By People Staff
December 28, 1998 12:00 PM

All through this most trying year, Hillary Rodham Clinton lived by a motto from Eleanor Roosevelt: “A woman i is like a tea bag. You never know how strong it is until it’s in hot water.” Month after month, independent counsel Ken Starr burrowed into her husband’s most private moments, tossing up phone sex and gift ties. Month after month, the cameras clicked and whirred, waiting for her to reveal the emotional impact of her ordeal. Through it all, Hillary held her ground. “The more mortifying the public situation,” says Clinton presidential campaign adviser Mandy Grunwald, “the more private she will become.”

Still, many questioned that stance, wondering why she supported the spouse who had betrayed her, and what motivated her political resolve. Had she publicly turned against her husband, his presidency probably would have ended months ago. “All she had to do was just push, and Clinton would have been out of there,” says ABC News White House correspondent Sam Donaldson. But she didn’t. Not even after that August Monday before the Clintons left for Martha’s Vineyard, when he told the nation he had lied about Monica Lewinsky.

Like an athlete preparing to compete, those close to her report, she went deep within herself. “She has great inner strength, a circle of devoted friends and a terrific capacity to keep things centered,” says Diane Blair, an Arkansas friend. And even during the worst of it, she kept Chelsea as safe from public prying as she has throughout her daughter’s life. When Hillary surfaced weeks later, it was as the Democratic party’s star campaign attraction, traveling coast-to-coast to raise millions for candidates who might have hesitated to share a platform with her husband. Says Bill Clinton biographer David Maraniss: “She has consistently transformed her personal pain into the political cause.”

Back during her husband’s first term, when her national health care plan was in a shambles and the shadow of White-water hung over her, Hillary’s approval ratings often hovered around 40 percent. By October of this year, they hit 70 percent. Even as her husband faced an impeachment vote, she landed in triumph on the cover of Vogue, poised, perfectly coiffed (at last!), resplendent at 51. In early December she made a kind of victory tour of New York City, lighting the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree with Garth Brooks, turning up at the premiere of Shakespeare in Love with Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein, joining Whoopi Goldberg and Rosie O’Donnell at a For All Kids Foundation dinner and promoting her campaign to prevent teen pregnancy at a TEEN PEOPLE lunch. “She is the great First Lady of the 20th century,” contends Ann Douglas, the Columbia University professor who wrote the Vogue profile. “She is simply smarter than anybody around her.” Others, though, were dismayed by the advent of “Hollywood Hillary” and appalled that her unprecedented public esteem springs from being publicly demeaned. She is now lauded, complained New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, not “for something that she has done, but for something she has endured.”

After the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Americans admired Jacqueline Kennedy as much for the pain she did not show as for the pain she did. Hillary Clinton’s hardy response to her different but still hurtful predicament won her something akin to that approval, though there were signs during this month’s trip to the Middle East that she was no longer willing to act the camera-ready part of affectionate wife. Does the First Lady envision herself in the starring role? CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather suggested on Larry King Live that Hillary might be the Democratic presidential nominee in 2000. More realistically, there’s talk about a future Senate run—though one former White House aide says, “I can’t imagine Mrs. Clinton will get into elected politics when it has pretty much ruined her life.”