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SANDY BANKS / Life as We Live It

In Matters of Heart, First Lady Is Alone

September 18, 1998

She is angry at Bill, disgusted with Starr, embarrassed by Monica.

But mostly she is dismayed . . . disappointed in the woman she once considered Bill Clinton's biggest asset, the first lady who set a new standard with her political activism and who now has become an object of pity and scorn.

"The best thing Hillary could do for us right now is pack her bags and leave," my friend Dorothy insists.

Forget the statement it would make to Bill--that, mea culpas aside, he has strayed too far for forgiveness this time.

What's important is the message she could send to the young women who considered Hillary Rodham Clinton a role model, a strong, brave guide into a new era in which strong women could be partners with strong men, without one pulling the other down.

*

It is not reflected in the polls, this view that Hillary Clinton--having suffered more than her share of private pain and public humiliation--ought to do like any self-respecting wronged wife would do and walk out.

But it is a sentiment circulating among some young women who watched first with pride (when the aspiring first lady boldly declared her intent to make policy rather than host teas), then with horror as she slid into a role she'd once ridiculed (as in, "I'm not sitting here, some little woman standing by my man, like Tammy Wynette").

Now, Dorothy says, "I feel sorry for her . . . and for us." Because Hillary is behaving like a doormat, Dorothy says, and that has prompted Americans--finally--to take her to heart.

Indeed, national surveys depict an American public more adoring of Hillary Clinton than ever before. Call it sympathy or admiration, pity or respect, but folks who used to cluck their tongues over Hillary's brazen lust for power now applaud Bill's little woman for sticking it out.

"The public has always been reluctant to accept her outside of the conventional first lady role," explains Susan Pinkus, director of the national Times Poll, which has tracked public opinion of Hillary Clinton during her husband's six years in office. Past surveys showed "a lot of backlash associated with [the perception] that she had too much influence over her husband," Pinkus says.

Now that it's clear her influence wasn't so strong--not strong enough, certainly, to immunize him against the lure of a 22-year-old in thong underwear--well, Hillary has become "one of us," so to speak, worthy of our affection and respect.

"We couldn't accept her as a strong, secure women on her own terms, but we can accept her as a victim," Dorothy laments.

It's a sad commentary on how this country still views women, and I can't blame Dorothy's 30-something comrades for feeling let down. Like them, a part of me would cheer if Hillary just walked out.

But few people, according to polls, expect her to do that. Fewer than one in five told a Times poll last month that they expect her to "leave [her husband] eventually." Almost half predict that "she may not forgive her husband but is staying in the marriage for political reasons."

And--in an answer that divided along gender lines--21% of men said Hillary Clinton "believes in her marriage and will forgive" her husband, while almost one-third of the women expressed that view.

*

There are many ways to judge Hillary's response to her husband's misdeeds, just as there are many ways to judge the soundness of a marriage, the contributions each partner makes, the needs each brings, the comfort each receives.

The truth is that we know much, much more about what went on between Monica and Bill in that windowless hallway near the Oval Office bathroom than we do about what goes on in the White House where the Clintons reside.

None of us knows how Hillary will handle the emotional battering she has been forced to take--and none of us is qualified to say how she should.

"I used to know," one friend confessed to me this week, "that if my husband ever had an affair, I'd leave him like that." She snapped her fingers.

And then she found out he was having an affair. She cried, threw things, railed about him to all their friends. She took their young child and moved in with her sister.

But not long after that, she went back home . . . not quite ready to forgive her husband, but not quite ready to strike out on her own, either. They love each other, but--six years and a second child later--things are still shaky at times.

She doesn't completely trust him, she says, but what's worse, she doesn't really trust herself.

"Was it my fault, what he did? Was I a fool to come back? I always thought I knew--that we both knew--what the rules were. But I found out I can be just as stupid as the next woman. . . ."

Stupid, she says. And that surprises me, because I remember what I thought years ago when I heard she'd returned home . . . how brave she was to take him back, how strong to be willing to believe in him again.

The reality is that every marriage has its own set of rules, requires different sacrifices and offers different compensations. And every couple is entitled to decide where to draw their line in the sand.

I understand these young women like Dorothy--who have yet to endure a husband's betrayal, to consider infidelity against a backdrop of so much more--and I wish there were a way to clean this tarnish from their dream.

But for all her intellect and ambition--and with apologies to the women she has inspired--it is not Hillary's job to deliver us a moral, to make her next step a statement, to stamp this whole sordid mess with any image of dignity and pride.

* Sandy Banks' column is published Mondays and Fridays. Her e-mail address is sandy.banks@latimes.com.

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