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A role model, Hillary Clinton was also friend, advisor and protector of the late princess.

Published September 3, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

when First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton sits in the pew at Westminster Abbey next Saturday she will be paying respects to the late Princess Diana not just as a formal representative of the United States government. She will be saying goodbye to an individual with whom she had developed a deeply personal connection, based on shared experiences of rocky marriages, shielding their children from the public gaze and surviving the trespasses of a predator press.

In announcing the trip on Tuesday, a White House spokesman said Hillary Clinton was going because of the "president's and the first lady's personal association with the late Princess Diana and deep respect for her humanitarian work." But the links between Hillary Clinton and Princess Diana go deeper than that.

A source close to the first lady said her relationship with Diana went back to 1994, when the princess of Wales first visited the Clinton White House. At the time, Hillary Clinton already had weathered several rocky periods in her marriage to the president, she was in an increasingly negative spotlight over health-care reform and both she and the president were struggling to raise their daughter, Chelsea, all amid constant salvos from Republican critics and the national press.

The source said Diana, who was also struggling with a bad marriage, the responsibilities of children and her royal duties under a relentless media glare, saw Hillary Clinton as something of a "role model" in how to cope with these pressures.

"Mrs. Clinton is a well-educated, professional woman who is about 15 years older than Princess Diana and who has raised her family and kept her marriage intact," the source said. "Princess Diana sought her out to speak with her."

The only other American official joining Hillary Clinton at the funeral, expected to be one of the most widely watched events in recent history, will be the U.S. ambassador to Britain, retired Adm. William Crowe. President Clinton will not attend, and there was some confusion Tuesday as to whether he had been invited. White House officials said he had not, while British Embassy officials said he had but that he had declined.

"The president did not receive an invitation," a senior White House aide told Salon. Even if he had, the aide added, President Clinton would not have attended since the royal family had indicated the funeral would not be a state affair, with invitations restricted to those who had a personal relationship with the Diana. "The person who had that kind of relationship was the first lady, not the president," the aide said.

"That's not right," British Embassy spokesman Richard Chatterton Dickson told Salon. "The indication we got from the White House was that the president would not attend. Had he decided he wanted to attend, an invitation would have been issued to him. As it is, we're delighted the first lady is coming."

While some diplomatic experts said it would have been inappropriate for a president to attend what is less than a state funeral, other observers believe Clinton did not want to get caught up in a behind-the scenes dispute between Queen Elizabeth, who was known to have strained relations with Diana and wanted a low-key funeral, and her son, Prince Charles, who, along with Prime Minister Tony Blair, was said to have favored a full state funeral for his ex-wife.

"The queen can be a vengeful old bitch," said Martin Walker, Washington bureau chief of Britain's Guardian newspaper. He noted that on Sunday, the day Diana's death was announced, the flags at Buckingham Palace conspicuously did not fly at half-staff. Walker added that after learning of Diana's death, Charles wanted to shield their two sons, Prince William, 15, and Prince Harry, 13, from a widely publicized church service at Balmoral Castle, where the royal family had been vacationing, but that the queen had insisted they attend. To make matters worse, Walker said, no special prayers were said for Diana at the church service.

The British Embassy's Dickson characterized the reports of tension between the queen and Prince Charles over the funeral as "gossip."

Such "gossip," whether true or not, was of course a constant factor in the lives of both Princess Diana and Hillary Clinton. The two would speak about the responsibilities facing women in public roles and "how difficult it is to raise a normal family and have healthy, loved and loving children in a spotlight where you're facing a predator press," the source close to Hillary Clinton told Salon.

Over time, the source said, Hillary Clinton "became a role model for her. You could see how, on Diana's part, it was a natural attraction. Hillary was like her older sister."

In the princess's later visits to the White House, Hillary Clinton was aware of Diana's fragility, especially after her divorce from Charles, and provided her with both protection and privacy. Last June, when Diana was in Washington to attend a Red Cross gala to draw attention to her crusade against land mines, Hillary Clinton slipped her into the White House through the West Wing and the president's cabinet room, away from the view of reporters. The media never knew she was there.

By Jonathan Broder

Jonathan Broder is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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Bill Clinton British Election Hillary Rodham Clinton