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- January 25, 1993
- Vol. 39
- No. 3
She's Been a Sister, Lawyer, Wife, Activist and Mother and Now First Lady. Those Who Know Hillary Rodham Clinton Best Look at Her Spiritual Center
That may have been the last time Hillary Rodham let anyone else define who she was or how she should act. By the time she graduated from Wellesley in 1969 with one of the school's highest academic distinctions, she was an outspoken Democrat with a facility for debate who had shredded at least two old-lace traditions. Bored with the whalebone-and-satin formality of school dances, Hillary, in her junior year, decided to try something different. "She put together a wonderfully outrageous outfit to wear to the dance," recalls classmate Jan Piercy. "It was floor-length culottes in a brilliant orange with feathers and bracelets." More substantively, she and her friends successfully campaigned to break precedent and have a student speaker at their class's commencement. Their choice? Hilary, who startled the parents and faculty with an impassioned speech defining the idealism of her generation. She drew a standing ovation.
Now that Hillary Rodham Clinton, 45, is moving into the White House this week, she is confronting other sets of expectations about how she should or should not behave. In the days before the Inauguration, pundits were buzzing that her offices would not be in the White House's East Wing—the traditional pink ghetto of the First Lady—but rather in the power-packed West Wing. Indeed, after the election Bill Clinton had unabashedly defended her role in transition discussions, saying "she knew more than we did about some things." Will she be her husband's de facto chief of staff, or will she be a kind of Joan of Arkansas, fighting for her own agendas in the While House?
If past is prologue, Hillary will conform to no one's standards but her own. "In her whole adult life she has been extremely consistent in terms of her values and goals and activities," says Alan Schechter, a professor of political science at Wellesley, who taught Hillary and has stayed in touch over the years. "She's not a wavering kind of person. But she knows when to play hard and when to use a soft touch."
Hilary's life has in fact been one of subtle evolution. The daughter of Hugh Rodham, proprietor of a small drapery company, and his wife, Dorothy, Hillary grew up in the conservative Chicago suburb of Park Ridge. She went to Maine South High School, one classmate recalls, in box-pleated skirts, blouses with Peter Pan collars, mohair sweaters, loafers with knee socks, her hair in a pageboy—the very model of a '60s baby boomer. As a junior, she sang in a school variety show with a cast that included Steve Goodman, who later wrote the Arlo Guthrie hit City of New Orleans. (Goodman died in 1984.)
At home she was already a focused and inner-directed big sister, looking out for her younger brothers, Hugh, now 42, and Tony, 38. A bunch of neighborhood kids would make regular excursions to local parks. "Hinkley Field had the world's best hot dogs," recalls Tony. "Hillary and her group would take us to the park and make sine we were safe and bring us home." Their father, who frequently reminded his children of the hardships of the Great Depression, inculcated a sense of responsibility in his offspring from the beginning. Says Tony: "We were probably the only kids in the whole suburb who didn't get an allowance. We'd rake the leaves, cut the grass, pull weeds, shovel snow. All your friends would be going to a movie. After your errands, you'd walk in and say, 'Gee, Dad, I could use two or three dollars.' He'd flop another potato on your dinner plate and say, 'That's your reward.' "
While growing up in Park Ridge. Hillary met one of the seminal influences in her life—Rev. Don Jones, who led regular discussions with the youth group at the First Methodist Church. Now a religion professor at Drew University in New Jersey, Jones, 61, recalls that Hillary "wasn't going to take a backseat to anyone. She wouldn't let some young man dominate meetings if he had nothing to say. She wasn't going to be demure and spend a lot of time looking cute to attract people." By the time she was in high school, Hillary, under Jones's guidance, was reading religious philosophers such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Søren Kierkegaard, as well as doing good works like forming a baby-sitting service for the children of migrant workers who labored on nearby farms.
"This may sound corny," says Jones, who is still close to the Clintons, "but the key to understanding Hillary is her spiritual center. Unlike some people who at a particular age land on a cause and become concerned, with Hillary I think of a continuous textured development. Her social concern and her political thought rest on a spiritual foundation." Ed Matthews, her minister (Bill is a Baptist) at the First United Methodist Church in Little Rock, agrees. "She carries devotional materials in her purse," he says. "She reads an awful lot of Christian ethics and is unique as a layman for her heavy reading in theology." (Gold and silver pins of angels "who watch over me" visit her lapels regularly.)
The Hillary who went from Park Ridge to Wellesley was calm, pragmatic and, like nearly everyone in her neighborhood, Republican. But she was already animated by the social-justice issues Jones had raised. In her sophomore year, she and other students began pushing for increased black enrollment at Wellesley. "We were all still afraid to talk about it." classmate Piercy recalls. "But Hillary's attitude was, "What's so embarrassing? If we're not willing to talk about it, how are we going to get past it? If prejudice exists, let's talk about it.' "
The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., whom Hillary had met when Jones took her to hear him preach in 1962, hit particularly hard. "People don't usually see Hillary get upset," says her Wellesley roommate, Johanna Branson. "I saw her very upset that afternoon. I was alone in our suite. She came in, the door flew back, and her book bag went crashing against the wall. She was completely distraught about the horror of it. I know it sounds corny [a phrase that friends use, both apologetically and proudly, to describe the Clintons], but I believe that's when she resolved to be more involved in changing injustice."
Others saw the same change. "She wrote her thesis on poverty and community organizing," says Prof. Schechter, "and you don't choose to write about that unless you're concerned about poor people. She wanted to go to law school to do something socially useful. She had this idea of greater happiness through service."
At Yale Law School, she did research for her now famous thesis on the rights of children, worked with poor children at the Yale-New Haven Hospital and graduated with honors. At Yale, too, she met the two people who would most change her life: Marian Wright Edelman of the Children's Defense Fund—and Bill Clinton. She worked for Edelman in Cambridge as a staff attorney and later served five years as chairperson of Edelman's board. Her interest in the problems of poor people, children and women has remained the common theme of her professional life.
But her personal future lay with Clinton and Arkansas. When, on vacations from Yale, she visited Arkansas with Bill, his friends rarely saw her. Says Carolyn Staley, who once dated Bill and who remains one of his closest friends from high school: "He would come over to visit me, and she was always home because she had so much law reading to do. She'd always rather be reading hooks hack then. I thought it was great. There were hardly any other women who had been in Bill Clinton's life who didn't try to spend all their time with him. When [Bill and Hillary] walk into a room, they go their separate ways. She had her own interests and never drew her identity from him." Staley says Hillary was the self-sufficient woman Bill always said he'd marry. Bill once said, "I remember being genuinely afraid of falling in love with Hillary, because she was so gifted and so special. I was a serious student, but she was a brain, a presence."
The couple seem to thrive on each other's energy—even in rounds of Pictionary, which they often play with friends. Says Staley: "Hillary is not as competitive as Bill, but they both have to be reminded that it's just a game.
The arrival of Chelsea, five years after her marriage, added the juggling role to Hillary's life. Says her mother, Dorothy: "I used to call her and say, 'What do you have on now? Are you a lawyer today or running out to a board meeting or to a play with Chelsea?' " The pregnancy had been delicate, according to friends. "Hillary is a very disciplined person," says Ann Henry, a Fayetteville lawyer and longtime friend. "She did nothing to risk having am kind of problem with this child. She ate the perfect diet." Hillary ended up having a C-section.
Chelsea is never far from the center of her mother's life. Hillary's heartiest laugh—a sometimes startlingly exuberant guffaw—inevitably erupts over the antics and jokes of her daughter. During a busy weekend, friends once found Hillary sewing name tags on the clothes Chelsea was taking to camp. And while the decision to send Chelsea to the private Sidwell Friends School, in Washington, D.C., risked the rancor of some Clinton constituencies, it also showed the family's fierce determination to do what they say "is best for our daughter."
Then there is the professional Hillary with the blow-you-away résumé—lawyer, board member, commission member, overachiever. "You read how smart she is, but she gets things accomplished by dint of personality," says Barbara Mayden, a lawyer who served with Hillary in 1987 on the American Bar Association Commission on Women in the Profession, which was created to examine problems laced by women lawyers. "She's a tough workmistress. But she has a warmth that makes you want to go the extra mile. I worked like a dog. I did it because of her. And she was fun. We'd start every meeting talking about movies we'd seen. We talked for the first few minutes about how cute Kevin Costner was, including Hillary! The men around us just rolled their eyes."
Humorous, warm, sensitive, intelligent...so she's perfect? "She isn't that patient," concedes one friend, Cynthia Schneider, after pondering the question for a long moment. "But I think she seems more impatient because Bill is so patient. She is like most professional women, doing everything at once and feeling it's not enough." Still, many predict that the highly organized Hillary may bring a necessary nudge to the new Administration. In contrast to her husband, who can at times be affable to a fault, Hillary isn't afraid to make tough decisions. "Bill loves everybody because he wants everybody to love him," says John Robert Starr, an Arkansas journalist long critical of the former Governor. "Hillary's capable of judging people and issues. And if she decides something is right, she doesn't care if it's controversial."
HOWARD G. CHUA-EOAN
NINA BURLEIGH, LINDA KRAMER in Washington. D.C., with bureau reports
- Nina Burleigh,
- Linda Kramer.
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