Hillary Clinton was campaigning for her husband in January 1992 when she learned of the race’s newest flare-up: Gennifer Flowers had just releasedtapes of phone calls with Bill Clinton to back up her claim they had had an affair.
Other candidates had been driven out of races by accusations of infidelity. But now, at a cold, dark airfield in South Dakota, Mrs. Clinton was questioning campaign aides by phone and vowing to fight back on behalf of her husband.
“Who’s tracking down all the research on Gennifer?” she asked, according to a journalist traveling with her at the time.
The enduring image of Mrs. Clinton from that campaign was a “60 Minutes” interview in which she told the country she was not blindly supporting her husband out of wifely duty. “I’m not sitting here, some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette,” she said.
But stand by she did, holding any pain or doubts in check as the campaign battled to keep the Clintons’ political aspirations alive.
Last week, Donald J. Trump, the Republican presidential nominee,criticized Mrs. Clinton over Mr. Clinton’s affairs and her response to them, and said he might talk more about the issue in the final weeks before the election.
Many voters, particularly women, might see Mrs. Clinton being blamed for her husband’s conduct.
It could also remind voters of a searing period in American history, and in Mrs. Clinton’s life.
Confronting a spouse’s unfaithfulness is painful under any circumstance. For Mrs. Clinton, it happened repeatedly and in the most public of ways, unfolding at the dawn of the 24/7 news cycle, and later in impeachment proceedings that convulsed the nation.
Outwardly, she remained stoic and defiant, defending her husband while a progression of women and well-funded conservative operatives accused Mr. Clinton of behavior unbecoming the leader of the free world.
But privately, she embraced the Clinton campaign’s aggressive strategy of counterattack: Women who claimed to have had sexual encounters with Mr. Clinton would become targets of digging and discrediting — tactics that women’s rights advocates frequently denounce.
The campaign hired a private investigator with a bare-knuckles reputation who embarked on a mission, as he put it in a memo, to impugn Ms. Flowers’s “character and veracity until she is destroyed beyond all recognition.”
In a pattern that would later be repeated with other women, the investigator’s staff scoured Arkansas and beyond, collecting disparaging accounts from ex-boyfriends, employers and others who claimed to know Ms. Flowers, accounts that the campaign then disseminated to the news media.
By the time Mr. Clinton finally admitted to “sexual relations” with Ms. Flowers, years later, Clinton aides had used stories collected by the private investigator to brand her as a “bimbo” and a “pathological liar.”
Mrs. Clinton’s level of involvement in that effort, as described in interviews, internal campaign records and archives, is still the subject of debate. By some accounts, she gave the green light and was a motivating force; by others, her support was no more than tacit assent.
What is clear is that Mrs. Clinton was in a difficult spot. She was aware that her husband had cheated earlier in their marriage, but by her telling, she also believed him when he denied the accusations levied by Ms. Flowers and others.
Mickey Kantor, the chairman of Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, said that Mrs. Clinton wanted to separate fact from fiction and to size up the women making the claims.
“Let’s say the woman has some not-helpful things that she has done in the past,” Mr. Kantor said. “Wouldn’t you want to know that, and evaluate it?”
At the same time, a growing cadre of conservative groups and media outlets had begun focusing on the issue. Mrs. Clinton, those close to her said, viewed the attacks as a political crusade that demanded a stiff political response.
And that determination to fight back inspired others in the campaign to do the same.
“She’s the firefighter running to the fire,” Mr. Kantor said, “not away from it.”
Mrs. Clinton and her husband declined to be interviewed, and her campaign did not answer questions about her support of efforts to undermine the women. “The country closed the book on these matters close to 20 years ago, and there is nothing whatsoever new here,” her spokesman, Brian Fallon, said in a statement.
Her campaign also released statements from James Carville, Mr. Clinton’s top campaign strategist, and two lawyers who worked for Mr. Clinton, saying that Mrs. Clinton had not overseen the counterattacks.
“Those who took the lead in responding to those attacks at the time have plainly stated that Hillary Clinton did not direct their work,” Mr. Fallon said.
While Hillary Hammers Away at 'Sexist' Trump, NYTimes Drops a Bombshell About HER Past Treatment Of "Bimbo" Women