WASHINGTON — First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, discussing her husband's affair with Monica S. Lewinsky, suggested in a magazine interview that his marital infidelities were caused by psychological "abuse" the president suffered as a young boy.
Mrs. Clinton explained for the first time why she stood by her husband through the ordeal of his impeachment, which stemmed from his sworn denials of his relations with the former White House intern, saying the president's behavior was "a sin of weakness," not a sin "of malice."
Mrs. Clinton said her husband "was so young, barely 4, when he was scarred by abuse. There was terrible conflict between his mother and his grandmother. A psychologist once told me that for a boy being in the middle of a conflict between two women is the worst possible situation. There's always a desire to please each one."
Referring to the president's philandering, she said: "You have to be alert to it, vigilant in helping. I thought this was resolved 10 years ago. I thought he had conquered it; I thought he understood it, but he didn't go deep enough or work hard enough." She remained with the president out of love and loyalty, she said. "Everybody has some dysfunction in their families. They have to deal with it. You don't walk away if you love someone. You help the person."
Mrs. Clinton's remarks, published in the inaugural edition of Talk magazine, threatened to spark new controversy, especially since the first lady is a prospective candidate for the U.S. Senate from New York. Some political commentators said the interview will hurt her candidacy by reminding voters of the Clintons' baggage, but others predicted any damage would be short-lived.
"I can't believe she would have entered this area of discussion without considering the political ramifications," said Stuart Rothenberg, a political analyst. "She may have concluded that there may be people bothered by her understanding of the president and why she stood by him . . . and this may be her way of trying to get beyond it."
Mrs. Clinton also talked about her expected 2000 Senate bid as an opportunity to gain a measure of independence from President Clinton, whose political career she has long supported.
"Now for the first time I am making my own decisions. I can feel the difference. It is a great relief," she said.
Marsha Berry, the first lady's spokeswoman, declined Sunday to expand upon Mrs. Clinton's comments, including her reference to the president's childhood "abuse."
"The article speaks for itself and, for the most part, it's a positive portrayal of her," Berry said.
She added that the writer, Lucinda Franks, "was someone [Mrs. Clinton] was acquainted with. This is why she did the interview."
Jake Siewert, a White House spokesman, declined to comment on the details of the story but said he did not dispute them.
Talk magazine's story on Mrs. Clinton will help launch the glossy monthly magazine edited by Tina Brown, the high-profile former editor of the New Yorker. It is scheduled to be on newsstands in Los Angeles, New York and Washington on Tuesday.
The magazine declined to provide an advance copy to The Times; excerpts appeared in the Sunday Times of London and elsewhere.
In the interview, Mrs. Clinton defended her husband as "a very, very good man."
"Yes, he has weaknesses," she said. "Yes, he needs to be more disciplined, but it is remarkable given his background that he turned out to be the kind of person he is, capable of such leadership."
Bill Clinton's rocky beginnings in Arkansas are well-chronicled. His father died shortly before he was born. His maternal grandmother played a large role in his early upbringing; tensions developed between her and his mother, Virginia.
Shortly before Bill's 4th birthday, his mother decided to marry Roger Clinton, to the dismay of her family. Virginia's mother, who doted on her grandson, was particularly vehement.
According to David Maraniss' biography of President Clinton, "First in His Class," Virginia Clinton later recalled that her mother threatened to seek custody of Bill. When Virginia married Roger Clinton, who proved abusive and alcoholic, her parents and son did not attend the ceremony.
A government official familiar with the Talk article said the first lady referred to the abuse as emotional, not physical, suffered when he became embroiled in the tumultuous relationship between his mother and grandmother.
Mrs. Clinton said she survived the Lewinsky episode and her husband's impeachment through "soul-searching, friends, religious faith and long, hard discussions."
She added: "I believe in working through it. Is he ashamed? Yes. Is he sorry? Yes. But does this negate everything he has done as a husband, a father, a president?"