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Toughing It Out : Politics: Those who know her best say Hillary Clinton’s ready to weather any storms over rumors about her husband.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Forty years ago, when Hillary Rodham was a little girl in a new neighborhood, a group of slightly older children teased the 4-year-old, a close friend recalls. Hillary ran to that best of all refuges, her mother.

The youngster found only cold comfort.

“Hillary,” her mother said, “you can stay inside here with me forever, or you can go out there and face those kids yourself.”

After a few moments, Hillary decided to go back outside. Her mother, hiding behind a bush, watched as her daughter “beat the tar out of those kids,” the friend remembers.

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Four decades later, as rumors of marital infidelity swirled around Hillary’s husband, Bill Clinton, and threatened to derail his Democratic presidential campaign, Dorothy Rodham called her daughter to remind her of that story.

Not that Hillary Rodham Clinton needed reminding. Everyone who knows her agrees that Clinton, married since 1975 to the Arkansas governor, is one smart, determined cookie. Her friends uniformly praise her intelligence, dedication to public service, energy and organizational skills.

Among other things, Clinton is a practicing lawyer with Arkansas’ biggest law firm and has twice been named one of the 100 most influential lawyers in the country. She chairs the board of the Children’s Defense Fund and until last year headed the American Bar Assn.'s commission on women in the profession. A graduate of Wellesley College, where she was student body president, she attended Yale Law School. There, she met Bill Clinton.

Now she is embroiled against her will in the latest pelvic riddle to transfix American politics. But she learned her adult survival skills in the demanding arena of Arkansas public life--a combination fishbowl and football field where controversies are often played out up close and personal.

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“I think she’s going to do just fine. I think she’s strong enough to get through just about anything,” says Sid Johnson, president of the Arkansas Education Assn., referring to the media firestorm over allegations by Gennifer Flowers, a former TV reporter and cabaret singer turned receptionist, that she had a long adulterous affair with Bill Clinton.

A former opponent of Hillary Clinton in the state’s battles over education reform, Johnson, who now helps in the presidential campaign, says he is “more worried” that Clinton will let fly “a piece of her mind” over the probing of her married life by the media. (Bill Clinton has denied the affair with Flowers but has conceded that he has caused “pain in my marriage.”)

Says one longtime friend: “She’s no neurotic, nutty Lee Hart (whose husband, Gary, saw his 1984 Democratic campaign destroyed by his affair with Donna Rice). She’s no victim. Nobody puts anything over on Hillary. . . . She’s totally unsentimental about politics.”

Judging by the persistence he has seen in the past, Johnson says, Hillary Clinton is unlikely to cut and run because the campaign got too tough. “She likes to get a job done and pretty well will stick to it until it’s done,” he says.

Indeed, Hillary Clinton’s combative instincts quickly surfaced when the tabloid allegations of infidelity escalated into full-scale scandal. She learned of the public controversy when she spoke with campaign strategist James Carville earlier this month.

“She was very calm,” Carville says. Her first reaction was that of a longtime campaigner: “Is the mainstream press asking about it?” she asked Carville.

Her second reaction was also characteristic--she and her husband should fight back publicly as soon as possible. The time had come, as she said later, to “roll the dice.”

Diane Blair, a University of Arkansas political scientist working on Clinton’s campaign, says she talked to the candidate’s wife late last week as the controversy was beginning to build.

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“I just said, ‘Are you doing OK?’ ” Blair recalls. “She said, ‘Absolutely.’ She sounded very upbeat.”

“She seems to be doing quite well,” agrees Betsey Edeling, a close friend of Hillary Clinton ever since sixth grade, when they were classmates in Park Ridge, Ill., a Chicago suburb. However, like other Clinton friends, Edeling declines to elaborate or reveal any details of their discussions, especially to the press.

“Well, that’s really between us . . . ,” she says. “We were friends before she was Bill’s wife and, you know, you turn to friends at times like this.”

Until the supermarket tabloid the Star paid Flowers an undisclosed sum for her story, Hillary Clinton had tried to draw a sharp line between her private and public lives, friends say.

Leading a hectic, time-pressured life marked by a busy law practice and service on a multitude of public and private boards, Clinton has a yen for privacy that stems from her desire to spend time with family and friends, they add.

“I think the privacy may just be a need for some quiet in her life,” says Carolyn Y. Staley, a childhood friend of Bill Clinton who counts Hillary among her intimates. “It’s not a brusque privacy. It’s not a cold, chilly privacy.”

Blair adds that Clinton has earned her private time with her husband and their 11-year-old daughter, Chelsea. “She traditionally has been very, very accessible to her friends and the people of Arkansas,” she explains.

Even now, with the media digging into every corner of the Clintons’ life, Hillary Clinton has tried to defend a small patch of privacy in her marriage. Last week in New Hampshire, with her husband and daughter beside her, Clinton told reporters, “It is very important to me that what I care about most in this world--which is my family--what we mean to each other and what we’ve done together--have some realm of protection from public life.”

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On Monday she was more terse, according to the Associated Press. Campaigning for her husband in South Dakota, she sought to close the subject once and for all, declaring: “We’ve explained ourselves as best we can. We leave it at that.”

Clinton was referring to her dramatic appearance with her husband Sunday on CBS’ “60 Minutes,” when the couple tried to confront and control rumors and allegations of adultery and marital discord.

In that appearance, Hillary Clinton demonstrated that she was not a long-suffering political wife who would go to any length to get votes.

“I’m not sitting here, some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette,” she said during the interview. “I’m sitting here because I love him, and I honor what he’s been through and what we’ve been through together, and, you know, if that’s not enough for people, then, heck, don’t vote for him.”

Susan Thomases, a friend who accompanied Hillary to the taping, says both Clintons were ready for an ugly campaign. “It didn’t catch them unawares. It didn’t leave them stunned,” Thomases says.

Whatever their troubles in the past, the Clintons’ marriage now is sturdy and affectionate, friends say.

“She and Bill are always huggin’ and smoochin’ in the kitchen,” Staley says. ". . . They’re great company for each other.”

Ann Henry, who met Hillary when she taught at the University of Arkansas Law School in the early 1970s, adds, “I think he is crazy about her, and I think she is committed to him.”

Before the sexual controversy took center stage, Clinton seemed determined to not let politics consume her life. In an interview with The Times early this month, she was asked what she saw as the biggest problem of being in political life.

She replied, “You have to fight very hard to retain any sense of real connection with people that is not colored by your political life. You need to keep a constant awareness that you cannot permit this to define your life. . . .” (Clinton has declined interviews with The Times and other publications since last week.)

Clearly, her women friends in Arkansas believe that there’s more to Hillary Clinton than a fleeting television image. For instance, Diane Blair remembers that Hillary called frequently during Blair’s mother’s terminal illness last year.

When Carolyn Staley had a miscarriage, she says, “Hillary made the first call to the house. I don’t know how she found out, but she phoned and said, ‘I just heard that maybe you needed a call.’ ”

Staley and others also note Hillary Clinton’s fondness for board games like Pictionary, for “medium-hot” chili and mystery novels by Tony Hillerman and Dorothy Sayres.

Yet Hillary Clinton is a rarity among political wives, a woman qualified in her own right to hold high office.

For instance, Bill Clinton, interviewed on CNN on Monday, said he might appoint Hillary to a Cabinet post. “I wouldn’t rule it out,” he said. “She’d be the best I could find.” Friends have touted her as a potential attorney general, noting that she has far more experience as a lawyer than Robert F. Kennedy had at the time brother John appointed him attorney general.

“Hillary Clinton could have been anything,” says Susan Thomases. “She had more choices than any woman in America. But she chose this and chose to make her life with him.”

In the same vein, Ann Henry maintains that “she’s a national treasure. Arkansas is lucky to have her, and the nation would be lucky to get her.”

Times staff writers David Lauter in Washington, Geraldine Baum in New York and Bob Secter and Tracy Shryer in Chicago contributed to this story.


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