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Redefined role brings problems for first lady

Subpoenas and suspicions are flying. Everybody in Washington and Arkansas suddenly seems to be investigating and blaming everybody else.

The president is having troubles, again, and the first lady is not just a supportive spouse, standing by her man with a glazed smile. Hillary Rodham Clinton is smack at the heart of the matter.

Bernard Nussbaum, the first lady's old friend and mentor, was pushed off the sled of state Saturday, after President Clinton's admission that the White House counsel had made improper contacts to review the status of a confidential federal investigation into an Arkansas savings and loan related to the Whitewater affair.

If Nussbaum sinned, some contend, it was only in being too loyal to his prince and princess.

"There's no evidence he's done anything contrary to the Clintons' direction," said William Kristol, the director of the Project for the Republican Future. "The Clintons have an extraordinary inability to distinguish public from private, official from personal."

Saturday, senior Clinton aides tried to invoke the classic Washington "Beckett" defense, saying that while the Clintons may have wanted to be rid of their meddlesome problems, they did not want the rules broken.

Nussbaum, who has been quoted as saying that he felt he had two clients _ Bill and Hillary Clinton _ "sometimes went the extra mile as a way of ingratiating himself with Hillary, even though that was not always what she wanted," said a Clinton aide.

Problems are piling up for the first lady. Mrs. Clinton and the three lawyers she brought to top jobs in the administration _ Nussbaum; Vincent Foster, his deputy who committed suicide last summer; and Associate Attorney General Webster Hubbell _ are enmeshed in embarrassing ethical questions.

The Rose Law Firm in Little Rock, where Mrs. Clinton, Foster and Hubbell were partners, is being investigated by the special prosecutor for Whitewater about document shredding and government contracts in savings and loan cases.

On top of all that, the health care plan that the first lady developed and shepherded is losing public support because many Americans see it as too complicated and intrusive. And her younger brother, Hugh Rodham, is trading on her name in a stumbling bid for the U.S. Senate in Florida.

Mrs. Clinton's mood is not likely to be lightened by the agonizing over the departure of Nussbaum. The counsel's friends said that the first lady had talked to him with concern in the last few days about face-saving ways he could leave the White House.

At times in the last 14 months, Mrs. Clinton has dazzled Washington as she tried to drag a dinosaur role into modern times. She has worked hard to please everyone and satisfy herself, creating an awkward hybrid of comforting old first lady rituals and unsettling new co-presidential power structures.

Clinton strategists have always felt there was a risk inherent in the ambiguity of Mrs. Clinton's position: She is exercising power without an official title. She is the first presidential spouse with her own power base in the White House and her own set of top officials throughout the government who owe their jobs, and loyalty, to her as much as to her husband.

Even those close to the Clintons complain that this has created confusion, especially in a White House that has tangled lines of authority.

"It's hard to run a White House with nobody in charge," said an influential Democratic friend of the Clintons. "It's especially hard to run a White House with nobody in charge and two presidents."

Everyone in the administration knows that power is centralized at the White House in the hands of Bill and Hillary Clinton.

David Gergen, hired as White House troubleshooter, seems too worried lately about his own future to help in this time. The weak chief of staff, Thomas "Mack" McLarty, has announced each time the White House was guilty of misusing federal agencies that he knew nothing about it.

As Sen. Bob Dole mocked last week: "Mack McLarty, the chief of staff, has issued a memo: "You cannot do this anymore because they have caught us.' "

Marlin Fitzwater, the press secretary for President Bush and spokesman for President Reagan, said that the blind spots that always exist with regard to a first lady are intensified when the spouse has such unprecedented power.

"The senior staff always fears crossing a first lady," he said. "Partly, it's the respect for the office of first lady. Partly, it's a man-woman thing. You're afraid that when she's home with the president, she'll repeat the charges against you every night for the rest of your life."

Many high-ranking Clinton officials confess that on matters from the First Family to health care to Whitewater, they are afraid to challenge Mrs. Clinton.

"No one wants to tell Bill, or especially Hillary, that they can't do things the way they're used to doing them," explained a top administration official.

The Republicans, who recognize an abuse of executive branch power when they see it and who are desperate to deflate a president buoyed by a strong economy, are yelping.

Dole took the opportunity to remind everybody of the travel office fiasco last spring, in which Nussbaum and other White House aides violated the rules and pressured the FBI to attend a strategy meeting and put out a press release helping to justify the peremptory dismissal of travel office staff members.

The self-critical White House report on that debacle revealed that Mrs. Clinton had strongly supported the original investigation, spurred by her Hollywood pal, the producer Harry Thomason, who was upset that his associates in the airline industry were cut out of White House business. The first lady was informed about the planned dismissal two days before the president.

Two months later, law-enforcement officials accused Nussbaum of impeding their investigation of Foster's death: He kept from investigators a file on the Clintons' involvement in Whitewater.

The night of Foster's death, Margaret Williams, Mrs. Clinton's chief of staff, was with Nussbaum as he searched his deputy's office, before police investigators had a chance to do so.

Several White House officials portrayed Mrs. Clinton, who appears to be more of a central figure than her husband on Whitewater, as the one who held out against the appointment of a special counsel.

People are commenting on the inherent irony: Hillary Rodham first met Nussbaum when he was the associate Watergate special prosecutor and he hired her to work on the House Judiciary panel drawing up impeachment charges. So, people wonder, wouldn't two crusading Democratic lawyers who began by watching Richard Nixon wither away be especially vigilant about not abusing the integrity of federal investigative agencies?

"These are people who come from the Watergate era, that's so important to understand," said a top administration official. "They all say to themselves: "I know what the deal is. I'm not Ehrlichman or Haldeman. I was there. I know better. I'd never be involved in anything wrong like that.' It can blind you to what everybody else sees."

Others say the Clintons became so steeped in the incestuous political ways of Arkansas they did not realize that governing in Washington required different standards.

Paul Costello, who worked as a press secretary for Rosalynn Carter when she was first lady and for Kitty Dukakis during the 1988 campaign, thinks Mrs. Clinton is being unfairly targeted because she is the first first lady "who doesn't apologize for having power and playing the game."

"The price for that in Washington is immolation," Costello said.

Her friends see her plight as poignant. As one administration official who is close to the first lady put it: "She is finally where she wanted to be all her life. And she's not enjoying it. Her father died. Vince Foster died. And she feels her credibility has been badly hurt by the focus on her role in Whitewater."