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Carlson Margaret Carlson was named in 1994 the first woman columnist in TIME's history. She writes primarily about policy and politics and is a regular panelist on CNN's Capital Gang.

Thanks, but Hillary Doesn't Want Your Sympathy

By Margaret Carlson


Last Friday, Hillary Clinton walked out to the White House lawn and celebrated her husband's 52nd birthday as if it were his fifth and he deserved a pony and a trip to Disneyland. Joking about how old he was getting, she led more than 100 staff members in a rousing chorus of Happy Birthday.

How does she do it and, more intriguingly, why, when the only reasonable reaction to the pain her husband has caused her is to take that spice cake with the buttercream frosting and plant it in his face? At the very moment she was being Harriet to his Ozzie at the garden party, aides were inside considering just how much the President would have to say to satisfy calls for his head and yet preserve some semblance of dignity for his wife and child.

People think it takes so much out of Hillary Clinton to play the loyal wife that anyone who thinks she might also be a loving one is dismissed as a gullible dupe. To many viewers, Hillary's full-throated defense on the Today show in January, in which she blamed her husband's enemies for the scandal, was pure spinning for her man. But it was easy for her to believe that the same amalgam of right-wing moneymen, zealots and Clinton haters who had launched investigations into (and made movies about) whether Vince Foster was murdered could be behind a starstruck groupie suddenly in the clutches of both Ken Starr and Paula Jones' lawyers. Certainly, if she believed the charges against her husband, the lawyer in her would never, ever have conceded to Matt Lauer that an "adulterous liaison" with an intern, "if proven true, would be a very serious offense."

Whatever her suspicions over these past few months, she did not have any need to hear the whole truth from her husband until the reality of his testifying in front of Starr sank in last week. Anyone who saw her emerge from Marine One last Thursday, after a ceremony for the Americans killed in the embassy bombings in Africa, wondered if some of the agony on her face wasn't for the ordeal ahead. Ever since Chelsea was six, Hillary has protected her daughter by convincing her that some of her father's political opponents would smear him to beat him. This week one of those opponents would be sitting in the Map Room, two floors below Chelsea's bedroom, learning from Clinton himself that some of the smearing might in fact be true.

As this drama has unfolded, the admiration that eluded the First Lady for years is now hers, as she climbs to a 60% approval rating. Two weeks ago, when she and Chelsea and some friends walked into a Washington restaurant for dinner, first one diner and then others stood and applauded, until the whole room was cheering. Her husband would have worked the tables, but she took her seat. For the disciplined and private Methodist, the brainy lawyer from Yale who hasn't asked for sympathy, having people feel sorry for her is just one more indignity to bear. --By Margaret Carlson

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