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During the Whitewater hearings, many congressional probers were obsessed with the question of whether Deputy Treasury Secretary Roger Altman got it right when he told his diary that first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton was "paralyzed" by the controversy.

Whether they got an answer is a matter of interpretation.The relevance of this line of inquiry was never explained. But these are your tax dollars and your elected representatives at work. The questioning reflects what they consider important.

The emotional or mental condition of the president's wife had no direct bearing on the stated purpose of the hearings, which was to ferret out the specifics of any illegal or unethical activities.

But there is hardly anything of importance in the White House in which she is not believed, correctly or not, to have a hand.

She has become such a political force, like it or not, that an emotionally charged word suggesting she might be rendered powerless and helpless by the issue intrigued many inquisitors at the hearing.

Could the first lady, weary of pioneering an influential public role that no president's wife has ever before assumed, be falling apart? Could whatever administration officials did - if indeed they did anything wrong - have been driven by her own extreme reaction?

Could guilt and worry over what might be exposed have immobilized her, if indeed she was immobilized? Was this a clue to some hidden fear?

Or was she "paralyzed" not in a mental sense, but merely physically trapped by such time-consuming consultations with lawyers and others trying to reconstruct events of a decade ago that she had too little time for current issues?

All year, as the Whitewater controversy and other political nastiness boiled along, Hillary Clinton has been publicly active, doing her thing for health reform and behaving coolly and competently.

But that did not dampen the enthusiasm for trying to find out more about a brief diary reference that suggested a different, less confident, private Hillary. Senator after senator delved into the subject.

Altman had written in his diary that Margaret Williams, Hillary Clinton's chief of staff, told him the first lady was "paralyzed" by Whitewater. He quoted Williams as saying, "If we don't solve this within the next two days, you don't have to worry about her schedule or health care."

Altman repeatedly testified that his written account was accurate, and that his interpretation of Williams' remark was that the first lady was "upset."

Williams, however, just as firmly denied that she had said any such a thing. "To the best of my recollection, I did not have a conversation with Mr. Altman where I characterized Mrs. Clinton as paralyzed. . . . (That is) far from the word one would use to describe her," Williams insisted repeatedly.

After prodding, however, she conceded that Whitewater was "a distraction."

But this ambiguity did not satisfy the senators. They felt it a high matter of state to establish precisely what Mrs. Clinton's mood had been.

Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn, asked Williams if she was was in the habit of talking about her boss' mood to others. Williams replied, "It is not something I would share with anyone." Dodd commended her on this virtuous display of discretion. Score one for Williams.

Sen. Richard Shelby, D-Ala., asked, "Could you have forgotten . . . that you used the word paralyzed in the context of a conversation with him?"

Williams: "I think it is possible for a person not to have recalled it." Score one for Altman.

Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, "Let me say that how the first lady felt on any day is none of our business in many ways." Then he proceeded to try to find out anyway, repeating Altman's insistence on the accuracy of his diary version.

Williams replied that "Whitewater certainly was a concern. . . . She was engaged in fact-finding with her personal lawyer, which was taking up a lot of time." Score one for distraction rather than panic.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., asked, "Have you ever seen the first lady paralyzed?"

Williams: "No, I have not."

Murray: "I have not either." Score two for distraction.

Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, R-N.Y.: "What were your emotions (on learning about the diary entry)?"

Williams: "I was upset. . . . I wasn't throwing any chairs." Score one for total irrelevance.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., cited the "incredible pressure" of Whitewater and suggested a characterization of paralysis didn't sound all that far off the mark.

Williams: "She was not distracted. But we could have been much more pro-active if the time that she was spending on answering questions . . . were spent pro-actively on health care." Score one against distraction.

Kerry: "If she's spending a lot of hours on something that she didn't want to spend time on, she's distracted."

Williams: "That would be a fair characterization." Score three for distraction.

These exchanges prove nothing except that two witnesses disagree and that "paralysis" is a word that can be defined several ways. They do not shed much light on Hillary Clinton's actual thoughts and demeanor, except that - surprise! - Whitewater has not escaped her notice.

But they do confirm that U.S. senators are as curious about the first lady - and as bewitched, bothered and bewildered by her - as most of the rest of America.