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Mexico Eats Up Juicy Books on First Lady

Biographies portray Marta Sahagun as an obsessive and ambitious woman who is maneuvering to succeed her husband in office.

May 27, 2003|Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — Three summers ago, when candidate Vicente Fox swept away a long- entrenched system of single-party rule, no one could have predicted that his promised break with the past would bring modern Mexico its first high-powered, high-profile first lady.

He wasn't even married.

But ever since presidential spokeswoman Marta Sahagun wed her boss on the first anniversary of his election, she has invited comparisons with Hillary Rodham Clinton in the White House -- a crusading but divisive figure, widely popular yet deeply detested by many, who wields unmatched influence at the center of power.

All this is novel enough in a country where gossip about past presidents' mistresses used to outsell news about their demure wives. But now the diminutive Sahagun has eclipsed her 6-foot-6-inch husband, thanks to two books that portray her as an obsessive and ruthlessly ambitious woman who is maneuvering to succeed him in office.

"La Jefa," or The Boss, written by iconoclastic Argentine biographer Olga Wornat, has generated front-page newspaper stories and landed Sahagun on four magazine covers here since its first 50,000 copies hit Mexican bookstores last week, quickly selling out.

Among its claims, based largely on unnamed sources and denied by the first lady: She was anorexic and bulimic as a younger woman. She burned photographs of personal foes, including Fox's first wife, in a witchcraft ceremony to cleanse the president of their influence. She has allowed two of her three grown sons to use her position for personal enrichment.

"Marta," by Mexican journalist Rafael Loret de Mola, is mostly nonfiction until it gets to the 2006 presidential race and turns bizarre. Sahagun wins the election after a campaign involving a papal visit to bless her marriage to Fox, rival intrigues by Washington and Havana, and the abduction of one of her top aides.

Nearly as strange as this fictional plot was a real event prompted by both books. To deny their most scandalous assertions, Sahagun gave a rare interview last week to Brozo, an irreverent television news commentator who dresses as a red-nosed, green-haired clown.

"One's private life should be respected and respected truthfully," the 50-year-old first lady told Brozo, whose real name is Victor Trujillo. "What has been said here about my private life is a lie."

She has done nothing, however, to quell the talk about her political ambitions. To Brozo's repeated questions about that, she only smiled and said: "The president and I agree that we must continue fighting for the future of our political project. Let's just leave it at that."

The books are unlikely to help Fox's conservative National Action Party as it struggles, in elections July 6, to overcome the former ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party's plurality in the legislature. While Fox remains popular, most Mexicans now view him as an ineffective leader, his reform agenda stymied by legislative opposition and sour relations with the United States.

"What the country needs is a fully empowered president," said one Fox advisor, who asked not to be named for fear of the first lady's wrath. "Everything public she says and does detracts from him."

As the 61-year-old president recovered from back surgery this spring, Sahagun moved to fill the void, stepping up her public appearances and reaching beyond her conservative Roman Catholic base; for example, she supported the use of condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS. Sahagun is no longer Fox's spokeswoman but runs a charity, Vamos Mexico! (Let's Go Mexico!)

Opposition parties have used her growing activism to attack the president. Her private foundation is under legislative investigation for alleged illegal use of public funds and has been criticized for an antiabortion message in a child-rearing guide it distributed to public schools.

To tout her image as a feminist and champion of the poor, Sahagun gave six long interviews for "La Jefa." Before the biography came out, her approval ratings were consistently in the mid-50s, rivaling her husband's, but the percentage would drop below 20 when Mexicans were asked whether they would vote to put her in office.

"She is essentially seen as a celebrity, not as a political person," said Dan Lund, a leading Mexico City pollster. "She has been trying to make the transition from celebrity to politician ever since she hooked up with Fox, but she does not seem to know how to do it. 'La Jefa' was her latest attempt, and it backfired."

Sergio Sarmiento, a columnist writing in the newspaper Reforma, said the most damaging suggestions in the biography were about corruption -- a scourge Fox came to office to fight -- not ambition.

Fox and Sahagun are divorced from previous spouses. Rejected by Fox's two daughters as an "old witch who stole our father from us," the first lady lobbied to win acceptance from his teenage son Rodrigo by giving him $7,000 for a shopping trip to Miami on one occasion and a $10,000 Rolex watch on another, the author reports, asking where the money came from.

The book also says with little elaboration that two of Sahagun's sons, Jorge and Manuel Bribiesca, have mysteriously enriched themselves since Fox took office and that Jorge used a presidential jet to take some friends shopping in Houston and gambling in Las Vegas.

Sahagun responded with a letter from Fox's military staff stating that no presidential plane had ever been used by any of her children.

"There is no abuse of power, there is no illegal use of state resources," she told Brozo the clown.

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