Can Hillary Put The Pieces Back Together?

Hillary Rodham Clinton made one thing perfectly clear during the Presidential campaign: The talented, brainy lawyer wanted a seat at the power table. And she got it, crafting the Administration's health-care plan and advising her husband on White House personnel choices.

But now, Clinton is learning that her trailblazing role carries big risks. She is a key figure in the Whitewater affair. Her poll numbers are sinking. And she has become a lightning rod for Republican attacks on the President.

White House aides knew they were sailing in uncharted waters when the First Lady decided to combine her ceremonial tasks with policymaking. For a while, she managed to juggle both roles. But her complex health-care plan is unraveling in Congress, and some of her choices for top posts, such as Associate Attorney General Webster L. Hubbell and her chief of staff, Margaret A. Williams, are under fire.

Worse, she seemed totally unprepared for the Whitewater whirlpool--and the questions raised about her powerful position. "She can't figure out how these [public] perceptions can take on reality--how people can charge her with behavior she's incapable of," says one aide. Indeed, though no one claims Clinton violated the law, a Mar. 7 ABC News poll found 36% of those surveyed believed she did something illegal as part of Whitewater.

"CASCADING EFFECT." The White House is worried about the impact of the swirl of negative publicity on substantive issues. Senate Republicans have vowed to hold up the nomination of Ricki Tigert--a Friend of Hillary--to head the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. until the Senate Democratic leadership agrees to hold Whitewater hearings. And aides worry that the controversy could further damage health-care reform. "If she is caught in a series of bad judgments, there's a cascading effect," says Robert Denton, a communications professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute.

Controversy around the First Lady began to mount when Whitewater Special Counsel Robert B. Fiske Jr. subpoenaed Williams and other White House officials to testify about their meetings with government agencies about Whitewater. Fiske is also probing charges that Williams and White House Counsel Bernard W. Nussbaum, a longtime Clinton friend who resigned on Mar. 5, may have improperly removed Whitewater files from the office of Nussbaum deputy Vincent W. Foster Jr. Foster, a former Clinton law partner, committed suicide last summer.

The First Lady, who resisted appointment of a special counsel, has kept a low profile for the past two weeks. She avoided her usual rounds of public forums on health care and children's issues--though aides say she has kept a full schedule of health-care meetings with lawmakers. Although the President has defended her publicly, the furor

is taking a toll. "Everyone is worried that she will be seen as just another scuzzy attorney," says one Administration adviser.

LOSE-LOSE. The White House has decided that the best public-relations strategy is to return to business as usual. That's why Clinton plans to reemerge Mar. 14 for a health forum in Denver. Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, whose Feb. 28 poll shows Clinton's approval ratings above 50%, says her highest marks come from women and seniors, the strongest supporters of health reform. "It's critical that she shore up what support the plan has," says Lake. "Having her less visible hurts health care."

But Clinton may be caught in a no-win situation. "No matter what she does, it will be interpreted as negative," frets a White House aide. "If she continues to be active, her detractors will call her a political liability on health care. If she folds her tent, she will let down thousands of people."

However Whitewater turns out, it's clear that Clinton's attempts to transform the Bess Truman role model into a Woman of the '90s has serious pitfalls for her and the President. Some question the motives of the critics. "People have been waiting to pounce on Hillary Clinton," says Vero Beach (Fla.) resident Michele Genz. But the GOP argues that Clinton can't have it both ways: be a top adviser and exempt from scrutiny. "It would be demeaning not to treat her the same way as anyone similarly situated," says House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).

Calls on Clinton to answer questions about her role in Whitewater won't end soon. And if she can't take the heat, Clinton may have to heed her detractors' calls and go back to the kitchen.


Hillary Rodham Clinton's involvement in Whitewater

INVESTOR HRC was an original investor in Whitewater Estates. She borrowed $30,000 to buy a model home in Whitewater and sold it for a profit.

ATTORNEY James McDougal, a Whitewater partner and owner of Madison Guaranty Savings & Loan, hired Rose Law Firm, HRC's former firm, to represent the bank on a stock offering. HRC handled the matter before a state regulator appointed by her husband.

CONFLICTS A special federal prosecutor is investigating possibly improper relationships between Whitewater and the now-failed Madison. As part of the probe, the prosecutor has subpoenaed two of the First Lady's staffers.