Inoculating Hillary

Posted: Jun 16, 2003 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has not been submitting herself to television interviews and autograph sessions just to sell books. Instead, close associates use a word familiar in political backrooms but not often repeated in public: inoculation.

By giving answers now to questions about her husband's multiple marital infidelities and their troubled marriage, she intends to inoculate herself against questions that surely will arise if she fulfills her undoubted desires to run for president someday. She can reply that she already answered that way back in June 2003. It is a technique the Clintons employed a dozen years ago when Bill was preparing to run for president and needed to deal with his unsavory personal reputation.

Inoculation worked well enough to elect Bill Clinton, though it could not prevent subsequent misbehavior that impeached him. No future indiscretions are likely to embarrass Sen. Clinton. With a minimum of candor, she has answered all the questions about her marriage she is ever likely to receive.

The model inoculation occurred on Sept. 17, 1991, when the Clintons came to Washington to breakfast with reporters regularly assembled by Godfrey Sperling of The Christian Science Monitor. The tip-off was Gov. Clinton's arrival with his wife at his side, not usual for "Breakfast with Godfrey." The longtime buzz in Democratic circles had been that the charismatic Arkansan would solve the Democratic Party's problems were it not for the baggage he carried. As he prepared in 1991 to announce his candidacy, allegations of marital infidelity multiplied.

I was present at that 1991 breakfast, and the Clintons seemed uneasy waiting for the question "about your personal past." Bill's answer was vague: "Like nearly anybody that's been together 20 years, our relationship has not been perfect or free of difficulties. But we feel good about where we are. We believe in our obligations. And we intend to be together 30 or 40 years from now, regardless of whether I run for president or not." That answer was cited during the campaign by Gov. Clinton whenever his personal conduct was questioned, including the Gennifer Flowers affair.

Democrats close to Sen. Clinton admit her interviews last week were modeled on her husband's performance 12 years ago: less than candid but conclusive, so she can say she has closed the book on her personal life. Telling interviewers she still believes "in the continuing right of every person to have a zone of privacy," Clinton gave scripted replies regarding her husband's lies to her about Monica Lewinsky.

What she said on television was nearly word-for-word what appeared in her runaway best seller, "Living History." In the book, she says: "I wanted to wring Bill's neck. But he was not only my husband, he was also my president." She told CNN's Larry King that she was "ready to wring his neck. . . . Yet, at the same time, he was my president."

In "Living History," Sen. Clinton never comes to grips with her husband's serial infidelity. She ignored his lies about Gennifer Flowers, and all other "bimbo eruptions." Her autobiography does not even mention difficulties with their marriage that were openly admitted at the 1991 inoculation. That "Breakfast with Godfrey," carefully orchestrated by the Clintons, goes totally unmentioned in the book.

The book and the interviews are part of Hillary Clinton re-inventing herself. The buyers who stood in line to buy an early copy may be shocked by how bland and even boring is the hottest non-fiction book of the year. She wants to dispel her image as the difficult, temper-prone first lady. Colleagues in Congress expecting the worst have been stunned by how easy she is to get along with (particularly in contrast to her most unpleasant Democratic senior senator from New York, Charles Schumer).

She is indeed the most talked-about Democratic politician in America, and only a fool would reject out of hand the prospect that some day she could duplicate nationally her winning candidacy in New York. Yet, there are loyal Democrats who see the successful inoculation as a grim portend for the future. "I felt this week that we shall never be rid of the Clintons," one veteran party activist told me, "and that is truly depressing."