07/08/1996 at 01:00 AM EDT
ANOTHER NEWS CREW WINDS ITS way up the sandy driveway of Jean Houston's once-tranquil four-acre property in Pomona, N.Y. But before they even reach the shady porch of her home, Houston has her answers ready. "There was no séance! There were no spooks!" she shouts with a theatrical flourish.
The media have been beating a path to Houston's door ever since last week's revelation—in Bob Woodward's new book The Choice—that she prompted Hillary Clinton to conduct an imaginary conversation with Eleanor Roosevelt last year at the White House. Like Nancy Reagan, whose well-publicized visits with an astrologer once kept talk show joke writers working late, Houston, too, suddenly found herself the hapless butt of a thousand gags. Worse yet, the longtime academic also found herself facing an identity crisis. "Hillary's Guru," headlined both the New York Post and the Daily News; the Boston Herald dubbed her the "First Lady's Spiritual Adviser."
Yet Houston, the author of 13 books, says the visualization technique she used with the First Lady—while Clinton was writing her 1996 bestseller, It Takes a Village—was simply "a classic role-playing game" designed to jog Clinton's imagination. "It's done every day, everywhere, at every corporation around the world," she says.
Supporters have rallied to Houston's defense. "Go to any bookstore and you'll find book after book with corporate executives talking about their visioning for their business," says Elizabeth Kautz, an organizational development consultant. "Now two women do it and it gets criticized." Even some Republicans are on her side. William R. Bryant, a former GOP leader in the Michigan House of Representatives, calls her a "woman of high intellect." And, he adds, she's "a wonderful standup comedian."
Houston, 57, was raised on jokes. Born in Brooklyn, the daughter of Jack Houston, a comedy writer who worked for Bob Hope and Edgar Bergen, and his wife, Mary Todaro, a statistician, Houston traveled the country with her father after her parents divorced when she was 14. She attended more than 20 schools, graduating from Barnard College with an arts degree. In 1963, Houston met, and later married, Robert Masters. She earned her Ph.D. in psychology from Cincinnati's Union Institute in 1973, and together, Houston and Masters began the Foundation for Mind Research to study ways to help people think more creatively. Their base is the hillside home they share with their two dogs and two cats. (They have no children.)
For the past 12 years, Houston has spent her weekends conducting workshops in which, for $3,500, through art, drama and storytelling, she encourages students to explore parallels between myths and their own lives and problems. When not on center stage she has spent much of her time on the road, studying ancient and indigenous cultures and their mythologies. Through her interest in anthropology she befriended Margaret Mead, who lived with Houston and Masters for several years before her death in 1978.
In December 1994, after the Democrats' crushing defeat in the congressional elections, the Clintons invited Houston to Camp David with four other self-help authors. She and Hillary clicked immediately. "She is very empathetic," says Houston, who subsequently visited the White House several times, including two five-day stretches while Hillary was writing her book. Her last—and perhaps final—visit took place in March. Though Houston received a sympathetic note from Hillary's office, she says that after the furor, "I doubt I can go back there." Meanwhile, in a statement to the press about the media hubbub, the First Lady mused, "I do wonder what Eleanor Roosevelt might think of all this." Should she find out, chances are she'll keep the answer to herself.
ANTHONY DUIGNAN-CARRERA in Pomona, MARGARET NELSON in Minneapolis and MARGIE SELLINGER in Washington