife the paper, “you’re never going to believe this.”
No sooner had she finished reading the article than Hillary flew into a rage. The President loudly proclaimed his innocence, and soon their angry shouts echoed down the corridor — a familiar sound to White House staffers and Secret Service agents assigned to cover the First Couple.
The heated exchange lasted only a few minutes. Hillary had always chosen to believe Bill in the past –now, with the very future of their presidency at stake, she had no choice but to convince herself once again that his denials were genuine. Once the anger had subsided, Bill asked his wife the same question he always asked when they were confronted with a crisis: “So, now what do we do?”
For the next twenty minutes, he quickly briefed her on his discussions that morning with Betty Currie, Vernon Jordan, and Bruce Lindsey. Bill and Hillary agreed that the President would have to go through with the three press interviews already scheduled for that day. But first, he would have to rally support from his inner circle of advisors.
Throughout the day, the presidential refrain to members of the White House staff never varied: “I want you to know that I did not have sexual relations with this woman, Monica Lewinsky” . . .”I haven’t done anything wrong”. . . “We never had sex in any way whatsoever — we did not have oral sex.”
Bill Clinton told one of his senior advisors, former New Yorker writer Sidney Blumenthal, that Monica’s friends called her “The Stalker.” As for himself, the President told Blumenthal he felt “like a character in a novel — like somebody who is surrounded by an oppressive force that is creating a lie about me and I can’t get the truth out.” Then, alluding to the hero of Arthur Koestler’s dark tale of an individual being relentlessly persecuted by the state, he added, “I feel like the character in the novel Darkness at Noon.”
Hillary would turn out to be her husband’s staunchest ally in what she called their “war” with Kenneth Starr. Believing blindly in Bill, she told a friend in California, “is the only way I can get through this. I have to believe what my husband says is true.”
Convincing herself of that would be a formidable task; Bill had lied to her so many times before about his extramarital affairs. Less than three hours after Bill woke her up and handed her the Washington Post story, Hillary boarded a train for Baltimore, where she was scheduled to give a speech on race relations at Goucher College. “She was upset,” said an Education Department official who accompanied the First Lady’s party on the trip. “But not visibly so. Just chilly and withdrawn. It was not an enjoyable train ride.”
The train had just pulled out of Washington when one of Hillary’s assistants received a call on her cell phone. “It’s the President,” she said warily, handing the phone to Mrs. Clinton. But instead of taking the call, Hillary pulled open a folder and began going over the notes for her speech.
“I… I’m afraid she can’t come to the phone right now, Mr. President,” the startled aide stammered. “May I take a message?”
The President did not leave a message, but he did call Hillary back — twice. “Hillary declined to take them,” said the administration official, “even though she was sitting next to the assistant holding the cell phone.”
At least one White House staffer would later concede that, at this juncture, “the President was very concerned — frantic would not be too strong a word — that Mrs. Clinton was not returning his calls.” If he was worried that his wife might doubt his version of events, the public saw no sign of it. His denials — first on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, then in an interview with Jim Lehrer on PBS’s The NewsHour, as well as in nonstop meetings with aides — were full of righteous indignation.
Yet he did allow the mask to slip when his longtime political advisor Dick Morris called. Credited with being largely responsible for Clinton’s election victories, Morris could appreciate his old friend’s predicament: He had been summarily dismissed from the 1996 reelection campaign when newspapers carried photographs of him lounging in a Washington hotel suite with a prostitute. Morris blamed the White House “secret police” — his enemies within the administration — for leaking confidential information regarding his sex life to the National Enquirer. But Morris did not hold the President responsible, and could be counted on to lend his old friend and benefactor a sympathetic ear.
“You poor son of a bitch,” Morris said. “I’ve just read what’s going on.
“Oh, God. This is just awful,” the President replied. “I didn’t do what they said I did, but I did something. I mean, with this girl, I didn’t do what they said.., but I did do. . . something.”
“Bill,” Morris said, ”what did — ”
“And I may have done enough,” the President continued, “so that I don’t know if I can prove my innocence. There may be gifts — I gave her gifts-and there may be messages on her answering machine.
Morris had never heard the President sound so despondent. Yet he did not see Bill’s position as hopeless. In fact Morris was convinced the President could even turn the situation to his political advantage. “There’s a great capacity for forgiveness in this country,” he said, “and you should consider tapping into it.”
“But what about the legal thing?” Bill asked. “You know, the legal thing? You know, Starr and perjury and all…”
Morris told the President point-blank that he understood his predicament perhaps better than anyone. “It occurs to me that maybe I’m the only sex addict you know,” he said, “and that maybe I can help you.”
“You know, ever since the election I’ve tried to shut myself down,” the President went on. “I’ve tried to shut my body down, sexually, I mean. But sometimes I slipped up and with this girl I just slipped up.”
“I know, I know,” Morris replied. “Addicts fall off the wagon. This is an addiction just like drugs or alcohol and you just have to recognize it and fight it.”
But Bill was also addicted to danger. A consummate risk-taker, he loved the thrill of putting himself in impossible situations and then, Houdini-like, miraculously extricating himself. As Governor of Arkansas, he had been so brazen as to walk up to desk clerks at major hotels around the country and boldly introduce himself.
“I’m Bill Clinton, the Governor of Arkansas,” he would say, “and I’m expecting an urgent phone call from the President of the United States. Would you make a suite available to me for a few hours so I can take the call in private?” Then he would have his girlfriend-of-the-moment join him inside the suite for a tryst. “He always got a big laugh out of hiding in plain sight,” said one longtime mistress. “It was all so in-your-face, yet nobody suspected a thing. Bill would say, ‘Isn’t this great? I don’t even have to pay for the room!'”
But now, in January 1998, the danger was greater — and the stakes so much higher — than they had ever been. Over the phone, Dick Morris suggested to the President there was a way out of his current dilemma. “Look, Bill, I think the American people will forgive you,” Morris said, trying to reassure his old friend. “Why don’t you let me take a poll on this? We’ll see what the mood is out there.”
There was a pause. “Yes,” the President said with a sigh. “Yes, go ahead and call me as soon as you get the results.”
Morris called up a research firm in Melbourne, Florida, and told them that the identity of the person who commissioned the poll would have to remain confidential. He would pay the $2,000 cost himself, and insisted that nothing be written down — he would take the results over the phone.
Part of the survey would test public reaction to a public apology by the President that Morris penned himself “For many, many years I have been personally flawed,” Morris’s speech for the President began, “and have had sexual relations outside my marriage…
That evening, the Clintons hosted more than one hundred guests at a White House Endowment Fund dinner. They emerged from their separate bedrooms and walked in stony silence to the elevator. As soon as the Marine Band struck up “Ruffles and Flourishes,” both the President and the First Lady lit up, in the words of one guest that night, “like someone had just plugged them into a wall socket. I watched them all night, and they were totally, I mean totally, charming –just so up and on all the time.”
They could not entirely ignore the headlines that transfixed the nation for days. “Thank you for coming out,” Hillary quipped. “It’s been SUCH an eventful week at the White House.” According to a journalist at the dinner, the Clintons were “radiant. You would not have had the slightest idea that the man was facing the biggest crisis of his presidency. But if you looked closely something else became obvious. Not once during the entire evening did the President and Mrs. Clinton actually speak to each other. Not once.”
That night, as had become their custom, Hillary went to bed around 11 while Bill returned to work in the Oval Office. Not long after, Dick Morris called with the results of his poll.
The results were not encouraging. Reading from his own hastily scrawled notes, Morris told the President that if he gave the speech Morris had written, 47 percent would want him out of office while 43 percent would want him to stay. The remaining 10 percent were undecided. Then Morris read the President the speech he had prepared for his friend.
“For many, many years I have been personally flawed and have had sexual relations outside my marriage. This has caused Hillary great pain and I have tried and tried to curb my behavior as I saw the pain it caused her. After I became President, I was determined to mend my ways. For the most part, I did, but sometimes I fell short and gave in to temptation. I did, in fact, have sexual relations with a twenty-three-year-old woman named Monica Lewinsky while I’ve been President. I regret my behavior more than I can say. I apologize for it. I take responsibility for it. I wish I were a better man and better able to cope with the pressures of life and work, and I am going to redouble my efforts to walk a straight line.
“When the allegations first surfaced I did, indeed, lie about them and urge Monica to lie.”
With this, Morris paused for a split second, anticipating that Bill would interrupt him with a “But that isn’t true.” But the President said nothing. Morris continued reading the speech.
“I was wrong. I am sorry for it. I am especially sorry for the pain I have caused my wife and daughter. If the American people want me to step down as President, I will do so. . .
Again, Morris expected an interruption, perhaps a “That goes too far.” Still, nothing. Morris continued reading.
“With a heavy heart, but I will do so. If they can forgive me and want me to continue to lead our great nation, I’ll do that, too. I’ve tried to be a good President and I think I’ve succeeded. I’ve tried to be a good husband, and I’m afraid I’ve sometimes failed. As President, as a repentant sinner and as a Christian, I ask your forgiveness, God’s forgiveness, and my wife and daughter’s forgiveness. My future is in your hands, my fellow Americans.”
To Morris’s astonishment, the President “was silent throughout the whole thing.”
When he broke down the results of the poll further, Morris came to the conclusion that it was not the affair the American people objected to, but the lying and the duplicity. “Well, Bill,” he said, “it seems the American people are willing to forgive you for adultery, but not for perjury or obstruction of justice.” Going public with a confession or explanation of any kind, Morris went on to explain, could spell disaster.
“Well,” Clinton replied, “we just have to win, then.” In this final battle for political survival, as in all the others, Bill would lean heavily on Hillary. Few others in Washington possessed her innate political savvy, or what she herself once called her “take no prisoners” approach to the opposition. She had always been particularly adept at concealing her emotions from the public. Yet when it was reported in the New York Times on January 23 that one of the gifts her husband had given Monica Lewinsky was a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Hillary, in the words of an aide, “appeared shaken.” In a voice tinged with heartache, Hillary said to no one in particular, “He gave me the same book — after our second date. . .”
Hillary’s doubts notwithstanding, there were still those stalwart FOBs (Friends of Bill) who were convinced he could, as Morris put it, “bluff it out.” The morning after watching Bill’s strained appearance on The NewsHour, the Clintons’ old Arkansas pal-turned-sitcom-producer Harry Thomason flew out to Washington and met with his old friend. He told the President point-blank that he was being “too wishy-washy. . . You should explain it so there’s no doubt in anybody’s mind that nothing happened,” Thomason insisted.
“You know, you’re right,” Bill concurred. “I should be more forceful than that.”
That Sunday, January 25, the Clintons went ahead with plans to invite a handful of friends to the White House to watch the Super Bowl. Among them was veteran civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, who sat on the couch next to Chelsea and, Hillary would later say, “bonded with her immediately. He made Chelsea laugh for the first time in a long time, and I was grateful for that.”
From the vantage point of Reverend Jackson — who quickly recognized the frisson between the President and the First Lady — it was apparent that Chelsea needed the extra attention. “She’s a very strong young woman,” Jackson recalled, “but she was obviously in terrible pain. I did what I could to cheer her up.” As for her parents: “The tension,” Jackson said, “was palpable.”
The American people were unaware that the President and First Lady were no longer speaking to each other when, on January 26, he stood at the presidential podium to deny once again that he had ever had an affair with Monica Lewinsky. This time, he was determined to follow Harry Thomason’s advice and be more forceful in his delivery.
“I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” he swore angrily as he wagged his finger into the camera, “I never told anybody to lie, not a single time, never.” Hillary, standing at the President’s right with her hands folded demurely in front of her, nodded in agreement.
The next morning Hillary, wearing a brown pantsuit, pearls, an American Eagle brooch, and a newfound air of righteous indignation, went on NBC’s Today Show to blast her husband’s critics. Back at the White House, the President held his right hand to his mouth and watched as his wife told interviewer Matt Lauer the entire affair was part of a “vast right-wing conspiracy” aimed at toppling the Clintons from power.
It was, in fact, a familiar refrain. “Whenever things got really rough,” said a former White House staffer, “Hillary always blamed it on dark forces conspiring to get them. It was almost Nixonian at times.” Indeed, throughout the Clintons’ public life in Arkansas and Washington, Bill and Hillary made repeated reference to the mysterious “them” — unnamed conspirators who would stop at nothing to sabotage Bill’s career.
Hillary’s conspiracy theory notwithstanding, Lauer persisted. “If an American President had an adulterous affair in the White House,” he continued, “and lied to cover it up, should the American people ask for his resignation?”
Hillary, shifting uneasily in her chair, conceded that the public had a right to be concerned, but Lauer pressed her again for an answer. “Should they ask for his resignation?”
“If all that were proven true,” Hillary said, “I think that would be a very serious offense. That is not going to be proven true.”
It was at that moment, according to Hillary’s longtime press secretary Neel Lattimore, that the President must have realized “he had not only betrayed her in their marriage, but also professionally, in a way that he’d never betrayed her before.” Unable to face the prospect of telling Hillary the whole horrific truth, he would have to continue the lying — publicly and privately.
His greatest ally in this deception was Hillary herself. To remain steadfast in her conviction that Bill had not repeatedly betrayed her with a White House intern only a few years older than their daughter, Hillary simply stopped reading the newspapers. Even the daily news summaries prepared by her staff were sanitized. Since entering the White House, Hillary had a standing rule about these digests. They were only to include hard news or issue -oriented pieces — no tabloid gossip, and definitely no sex. Now aides were under strict orders from the First Lady not to include anything about the Lewinsky scandal.
Hillary saw no reason why the same hear-no-evil, see-no-evil approach would not work for her daughter. She called Stanford and suggested to Chelsea that, for the time being at least, she should also stop reading the papers.
The next Wednesday, she called Chelsea again — this time to summon her back to Washington for a show of family unity. Sure, Chelsea told her mom. But first she planned to attend the big Thursday night game between the Stanford and University of Arizona basketball teams. She could catch the first flight out to Washington Friday morning and be at the White House in time for dinner.
But the President had other plans for his daughter. At his insistence, Chelsea flew home immediately so she could join her mom and dad at Camp David on Friday — time enough for the wire services to carry photos of the tender family reunion in the large-circulation weekend papers. No sooner had the all-important photos run on front pages across the country than Hillary boarded a plane for Switzerland and Bill headed for the golf course.
Back at Stanford Chelsea heeded the First Lady’s advice, turning a blind eye to the blizzard of news reports detailing her father’s extramarital activities. Nor did Chelsea have to worry about being hounded by the press or accosted by strangers. During their six years in the White House, the Clintons had simply forbidden the press to interview their daughter. Chelsea was so shielded from the media, in fact, that when she spoke to Tanzanian students on a tour of Africa with her mother, it came as a shock to most Americans. They realized that, after all her years in the White House, they were hearing Chelsea’s voice for the very first time.
At Stanford, the curtain around the First Daughter was drawn ever more tightly. No fewer than twenty-three Secret Service agents, most chosen for their youthful appearance so they could blend in with the Stanford student body, zealously guarded Chelsea’s privacy. That did not, however, keep Stanford swim team star Matt Pierce from walking up to Chelsea the first day of school and striking up a conversation with her. They began dating, and when the Lewinsky scandal broke Pierce became one of Chelsea’s main pillars of support.
But in the end there was no way to shield her from the endless stream of sordid revelations that threatened her father’s presidency and, more important for the teenage coed, her parents’ marriage. On May 19, she collapsed with severe stomach pains and was rushed to the campus hospital. After a battery of tests ruled out appendicitis, ulcers, or pelvic inflammatory disease, doctors came to the inevitable conclusion that the pains were brought on by stress.
Aware that any sign of doubt or weakness on Chelsea’s part might undermine the First Family’s business-as-usual profile, the White House issued a press release claiming Chelsea was simply suffering from the flu. In the coming months, as Hillary rightly worried about the impact the scandal was having on her daughter’s health, Chelsea would be rushed to the hospital suffering from stress-induced stomach pains at least three more times.
Chelsea’s trips to the hospital triggered a flood of painful memories for Hillary. Back in Little Rock, Hillary had looked the other way for years until Bill’s womanizing caught up with her one spring day. A few months earlier, a young Governor Clinton had attended an engagement party for the nephew of a wealthy supporter. No sooner had he arrived than Bill took the shocked host aside and pronounced the twentyish bride-to-be “hot.” That night, Bill seduced the young woman in front of her fiance, broke up the engagement, and over the course of several months led her to believe he intended to divorce Hillary and marry her.
When Hillary found out, one of her closest friends said, “something snapped.” She began hyperventilating and was rushed to the emergency room. “Hillary had always put up with his cheating,” said the friend, “but for some reason that particular affair came as a real slap in the face. It literally took her breath away, and she landed in the hospital with an anxiety attack. She told Bill back then, ‘This has to stop!’ and he promised he would. She believed him.”
Now, decades later, Hillary watched as Bill’s infidelity drove their only child to the hospital with bouts of anxiety. That May Hillary flew out to California to spend time with her daughter. The First Lady took Chelsea, her boyfriend Matt, and a few dorm mates to a restaurant for brunch. There her mother’s concern was evident in the way she showered affection on the eighteen-year-old. According to one of their waitresses that day, “Hillary kissed and hugged Chelsea openly all the time.”
Throughout that spring, Hillary called her daughter every other day to try to boost her spirits and reassure her that none of the stories about her father was true. It was nothing new to Chelsea; for as long as she could remember, she was taught that the world was divided into two camps: those who adored her father and those who wanted to destroy him.
The indoctrination of Chelsea Clinton had begun in earnest when she was only six years old. Before then, safe within the confines of the Governor’s Mansion in Little Rock, Hillary could “monitor” whatever the little girl saw or heard about her father. But once she reached school age and learned to read, the Clintons, facing what promised to be a particularly messy 1986 reelection campaign, took steps to prepare Chelsea so, in Hillary’s words, she would “not be surprised or overwhelmed if she heard someone say something nasty about her father.”
Daddy was going to run for governor again, Hillary announced over dinner. “If he wins,” she told a wide-eyed Chelsea, “we could keep living in this house.. .” But first, she went on, there would be a campaign during which Daddy’s enemies might say “terrible things” about him. “They might even lie,” she went on, “just so people will vote for them instead of Daddy.”
Hillary later recalled that Chelsea “struggled” with the idea that a politician might lie. “Why would they do that?” she asked again and again.
“I’ll tell you what,” Hillary said. “Why don’t we play a game. You be Daddy and tell me why we should vote for you for governor.
Chelsea paused for a moment before suddenly turning serious. “I’m Bill Clinton,” she said, “I’ve done a good job and I’ve helped a lot of people. Please vote for me.”
Pleased with herself, Chelsea waited for her parents to shower her with praise. Instead, her father leaned forward, scowled, and wagged a bony finger in her face. “Well, Bill Clinton,” he said, “I think you have done a lousy job. You’ve raised taxes, and you haven’t helped people at all. Why, you are a very mean man, and I am NOT voting for the likes ofyou.”
With that, Chelsea dissolved in tears. “Why would anybody say things like that?” she wanted to know. Her tears aside, this strange drill continued over the dinner table for weeks. Like two lawyers playing devil’s advocate to prepare their star witness for cross-examination, Bill and Hillary peppered Chelsea with questions and insults until she was numb. “Our role-playing,” Hillary would later explain, “helped Chelsea to experience, in the privacy of our own home, the feelings of any person who sees someone she loves being personally attacked.”
As the exercise progressed over the coming weeks, Hillary watched proudly as Chelsea gradually gained “mastery over her emotions” — a degree of self-control that often seemed to mirror her mother’s own.
For the next six years, Chelsea merely shrugged aside whatever negative remarks were made about her parents. But when Bill entered the presidential race in 1992, Hillary took their daughter aside for another heart-to-heart chat. “Before this is over,” Hillary warned Chelsea, “they’ll attack me, they’ll attack you, they’ll attack your cat, they’ll attack your goldfish.”
Outfitted in his-and-hers power suits, their hair meticulously coiffed, Bill and Hillary looked every centimeter the power couple of the nineties when they moved into the White House in January 1993. But since Chelsea had always been shielded from public view, little attention had been paid to her appearance. To the requisite braces and blemishes that are the hallmarks of awkward adolescence, Chelsea added frizzy hair and an unfortunate wardrobe. NBC’s Saturday Night Live wasted no time taking aim at the First Daughter. Wearing braces, a frizzy wig, and pimples supplied by the makeup department, cast member Julia Sweeney did a devastating send-up of Chelsea. Mike Myers and Dana Carvey, meanwhile, made less-than-flattering comparisons between Chelsea and the beautiful blond daughters of Vice-President Al Gore.
“I’m going to do everything I can to help Chelsea be strong enough so she doesn’t let what other people say about her affect her,” Hillary told a reporter. “We can’t control anybody else.”
The cruel jokes soon subsided — in large part because Chelsea was, for all intents and purposes, pulled from public view and enveloped in the protective cloak of the White House. But now, at eighteen, she was no longer living an isolated, insulated existence within the walls of the Executive Mansion. Away from the Clinton Court for the first time in her young life, she was exposed to all the blistering accusations being leveled at her father. As she made one trip after another to the emergency room doubled over with unexplained stomach pains, one thing had become glaringly clear: Chelsea Clinton, despite her parents’ best efforts at thickening her skin, was no longer master of her emotions.
That spring of 1998, Hillary was phoning her daughter daily to bolster her spirits. The President also called Chelsea and chatted with her at least once a week. Yet when she returned to the White House in June, Chelsea was stunned to discover that she, too, had been fooled by her parents’ public display of unity. Hillary was not only giving her husband the silent treatment, she was refusing to cooperate in shaping his defense. Despite repeated pleas from Bill, the First Lady abruptly stopped meeting with the White House legal team.
Amid press reports of oral sex in the Oval Office and Monica Lewinsky’s semen-stained blue Gap dress that surfaced in July, Chelsea sided with her mother. And like the First Lady, Chelsea now refused to speak to her father at all.
Late that month, Chelsea and her mother arrived at a popular Washington restaurant for dinner with friends. As they made their way to their table toward the rear of the restaurant, one patron rose from her table to applaud, then another and another until the entire restaurant was standing on its feet and cheering the two women. Hillary and Chelsea smiled and waved as they sat down, but it was clearly an uncomfortable moment for the First Lady. She knew all too well why she and her daughter were being cheered, and hated the idea that her husband’s infidelity had now transformed her into an object of pity.
As Chelsea left on this muggy evening in August for a night out with friends, her mother walked to her bedroom and waited for her husband. For two weeks now, it had been a foregone conclusion that the President would be forced to admit to a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky when he testified before Kenneth Starr’s grand jury on August 17.
The turning point had actually come exactly two weeks earlier, on August 3, when two of Kenneth Starr’s deputies arrived at the White House with a medical technician. With his lawyers looking on, the President rolled up his left sleeve, made a fist, and joked as a needle was inserted and blood drawn from his arm. At that moment, Bill Clinton knew that the DNA sample he was providing would link him inexorably with the semen stain on Lewinsky’s blue dress.
On August 12, the President called his old friend and advisor Dick Morris and tried out a confession on him. In a bizarre attempt to shift at least some of the blame to the opposition, he would say he was under such mental strain following the 1995 government shutdown caused by the Republicans that he slipped and had an “improper” relationship with Lewinsky — and that he was profoundly ashamed of his behavior.
Now, on August 13, a Thursday, Bill made the long and lonely journey from the Oval Office to Hillary’s bedroom. There was no longer any way he could keep the truth from her. It had all been true. Although he still insisted that he had never actually had sex with Lewinsky — according to Clinton’s definition sex meant only intercourse — he had crossed the line. Bill would not go into the details, but he admitted that he had lied all along. As the First Lady sat on the edge of her bed in stunned silence, the President of the United States got down on his knees and, weeping, begged her forgiveness.
Much of what transpired next between Bill and Hillary Clinton was plainly audible to Secret Service agents and household staff members down the hall. In the past, Hillary had thrown books and an ashtray at the President — both hitting their mark. This time, he would later tell one of his oldest political confidants, Hillary rose to her feet and slapped him across the face — hard enough to leave a red mark that would be clearly visible to Secret Service agents when he left the room.
“You stupid, stupid, stupid bastard,” Hillary shouted. Her words, delivered at the shrill, ear-splitting level that had become familiar to White House personnel over the years, ricocheted down the corridor. “My God, Bill, how could you risk everything for that?”
But it was not in the nature of Bill Clinton to remain silent in the face of his wife’s fury. He fought back, loudly arguing, as he would to the grand jury, that he had not slept with Monica Lewinsky and therefore had not committed adultery. What he did with Monica Lewinsky — including fellatio, fondling, and phone sex- was not, by Clinton’s narrow definition, sexual activity. “I did not lie to you about that!” he could be heard shouting through the door. “I said I didn’t have sex with that woman, and I didn’t!”
The screaming continued for a few moments, and then seemed to end as abruptly as it had begun. Spent emotionally and physically, Hillary sank back onto the bed. “How,” she asked numbly, “are we going to tell Chelsea?”
Chelsea had taken her cue from her mother and stopped reading the newspapers altogether. But there was no way either woman could avoid feeling the reverberations from the New York Times story that ran Friday morning. The front-page article quoted high-ranking White House sources as saying that the President was about to admit to his affair with Lewinsky. Still, Mom and Dad could not bring themselves to sit down with their daughter and tell her the whole truth — not yet.
Hillary would have to summon all her acting skills to get through the next day. “Anyone who thinks Hillary knew what happened before the two of them had their conversation wasn’t there that weekend,” said an old friend, Harry Thomason’s wife and business partner, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason. “The second floor of the White House was a somber place.” Although she knew that Bill had no choice but to confess that he had lied about his relationship with Lewinsky, Hillary needed to buy her husband and herself some time to find a way out. She had led him to safety countless times before, and she would do it again. But she needed time. . .
For the moment at least, she would tell friends who called that there was simply no truth to the Times report. She instructed her lawyers to tell the press the same thing: Her husband was not about to confess a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky.
That Friday afternoon, the First Lady grudgingly went ahead with plans to throw Bill a surprise fifty-second birthday party. She had little choice: The event had been leaked to the press days earlier. Still, since his birthday was not until August 19 — still five days away — the President could pretend that he was genuinely surprised when he walked out onto the South Lawn with Hillary at his side and the Marine Band struck up “Happy Birthday.”
Those in the crowd who understood Hillary knew at once that something was wrong. Guests whispered among themselves that the First Lady looked exhausted, emotionally spent. Her body language toward the President left little doubt about her feelings toward him. “I thought they’d just had one of their fights in the residence,” said one of the birthday guests. “She was so cold that all of us felt frostbitten. I look back on it and I see one very hurt lady. She barely spoke to us.”
As Hillary stood by, her face as expressionless as an Inca mask, Bill muttered a few words of thanks to the crowd and then leaned over to blow out the candles on his birthday cake. “I wished,” he later said of the moment, “that it would all just go away.”
The next day, the President canceled his weekend golf game and holed up in the Oval Office. There, huddled with his lawyers, he got down to the business of crafting his grand jury testimony. Chelsea retreated to her room, where she spent hours on the phone pouring out her heart to boyfriend Matt Pierce. Hillary also locked herself in her room and refused to speak to anyone except her mother, Dorothy Rodham.
As always Mrs. Rodham, who had once dreamed of her daughter becoming the first woman to sit on the United States Supreme Court, urged Hillary to go on the offensive in support of her husband. Given all that was at stake, there was never really any question that she would.
On Sunday morning, the Clintons smiled and waved for photographers as they walked up the stone steps leading into Foundry United Methodist Church. As they emerged, she made a point of holding his hand. Back in the White House two hours later, she launched into a nonstop series of strategy sessions designed to thwart the special prosecutor and save her husband’s presidency. It was, she proclaimed at the first meeting of the day, to be nothing less than “all-out war.”
“It was classic Hillary,” recalled another Clinton aide. “She was putting all her resources into the political battle and putting everything else aside.” According to one of her Arkansas friends, “Hillary didn’t want Ken Starr to kill her husband. She wanted him alive so she could do it later.”
Bill was too consumed with his own troubles to appreciate how, in the words of one of her Stanford confidants, Chelsea was “destroyed” by her father’s stunning admission of infidelity. Contrary to what he would soon tell the American people, the President did not ask his daughter’s forgiveness.
“President Clinton did not apologize to Chelsea. He did not even talk to Chelsea about the Monica Lewinsky thing, and Mrs. Clinton was too angry and humiliated to do it. So Chelsea was more or less left to fend for herself She wound up getting the news from TV like everyone else.”
In meetings with his chief strategists that crucial weekend, it was decided that the only way for the President to contain the scandal was to portray it as strictly a private matter — “not a presidential issue,” said one longtime Democratic official, “but a personal one.” Even before the President made his public confession, the public would have to be afforded a behind-the-scenes glimpse of a contrite husband and father trying to make things right with his family.
At this propitious moment, Jesse Jackson called Chelsea at the White House and asked if he could be of help. The Reverend had called Chelsea at Stanford several times since the Super Bowl, and the two had prayed over the phone. This time, the voice at the other end of the line trembled with emotion. “Things are really rough for my mom and dad right now,” she said, fighting back tears. “Would you be able to come over tonight and pray with us?”
That night Jackson, a stalwart Clinton supporter, continued his spirited defense of the President live on CNN. As soon as he was off the air at 10:30, the Reverend was whisked by government limousine to the White House. A Secret Service agent escorted him directly to the private quarters on the second floor.
Hillary and Chelsea, both wearing sweat clothes — their normal Sunday-evening-at-home attire met Jackson in the Center Hall. Their faces were drawn, and it was obvious to Jackson that they had both been crying. The three shared a group hug, then walked somberly down the Center Hall to the Yellow Oval Room.
Later describing both women as “devastated,” Jackson wasted no time in comforting them. He began by pointing out that even the greatest heroes of the Bible had yielded to temptation. “You ask how can Bill with all his power make this mistake,” Reverend Jackson said. “Well, how could King David make it? David was a child prodigy. Slew Goliath. Israel’s greatest king. And a talented musician, just as Bill is. And yet he became weak when he saw Bathsheba. Samson, with all of his strength and abilities, in the face of Delilah, he succumbed to the flesh.”
Jackson went on to tell Chelsea and her mother that “one’s faith is only truly put to the test when you are forced to walk through the storm. And that is what this is all about: faith. Faith and unconditional love.”
Shortly before midnight, the President walked in, shook Jackson’s hand, and thanked him for coming. “I mean, face it,” Jackson said of Clinton, “he is embarrassed by what happened, and Hillary has had to face the humiliation of it all.” Once again, Jackson found a biblical parallel. “What’s different here is that Ken Starr is able to play God with government funding.”
Hillary, taken by surprise, shrieked with laughter. If anything, she hated Starr with a passion unmatched even by her husband. “Where on earth,” she asked, “did you get that one?”
Bill was not quite so amused. The family needed healing from the Lord, he said gravely. But apparently not the President. He left immediately for a meeting in the third-floor solarium with Harry Thomason, who again took time off from running his television production empire to come to the aid of his embattled friend.
Before excusing himself, Clinton leaned over to Jackson and asked him to stay and talk one-on-one with Chelsea. “I think she’s confused by the whole situation,” the President said. “If you could just let her know that these things happen…” Hillary then went off to bed, leaving Jackson behind for that quiet chat with Chelsea.
“Of course, at the age of nineteen or twenty, she knows about sex,” Jackson said. “She’s seen videos, watched television, listened to music. She knows what is expected in marriage, and knows what, in fact, happens.”
Jackson started out by comparing Chelsea’s parents to Adam and Eve. Their decision to defy God and take that bite of forbidden fruit started the very first cover-up, Jackson explained. “The moral here is,” he told Chelsea, ” ‘You should have stopped talking to the snake in the first place!’
While Jackson tried to explain to Chelsea that God “is merciful and will forgive your father’s sins,” the President and Thomason discussed the proper tone for his confession to the American people. In January, before Monica Lewinsky was given immunity to testify against Bill and before the world learned of the existence of physical evidence — a dress stained with his semen — it was Thomason who urged his friend to be more unequivocal in his denials. Now Thomason was urging him not to be too contrite when he gave his televised address, and not to hesitate going after his chief tormentor, Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr.
Again he heeded Thomason’s advice. “You’re right,” Bill said, his anger building. “That son of a bitch Starr has gone too far. The American people know this has been a goddamn partisan witch-hunt from the very beginning.” He slammed his fist on the table, and Thomason, who after all these years still found Bill’s rages unnerving, flinched. The White House staff had a name for these frequent tantrums, artfully concealed from the outside world but so familiar to those who worked with Clinton. They called these presidential outbursts “purple fits.”
While the President yelled and cursed one floor above, Chelsea and Jackson joined hands, bowed their heads, and prayed. Before he left, the Reverend took Chelsea aside and asked if she’d be all right.
When she nodded, he took her hand. “You have an important responsibility now,” he said. “It will be your mission to lift your dad up.
“I love my father,” she said, trying to smile. “I’ll handle it.”
“I know you will,” he replied. “I know you will.” Jackson left the White House that night no less convinced that the First Lady, though clearly wounded and angry, would survive. “Hillary has been humiliated by all this,” he said, “but her strength is just amazing. . . I think what’s most important is that Chelsea and Hillary are standing with him and I suppose if that strength were not there, he would really be in bigger trouble.”
The next day at precisely 12:59 P.M., Bill Clinton walked into the White House Map Room. In her room two floors directly above, Chelsea sobbed over the phone to her Stanford boyfriend Matt Pierce.
The chronically late President, who routinely kept congressional leaders and cabinet members alike waiting an hour or more, had actually arrived one minute before his testimony to the grand jury was scheduled to begin. The jurors themselves were actually across town watching on closed circuit television. But Starr and his staff of six prosecutors had already taken their positions opposite the President and were waiting with their notes spread out before them.
Before they could ask a single question, however, the President read a carefully scripted preemptive statement. In it, he conceded an “inappropriate” relationship with Monica Lewinsky, nothing more. Then the barrage began. A surprisingly testy Clinton spent hours parsing his testimony in the Paula Jones case, insisting he had not committed perjury when he denied having sex with Monica Lewinsky because he did not consider what transpired between them –fellatio, fondling, mutual masturbation, obscene phone calls — to fall under his or the court’s definition of sex.
As Starr and his team began to bore in, demanding more specific answers to what the President did or did not do with Lewinsky, he simply invoked his right to privacy and refused to answer. While the President artfully dodged his questioners, a group of his advisors were in the office of White House Counsel Charles Ruff going over the text of Clinton’s speech scheduled for broadcast that night.
Political strategist Paul Begala had spent the weekend writing a speech –what aides called the “remorse draft” — that pointedly reframed from making any reference to the special prosecutor. But now Begala, senior advisor Rahm Emanuel, Commerce Secretary Mickey Kantor, and a half-dozen other top aides were handed the draft reworked by the President himself — a carefully couched acknowledgment of wrongdoing followed by a blistering attack on Starr.
About two hours before he was to go in front of television cameras and speak to the nation, Clinton met with his inner circle, again in the solarium. This time Hillary, having a bigger stake in the outcome than anyone with the exception of her husband, sat in. Another of her husband’s advisors, administration hard-liner Sidney Blumenthal, took time out from his European vacation to fax the First Lady a series of speeches for her husband to deliver, each more strident than the last.
“Mrs. Clinton was always very outspoken at staff meetings,” said one of those present when she walked into the solarium. “She often had more to say than the President — and believe me, she didn’t mince words or worry about hurting people’s feelings.” This strategy session was no exception. As soon as she entered the solarium, Hillary made it clear that she wanted her husband to take on Starr. No matter that the allegations were true — that the President had had an affair with Lewinsky and lied about it — no one would have known had it not been for Starr’s relentless pursuit of her husband. “They have persecuted us from the beginning,” she said. “The worst thing you can do now is roll over and play dead. Bill, you have got to come out and hammer Ken Starr.”
But Begala and the others continued to plead with the President not to attack. He would have none of it. “No other special prosecutor would have dared to pry into the personal life of the President,” Clinton said indignantly. “This guy has been out to get me from the beginning, and this is my chance to let the people know it. Besides, there are a lot of people who hate Starr, and I want to talk to them.”
His advisors persisted, trying to convince Bill that what the American people wanted to hear now was an apology. Clinton’s own lawyers joined in the chorus, urging him to delete the caustic references to Starr. Finally Hillary, who seven months earlier had blamed the whole mess on a “right-wing conspiracy,” stood up to leave. “It’s your speech,” she told her husband bluntly. “You say what you want to say.”
That Monday night he said what they both wanted to say. After showering and changing from his brown suit into a new blue suit and tie — like his idol John F. Kennedy, Clinton wears as many as three freshly pressed suits per day-the President walked to the dimly lit Map Room at 9:40 P.M. At first he seemed relaxed, and even cracked a few jokes with his aides. But as one aide watched the President rehearse his speech, shoulders slumped as he mouthed the words everyone hoped would stave off impeachment, he noted that Bill Clinton looked “deflated, humbled — like a boy who had just been scolded by his mother.”
The President took his seat before the cameras, and Begala affixed the microphone to his boss’s tie as the countdown to airtime began. Then Bill Clinton clasped his hands before him and, with all the earnestness of his earlier denials, offered an apology of sorts to the American people.
Upstairs, Chelsea stayed alone in her room while her mother watched the speech with several aides. Hillary’s face betrayed not the slightest trace of emotion — not even when he seemed to be apologizing directly to her.
“Good evening,” the President began. “This afternoon in this room, from this chair, I testified before the Office of Independent Counsel and the grand jury.
“I answered their questions truthfully, including questions about my private life, questions no American citizen,” he added grimly, “would ever want to answer… Indeed,” he went on to confess, “I did have a relationship with Ms. Lewinsky that was not appropriate. In fact, it was wrong. It constituted a critical lapse in judgment and a personal failure on my part for which I am solely and completely responsible. . . I misled people, including even my wife,” he said. “I deeply regret that.”
After veering off track to say Starr’s investigation had “gone on too long, cost too much, and hurt too many innocent people,” he once again invoked Hillary and Chelsea. “Now, this matter is between me, the two people I love most — my wife and our daughter — and our God. I must put it right, and I am prepared to do whatever it takes to do so.
“Nothing is more important to me personally. But it is private, and I intend to reclaim my family life for my family. It’s nobody’s business but ours. Even Presidents have private lives… Our country has been distracted by this matter for too long, and I take my responsibility for my part in all of this. This is all I can do. Now it is time — in fact, it is past time — to move on.
With that, Hillary jumped to her feet and applauded the screen. “Yes!”she said. “That’ll show them.” The President was no less elated. “I think it went well, don’t you?” he asked no one in particular. “Yes,” Clinton went on, “it’s time we put an end to this. The American people are fed up with this shit. . .”
The speech had lasted barely four minutes, but the President’s advisors knew instantly that the political damage wrought in those four minutes was incalculable. To complicate matters, in the hours before the speech Hillary had instructed her husband’s staff to call Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill and reassure them that Bill’s testimony before the grand jury had come off without a hitch. No sooner had Clinton lumbered out of the darkened Map Room than his advisors began talking damage control.
Even they were not prepared, however, for the tsunami-sized backlash. Minutes after the broadcast, members of both parties rushed before the television cameras to voice their disappointment over Clinton’s failure to tender what the public wanted — an unequivocal apology to the nation. Veteran Republican Senator Orin Hatch, who had angered members of his own party by suggesting that a simple confession would probably bring an end to talk of impeachment, lashed out at the President. “Wasn’t that pathetic,” he said of Clinton’s attack on Starr. “I tell you, what a jerk.” Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein was no less angry. “My trust in his credibility,” she said, “has been badly shattered.”
Even old friends like former White House senior advisor George Stephanopoulos and ex-Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers were profoundly disappointed in their old boss. Stephanopoulos said he shared with friends that had remained behind at the White House a sense of “deep disillusionment.” Concurred Myers: “He had this one chance to make things right. Now I’m afraid it’s too late.” Another former advisor, veteran Washington insider David Gergen, blasted Bill for listening to his wife and urged him to “start thinking about the country instead of trying to save his marriage and his own fanny. . . Self-indulgence has been in the saddle too long and is taking him over a cliff.”
Nowhere was the feeling of bewilderment and betrayal stronger than among Clinton’s political allies — from cabinet members to White House aides — who had put their careers on the line for him. Yet there were no immediate apologies to staff members; these would come only two days later, after Clinton read in the New York Times that he had supposedly called in several key staff members and begged their forgiveness. “It was hard to imagine how he could do this to us,” White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry admitted, “and how he could be so incredibly reckless . . .”
Not long before, the President had had his frisky Labrador retriever puppy, Buddy, sterilized by the White House vet. “It looks,” said one angry staffer, “like they neutered the wrong member of the family.”
Incredibly, the First Couple seemed all but oblivious to the hurt feelings of those around them — and to the nearly unanimous negative reviews. “They were as pleased as could be about the speech,” said one staff member. “They felt they’d been pulling their punches for months, and now they just came out of their corner swinging. It didn’t seem to matter at all that the President of the United States had just confessed adultery with an intern just a few years older than his own daughter, and that he’d been lying about it to us — not to mention the American people — for seven months.”
Even odder, said one observer, was the way in which the President and the First Lady were galvanized by their mutual hatred for Ken Starr. “The only thing that seemed to bring Bill and Hillary together at this point,” said one staffer, “was sheer rage — their pent-up frustration over Starr and all those right-wingers they kept saying were out to get them.”
The euphoria of the moment passed quickly. They had no idea what to expect from Kenneth Starr’s upcoming report to Congress, and Hillary could be certain from past experience that Bill had not told her everything.
The next day, the Clintons were to depart for a long-scheduled stay on Martha’s Vineyard, one of their favorite vacation spots. There was concern that the First Lady, having just been humiliated on a scale that could only be described as unprecedented, would now bow out of the trip entirely. When a Clinton aide asked the Hillary camp if the First Lady would at least be willing to issue a statement saying she had forgiven her husband, Mrs. Clinton exploded. “For God’s sake, do they have any idea how I feel? Tell them not to pressure me!” she snapped. “I’ll do it when I decide it’s time, not when my husband decides.”
Shortly after 11, Hillary went to Chelsea’s room, but the door was locked. She then returned to her own room down the hall to sort out her own feelings of anger and self-doubt. “Hillary got mad at Bill, but then she did her own soul-searching,” recalled a friend who had known Hillary since they were teenagers. “She asked herself, ‘What do I owe him? What couldn’t I feel? What couldn’t I do? What couldn’t I give him?’
Bill was disdainful of such self-examination. But he wasted no time appointing his personal “accountability group” — a trio of pastors who would visit him once a week in the White House to pray, read Scripture, and basically lead him down the road to moral redemption. One of these, Gordon MacDonald, brought his own expertise to the assignment; a former adulterer, he was forced out of his ministry after it was discovered he had been having an affair with a member of his congregation.
Before they accepted the assignment, the three Protestant clergymen wanted to know if Hillary approved of the plan. “Approve?” one aide later asked incredulously. “Hell, it was Hillary’s idea.” Indeed, at one of the strategy meetings held over that fateful weekend, it was the First Lady who most strongly advocated depicting the President’s transgressions as a purely private matter — a matter for which the family would seek spiritual counseling. Clinton’s “God Squad,” as the trio of ministers was quickly dubbed by skeptics, was reassured that Hillary approved of them wholeheartedly.
They were also told that they were not to invite the First Lady to participate. “Mrs. Clinton,” one of the clergymen said, “did not want to be part of our counseling sessions, period.”
During his first weekly session with the God Squad, Bill took out the Bible he always kept on hand and read his favorite passage from Isaiah: “And I shall run and not grow weary . . .” A few weeks later, when it looked as if he would miss Sunday services at the Foundry United Methodist Church, the President phoned Foundry pastor J. Philip Wogamon and asked him to deliver his sermon over the phone. “There’s a Sunday morning Bill,” Dick Morris had observed, “and a Saturday night Bill.”
God’s forgiveness was one thing. But Hillary’s initial reluctance to back her husband after his confession to the nation had the President’s staff worried. They breathed a collective sigh of relief on Tuesday morning when, just before leaving for their family vacation on Martha’s Vineyard, Hillary’s office issued a statement she herself had agonized over for hours. Her press secretary, Marsha Berry, conceded that “clearly, this is not the best day in Mrs. Clinton’s life.” But, the statement went on, “this is a time that she relies on her strong religious faith. She’s committed to her marriage and loves her husband and daughter very much and believes in the President, and her love for him is compassionate and steadfast. She clearly is uncomfortable with her personal life being made so public but is looking forward to going on vacation with her family and having some family time together.”
Indeed, the concept of family — specifically Hillary’s desire to hold hers together at all costs — played the largest part in Hillary’s decision not to, as one friend advised her, ‘just pack up and get the hell out of there.”
To be sure, she was still devoted to Bill as a public figure, and continued to believe that she, too, would have a role in shaping history. But for Hillary, whose own mother endured what she called a “horrific” childhood after her parents separated, divorce was never an option — not after the birth of Chelsea. “My strong feelings about divorce and its effects on children,” she conceded, “have caused me to bite my tongue more than a few times during my own marriage and to think instead about what I could do to be a better wife and partner. My husband has done the same… People with children need to ask themselves whether they have given a marriage their best shot and what more they can do to make it work before they call it quits.”
Still, as the First Family walked across the South Lawn toward the waiting marine helicopter, it was Chelsea — not her parents — who literally held the family together. As they walked out of the White House, the President extended his hand to the First Lady. Hillary not only refused to take it, she refused even to look at the man who had just confessed to the world that he had been cheating on her. Seizing the moment, Chelsea grabbed her mother’s right hand and her father’s left hand. Then, holding her head high and flashing a megawatt grin, she literally led her estranged parents toward Marine One. Her father also smiled broadly for photographers, all the while trying to rein in Buddy with his right hand. But Hillary was not smiling for the cameras. She turned her face away from them, her eyes, red and swollen from crying, concealed behind dark glasses.
Later, aboard Air Force One en route to Martha’s Vineyard, Hillary stayed locked behind closed doors with Chelsea while her husband worked on the New York Times crossword puzzle. When he reached 46 Down-a four-letter word meaning “meal for the humble” — he leaned back and shook his head. “Well, here’s one,” he said ruefully, “that’s appropriate for today.” Then he penciled in the answer: CROW.
When they arrived at Martha’s Vineyard, Vernon Jordan, the man who had helped Monica Lewinsky find a job allegedly in exchange for her silence, was waiting on the tarmac. Jordan greeted all three Clintons with smiles and bone-crunching hugs, then led them to the crowd of well-wishers waving placards that read MV LOVES BILL and WELCOME BACK. The President and his wife kept their distance from each other, and seemed to be going through the motions as they worked the line.
Chelsea, on the other hand, waded into the crowd like a seasoned pro, stopping to thank well-wishers for their support and even kneeling down to chat with their children at eye level. “Chelsea took it upon herself to be the emissary,” said family friend Rose Styron, “and she was terrific. She made everyone feel great.”
“It was pretty obvious that Chelsea was trying to take up the slack,” agreed one of the local officials who had turned out to greet the President. “She had assumed the role of family cheerleader, and in the process managed to get the focus off her parents, who were definitely not even looking at each other, much less talking to each other.”
The mood was no different once they reached their vacation cottage” — a nineteenth-century shingled mansion on twenty waterside acres belonging to wealthy developer Richard Friedman. When he checked in to see how his guests were doing, Friedman was surprised to find the President alone in the backyard, playing fetch with Buddy. “Hillary and Chelsea were inside,” observed a local reporter who had staked out the house. “It was as if he was afraid to go inside and face the music.”
Less than a full day later, the White House announced U.S. missile attacks on terrorist bases in Sudan and Afghanistan, and Bill seized the opportunity to return to Washington. Before he rejoined his family, Clinton told his staff to make sure that either Hillary or Chelsea — preferably both — would be on hand to greet him when his plane landed. When he emerged from Air Force One, neither his wife nor his daughter was there to meet him. “The President was livid,” said a staffer. “It didn’t look good, and he knew it.”
For the next several days, Bill and Hillary spoke barely a syllable to each other. While the President took long walks on the beach with Buddy and his ever-present Secret Service detail in tow, his wife made telephone calls to friends, read, and tried to bolster Chelsea’s spirits.
Hillary was not the only one concerned that, for all her irrepressible public cheerfulness, Chelsea might suffer another anxiety provoked attack of stomach pains and wind up in the emergency room yet again. One day a member of her father’s staff passed Chelsea a note: A few of her Stanford classmates also happened to be spending the summer at the Vineyard, and they wanted to “rescue” her from her predicament — at least for a few hours — by spiriting her away for some sun and fun at the beach. She promptly took them up on their offer.
Hillary was happy to see that Chelsea did not appear to have been emotionally annihilated by the spectacle of her father’s confession. It was more than the First Lady could say for herself, though she could still manage to rise to the occasion in public.
At one of several small get-togethers thrown for the Clintons, veteran CBS correspondent Mike Wallace, a longtime Vineyard resident, was making idle conversation when he casually asked Hillary if she had ever had a stress test. She looked up at Wallace and deadpanned, “I’m having one now.”
For his part, Clinton, the man who knew how to work a room better than anybody, suddenly seemed lost and deflated. At a dinner party thrown in their honor at the palatial Martha’s Vineyard home of investment banker Steven Rattner, the Clintons kept their distance — arriving separately, leaving separately, and virtually oblivious to each other in the interim.
From the moment he walked through the Rattners’ front door without his wife, Clinton had what one guest described as “the hangdog look of a little boy who has just returned from the woodshed.” Another guest felt pity for the President: “How lonely and forlorn he looked — so unsure, as if he didn’t know if anybody was going to speak to him or not.”
He was right. In those first days after the President’s admission to the nation, even his staunchest supporters had been scarcely able to contain their rage. “I wish,” one guest whispered to writer Gail Sheehy, “I had the guts to tell him what I really think.”
To bolster Clinton’s sagging spirits, his hosts went in search of someone -anyone — to have his picture taken with the President. Instead of a stampede toward Clinton, there was only embarrassed silence. Not even the teenaged children who were skulking about the house could be persuaded to pose with the disgraced leader. “They were furious with him, outraged, male and female alike,” recalled a mother of one of those who refused.
The President was going through one of those rare periods characterized by, as Dick Morris put it, “lassitude, lethargy, and recriminations — recriminations not over what he might have done differently at the outset, but what actions he might have taken to avoid getting caught.. It did not help matters when, over dinner, Clinton launched into a full-scale attack on the special prosecutor. “He just didn’t get it,” one of Clinton’s dinner companions said. “None of us were particularly fond of Ken Starr, but this was one time the President really should have just let it alone.” When he wasn’t talking about Starr, Clinton debated biblical interpretations of adultery with another guest at the table, famed Harvard legal scholar Alan Dershowitz.
The mood was very different at Hillary’s table, where the First Lady charmed her dinner companions as she alternately told funny stories and held forth on a wide variety of topics. “When she wants to, Dick Morris once allowed, “Hillary can be the warmest, most charming person you ever met. But she often uses that to conceal what’s going on beneath the surface.”
What no one saw — indeed, what the proud and private Hillary would not let them see — was what one friend described as the “deep hurt and pain” she was experiencing. “It’s like you go through a death and you can’t live for weeks and weeks and weeks. And then the healing process begins.”
In the past, Hillary always relied on the power of prayer to get her through the rough patches — and there were many — in both her public and her private life. Over the course of the Lewinsky scandal, she phoned her childhood pastor from Chicago, Don Jones, and her old Little Rock pastor Ed Matthew as well as the Reverend Wogamon of Foundry United Methodist for advice.
Hillary Clinton had also sought spiritual guidance from decidedly less traditional sources. In the spring of 1996, she turned to “reflective meditation” sessions with New Age psychic philosopher Jean Houston. Hillary confided in Houston that she had always felt the presence of Eleanor Roosevelt in the White House. At Houston’s urging, Hillary actually sat in her room and “talked” to Eleanor Roosevelt. “I was a huge admirer of Eleanor Roosevelt — I wanted so much to be like her, to make a real contribution as First Lady,” Hillary said. “But after three years in the White House I felt stymied. I wanted to know what this brilliant woman would have done if she were alive today.” At this time it was not unusual for White House staff members to hear Hillary, behind closed doors, having animated — if one-sided — conversations with Eleanor’s ghost. “I try to figure out what she would do in my shoes,” Hillary recalled. “She usually responds by telling me to buck up or at least to grow skin as thick as a rhinoceros.”
Hillary was not the only First Lady to make a psychic connection with long-departed White House occupants. Jackie Kennedy Onassis recalled that when she felt overwhelmed as First Lady, which was often, she would “go and sit in the Lincoln Room. It was the one room in the White House with a link to the past. It gave me great comfort. . . When you see that great bed, it’s like a cathedral. To touch something I knew he had touched was a real link with him. I used to sit in the Lincoln Room and I could really feel his strength. I’d sort of be talking with him. Jefferson is the president with whom I have the most affinity. But Lincoln is the one I love.”
In much the same way, Hillary loved Eleanor Roosevelt, but she identified most with Jackie Kennedy. It was here on Martha’s Vineyard that Hillary had the opportunity to get to know Jackie — and vice versa. Before the Clintons, every president from Lyndon Johnson to George Bush had tried and failed to establish some sort of social rapport with Jackie. Bill Clinton was different — not only the first baby boomer elected President, but the first inspired by JFK’s example to enter politics. Moreover, Bill’s youth and easy charm evoked memories of Camelot. “You know,” Jackie had told her former brother-in-law Senator Edward Kennedy, “in some ways he reminds me of Jack.”
So much so that Jackie and her son, John Kennedy Jr., supported Clinton in the primaries over Massachusetts favorite son Paul Tsongas. A month before the 1992 Democratic National Convention, Jackie invited Hillary to lunch at her New York apartment at 1040 Fifth Avenue. Topic A: how best to protect Chelsea from the voracious Washington press corps.
At the convention itself, Jackie was moved by the famous film clip of a starry-eyed, sixteen-year-old Bill Clinton shaking hands with John F. Kennedy in the Rose Garden Jackie had created. “I think,” Ted Kennedy said, “that established an emotional link for her.”
Both Bill and Hillary made no secret of the fact that they idolized Jack and Jackie Kennedy – “they worshipped at the Kennedy altar,” as one Clinton staffer put it — to the point where Bill became obsessed with mimicking JFK’s private as well as his public behavior. “He was always saying ‘That’s what Jack Kennedy would have done’ to justify his actions,” said an aide. “Hillary knew her husband saw himself as another JFK, and I think sometimes the implications of that — just how far he was willing to go to be like his hero — worried her.”
Now, as she walked along the beach at Martha’s Vineyard, Hillary’s thoughts went back to that August five years earlier when Jackie had first invited the Clintons to the Vineyard. No sooner had they boarded the Relemar, the seventy-foot yacht belonging to Jackie’s longtime love Maurice Templesman, than the First Family was whisked off for some Kennedy-style daredevil fun.
The Relemar dropped anchor off a tiny deserted island, and everyone went for a swim. Jackie’s daughter, Caroline, and Chelsea jumped thirty feet off the Relemar‘s highest diving platform. Goaded by her husband into following them, Hillary was terrified when she climbed to the top and looked down.
“Jump!” the President shouted at his wife as she trembled at the top of the platform. “Don’t be a chicken, Hillary. Go ahead and jump! Jump! JUMP!”
With her husband and now several Kennedy men yelling at her to jump, Hillary was about to take the plunge when suddenly she heard Jackie’s voice above the others. From down in the water, Jackie yelled, “Don’t do it, Hillary! Don’t do it! Just because they’re daring you, you don’t have to!” Heeding Jackie’s advice, Hillary slowly descended the ladder to a less harrowing height before making the leap into icy water.
The details of that day would remain etched in Hillary’s mind forever — the cool breeze and brilliant sunshine, lunch on the deck of theRelemar, the visit to Jackie’s seaside compound, and the long walk along her pristine private beach. Throughout it all, the two First Ladies spent hours sharing their thoughts and dreams and fears. Hillary later used just one word to describe the visit: “magical.”
Just nine months later, in May 1994, Jackie died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma at the age of sixty-four. But in the months before Jackie died the two women spoke on the phone often. “You’ve got to do things that are right for you,” she told Hillary. “Don’t model yourself on anybody else. You have to be yourself.”
Yet who but Jackie could come close to understanding what it was like to be Hillary Rodham Clinton? The American public had remained blissfully unaware of President Kennedy’s rampant womanizing until the mid-1970s — more than a decade after JFK’s assassination — and though she had been spared the sort of humiliation on a global scale that Hillary was now forced to endure, Jackie had felt the pain of betrayal.
So, on the island where the two First Ladies had forged a special friendship, Hillary turned to her New Age guru and used the same New Age reflective meditation techniques she had used to conjure up the ghost of Eleanor Roosevelt — this time to “talk” with Jackie. As she walked on the beach, or alone in her rooms at the First Family’s borrowed estate, Hillary’s thoughts went back to that sunny, breezy, cool day aboard the Relemar — and the moment she stood on the narrow diving platform, staring down in abject terror at the glistening surface of the water below. She could hear Bill laughing as he dared her to step off into the abyss.
That moment at the top of the diving platform was a metaphor for the choice she now faced. She could retreat into the shadows, salvaging what remained of her own pride and leaving Bill to fend for himself. Or she could, as Bill was praying she would do, jump into the icy waters and rescue him from himself as she had countless times in the past.
“So should I, Jackie?” she asked the only woman who might have an inkling of what it felt like to be Hillary Rodham Clinton at the crossroads in 1998. “Should I do it? Should I do what Bill says and … jump?”