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Hillary May Have Saved Party and Husband

The first lady was the clearest voice on the Democratic campaign trail.

November 05, 1998|ELLEN GOODMAN | Ellen Goodman writes a syndicated column from Boston

If you must put a name and a face on 1998, don't look in the Senate or even the governor's mansions. Look in the White House. The dominant female image, the single most impressive political performance, came from Hillary Rodham Clinton. The woman of this year was the first lady.

In the August doldrums, it was common wisdom that Monica Lewinsky would cast a shadow over the election. In the November exit polls, it was Monica who? In between, it was all Hillary.

Hillary Clinton was here, there, everywhere. The true Democratic National Campaign was the HRC Road Show. The candidates who regarded Bill Clinton as the third rail of this election embraced her. She hit 20 states, did 100 radio and TV ads, raised millions of dollars--and millions of spirits.

Instead of hiding in the wings, the woman straightened her spine, ran a comb through her hair and went back out: show time. Whether she was sulking or spitting nickels in private, she was unstoppable in public.

Why did Hillary's popularity soar in the wake of the scandal? Maybe we prefer a wronged woman to an uppity woman. Surely at the beginning of the HRC Road Show, many came to gawk, as if they were passing an accident on the highway. There were others who came like girlfriends in a crisis with a box of Kleenex and chocolates.

But eventually, both those who think she should dump the guy's clothes on Pennsylvania Avenue and those who want her to stand by her man stayed to admire her strength, including the strength of her convictions.

Ruth Mandel, the political scientist, calls Hillary the defining figure of the election. "We've all got troubles. The message is how she's handling it. The unstated message of Hillary Clinton, the one that mothers tell their kids, is that you stand up and you carry on."

Carrying on, she may have saved her husband's political future. Carrying on, she was shield as well as surrogate against the most lethal attacks on his personal behavior. But she was also the clearest Democratic voice on the national trail.

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