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In person, Hillary Clinton seems genuinely warm, affable

SHE'S COME A long way from the no-nonsense, intensely religious, politically conservative young lady whose high school newspaper predicted she would become a nun with the name, "Sister Frigidaire."

The elements of that high school senior are still in Hillary Rodham Clinton, but maturity, both chronological and political, have greatly contributed to a more charming, accessible and balanced persona.How else to explain a wife who can laugh unreservedly, even uproariously, at a visiting teenager's uninhibited remarks - while in the middle of the most embarrassing and potentially catastrophic political crisis of her husband's presidency?

Our associate Dale Van Atta and his teenage daughter got a rare glimpse of the first lady during an interview specifically granted to discuss her early years as a Young Republican. He found her more attractive than film has rendered her and much warmer and more affable than media profiles have made her out to be.

Our interview was conducted on the afternoon of Tuesday, Jan. 20, only three days after President Clinton's lengthy deposition in the Paula Jones case in which he reportedly acknowledged his long-rumored affair with Gennifer Flowers. It came a day before the explosive allegation that President Clinton had sexual relations with a 24-year-old former White House intern and then urged her to lie about it under oath.

The closest Hillary Clinton came to the issue was when questioned about the importance of ethics and morality in government. Of course, this is critical to moral democracy, she began. "It's essential in democracy that people who are in public life conduct themselves in public life in a way that engenders the trust and faith of their constituents."

But, she continued, recalling the Whitewater investigation and the other scandals in which she and her husband have become embroiled: "One of the things that I regret deeply about the current atmosphere is that many of the concerns that now pass for ethical concerns are really blown out of proportion and are, to me, quite unnecessarily harsh."

On that windy afternoon, in the White House, the first lady's words provided a chilly foreshadowing of the devastating news that was to hit the front pages only hours later.

Ironically, our interview with the first lady had been scheduled to discuss her own experiences as a Washington intern - three decades ago, in 1968.

As Hillary Clinton explained it, the Rodham family of Chicago was Republican, living in a Republican suburb. She absorbed those political lessons and was a "Goldwater Girl" in 1964. But by the time she went to Wellesley College in Massachusetts a year later, she was having her doubts.

A pivotal point in her evolving political perspective came between her junior and senior years of college. She applied and was accepted to Wellesley's internship program in Washington, where interns are put up in dorms at George Washington University.

Hillary Rodham's job that summer was to work for the House Republican Conference, led at the time by Rep. Melvin Laird, R-Wis. The young woman was deeply impressed with Laird, though not so awed that she didn't argue with him against the Vietnam War.

To her surprise, she recalls, Laird engaged her as an equal. "He was without pretense," she said. "He was down to earth. Here he was, willing to engage in a back and forth with a kid who was only moderately well-informed. But at least he took me seriously."

The thing that impressed her most about Laird, who only months later was to be named President-elect Richard M. Nixon's secretary of defense, was how fairly and respectfully he treated the young female interns.

"I have pretty good antennae for people who are chauvinistic or sexist or patronizing toward women," and Laird was none of these, Hillary Clinton continued. Even more important, he never engaged in the kind of backroom high jinks that other politicians often engaged in, even - or especially - when young ladies were present.

"I remember one time going to a big luncheon with a lot of the Republican members of Congress," she recalled. "About a third of the people there were young women. There was some rough language and some unnecessary joke-telling that was offensive. Of course, in those days, it didn't seem possible (for any of us) to say or do anything about it. But, you know, Secretary Laird was always above that."

The Hillary Rodham of yesterday and today would not likely put up with a man she believed used his power and prestige to seduce a young woman not much older than her own daughter. Given Hillary Clinton's spirited defense of her husband in recent days, it is as certain as anything in Washington that she believes her husband is innocent of the charges against him, even if many of her fellow Democrats do not.