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Hillary's words pour salt on wound

Why did the first lady give her scandalously stupid interview? The question reverberates through every bar and beauty shop, cloakroom and construction site from here to Cairo. "What got into her?" they ask.

Whenever we are wondering why either Clinton does something exceptionally irrational, it is best to look at a poll. Sure enough, a survey conducted last March by John Zogby, a premier New York pollster, offers a clue. Topmost in New Yorkers' minds about their celebrity carpetbagger was, "Why don't you leave him?"

Hillary's explanation was conveyed, fittingly, in the inaugural pages of Talk magazine, the brainchild of the English enfant terrible, Tina Brown, who injected vulgarity and garishness into the stately New Yorker. Both the vehicle and the substance showed a lack of judgment that might disqualify one for the Senate, where good judgment is considered a prime requisite for membership _ even though you might not always know it.

You see, it isn't her faithless mate's fault that he can't keep his hands off other women. Oh, yes, he's responsible, as we all are for what we do, she tells Lucinda Franks, but who can blame him? He was "abused" from the age of 4, was caught in the cross-fire between two warring women, his mother and his grandmother.

Looking down the road, you can picture the first lady's campaign turning into a Dr. Hillary traveling show of open-ended advice to the lovelorn, like those tacky late-night TV panels where people tell about how far they went on their first date. You can almost hear the earnest matron from Elmira: "Mrs. Clinton, my husband is carrying on with his bookkeeper. When I tell him to stop, he says he was humiliated in the third grade by an arithmetic teacher and this woman has brought him closure. Should I forgive him?"

In trying to rationalize her husband's conduct and her acceptance of it, Hillary cites two people who, being in their graves, cannot hold press conferences. Why did she talk about these things? "So shrewd to get it out of the way," says one of her few defenders. But Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., with her usual forthrightness, called it "dreadful."

Maybe New York voters will be so focused on crumbling schools and other social problems 15 months from now that they will not resent the fact that Hillary Clinton is using the Empire State as a couch on which to work out her personal problems. Maybe they will have lost interest in the "sins of weakness" of her husband. Maybe they will forget that she told them in February 1998 that the Lewinsky scandal was the work of a "vast right-wing conspiracy," or sometime later that it came from what Richard Nixon called "sectional prejudice" _ anti-Arkansas bigotry. Her most breathtaking claim: Clinton lied to the country for 10 months to "protect" her. Don Juan was at heart a Boy Scout.

The first lady's adoring staff has told us that she felt "comfortable" with Lucinda Franks. It couldn't have been Ms. Franks' syntax. On the Chris Matthews show on CNBC Tuesday night, explaining that the fatal encounter had been set up without benefit of Hillary's aides, she said _ and you could hear English teachers gasping from coast to coast _ "It was an arrangement between she and I."

On Capitol Hill, Hillary's strategic gaucherie caused a historic first. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., an ardent Hillary promoter, for the first time in memory said "no comment" about a public matter. "I don't want to talk about that," he said to amazed reporters.

Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, the first Democratic senator to notice that President Clinton's conduct was outrageous, said the interview had caused him his "first bout of Clinton fatigue." Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., observed merrily, "Those excuses never worked for me."

On the GOP side, Utah Sen. Robert Bennett asked out loud what others murmured. "Why would she want to reopen that wound and pour a bucket of salt in it?"

Actually the wound had been reopened by several hands lately. Monica Lewinsky flipped her car on Highway 101 in California. A judge levied a stiff fine on the president for lying in the smelly Paula Jones case. And Linda Tripp, the self-proclaimed "average American" snitch, was indicted by a Maryland grand jury for taping Monica's babble about the "big creep."

If the weird logic of the Clinton era prevails, neither of the Clintons will suffer for their excesses. The designated casualty will probably be, once again, poor Al Gore.

+ Mary McGrory is a Washington Post columnist. +

Universal Press Syndicate