In the student lounge of Yale Law School, in September 1970, Hillary Rodham could not help noticing a tall, handsome young man with a reddish brown beard and an unruly mane of chestnut brown hair. He was talking energetically and expansively with a small circle of rapt students, and Hillary later observed that he looked more like a Viking holding court than a first-year law student trying to win over a few friends.
The first words that Hillary heard him say, in a syrupy southern drawl, were ". . . and not only that, we grow the biggest watermelons in the world!"
"Who is that?" Hillary asked a friend.
"Oh, that's Bill Clinton," the friend replied. "He's from Arkansas, and that's all he ever talks about."
Hillary did not meet Bill that day. In fact, nearly two semesters passed before they would finally be introduced. Through that fall and into the spring, however, the two spent a lot of time just staring at each other across the student lounge or the law library. One spring evening in the library, Hillary observed Bill in the hallway, talking to a student named Jeff Gleckel, who was attempting to persuade Bill to write for the Yale Law Journal. As he listened to Jeff 's pitch, Bill once again found himself glancing over at Hillary. Finally, Hillary decided that enough was enough. She stood up from behind her desk, walked over to her admirer, extended her hand for a shake, and said, "If you're going to keep looking at me, and I'm going to keep looking back, we might as well be introduced. I'm Hillary Rodham."
Bill was flummoxed and flattered by this young woman's forwardness — her boldness nearly left him speechless, which in itself was quite a feat. But for Hillary, it was neither a surprising move nor an uncharacteristic one. As long as anyone could remember, Hillary Rodham had seized the initiative in a way that made people's heads spin.
"I wasn't born a First Lady or a senator," Hillary Rodham Clinton wrote in the opening paragraph of her 2003 autobiography, Living History. "I wasn't born a Democrat. I wasn't born a lawyer or an advocate for women's rights and human rights. I wasn't born a wife or mother. I was born an American in the middle of the twentieth century, a fortunate time and place."
Hillary Diane Rodham was born in Chicago on October 26, 1947. Her childhood, spent primarily in the leafy suburb called Park Ridge, was a happy one, thanks to her parents, Hugh and Dorothy Rodham. Her father was a scrappy and hard-edged Welshman from Scranton, Pennsylvania, who had found work as a traveling salesman in the Midwest at the Columbia Lace Company. It was there that he met Dorothy Howell, who was applying for a job as a typist. She was immediately attracted to his cocksure demeanor and disciplined work ethic; she even found charm in his acerbic sense of humor. In 1927, Dorothy's parents had divorced when she was only eight years old, a decision that embarrassed the family because divorce was not common in the 1920s. Her mother and father had then sent Dorothy and her brothers and sisters to live in California with their grandparents. Despite understandable reservations about matrimony, Dorothy married Hugh in early 1942, not long after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and the children quickly arrived — first Hillary, then Hugh Jr., and finally Tony.
The Rodhams worked to ensure that Hillary and her two brothers grew up with every advantage in a pleasant, secure environment. They lived in a well-kept two-story brick home on the corner lot of Elm and Wisner streets, a house bought by Hugh with cash. "We had two sundecks, a screened-in porch and a fenced-in backyard where the neighborhood kids would come to play or to sneak cherries from our tree," Hillary wrote in her autobiography. "The postwar population explosion was booming, and there were swarms of children everywhere. My mother once counted forty-seven kids living on our square block."
Parked in their driveway was a shiny Cadillac, its presence a bit deceiving. Hugh was one of the few tradesmen who lived on Elm Street. Most of the fathers of Hillary's young friends were lawyers, doctors, or accountants who commuted on the train every day to their offices high above the Loop. Hugh's fancy car was not so much a sign of well-being as a professional necessity: He needed it to make sales rounds for the drapery company named Rodrik Fabrics that he had founded a few years before the family moved to Park Ridge. Hugh worked fourteen hours a day at his fledgling business, which manufactured draperies for hotels and office buildings, single-handedly attending to every task — from taking orders by phone to sewing the draperies by hand to finally hanging them himself. Only years later, when his two sons were old enough to pitch in on the occasional Saturday, did he get help.
Hugh was "a small businessman, who taught us by his example the values of hard work and responsibility," Hillary once said. A Republican, he was proud that he had served as a chief petty officer in the navy, where he had prepared young recruits to fight in the Pacific theater. At home, Hugh suffered no fools gladly, demanding that his children be smart and tough and absorb life's many jabs without complaint. Hillary recalled that Hugh's strictness was reserved more for his sons than for her. But his lofty expectations that they excel in school and think on their feet were applied to Hillary as well.
Hillary's mother, Dorothy, was later described by her daughter as "a classic homemaker." She woke up at 6:00 a.m. sharp, made the beds, cleaned the clothes, washed the dishes, and whipped up homemade lunches of chicken-noodle and tomato soup and grilled-cheese, peanut butter, and bologna sandwiches. From an early age, Dorothy noticed, Hillary seemed imbued with a sense that she was special. As a youngster, she spent hours dancing in the sunshine in her backyard with her arms stretched above her head, reaching for the maple trees and the sky. She imagined a platoon of "heavenly movie cameras watching my every move," Hillary later recalled. And when interacting with other children or meeting adults, Hillary demonstrated a maturity far beyond her years. Dorothy Rodham often said that it seemed as if her only daughter was born an adult.
Though she might have carried a grace and strength that belied her age, Hillary still had to deal with the usual childhood battles. At the age of four, shortly after the family moved to Park Ridge, Hillary struggled to find a niche among the neighborhood's chaotic group of preschool children. She was given an especially hard time by a young girl named Suzy O'Callaghan, who was stronger and tougher than all the girls and most of the boys. Suzy often beat up the neighborhood kids, including Hillary, who ran home crying one day to tell her mother.
If she expected sympathy, her mother delivered none. "There's no room in this house for cowards," Dorothy told her daughter. "Go back out there, and if Suzy hits you, you have my permission to hit her back. You have to stand up for yourself."
Sure enough, Hillary stomped outside and, with a circle of boys and girls watching (and Dorothy spying from behind the dining room curtain), she returned one of Suzy's punches, knocking the bully to the ground. Hillary returned triumphantly to her house, telling her mother, "I can play with the boys now! And Suzy will be my friend!" "Boys responded well to Hillary," Dorothy later said with pride. "She took charge, and they let her."
Indeed they did. Hillary emerged as one of the natural leaders in the children's marathon games of basketball, ice hockey, kickball, and softball. Yet she preferred imaginative contests, like a rather complicated one called "chase and run," which resembled hide-and-seek. When Hillary was ten or eleven years old, she began to join the grown-ups, playing pinochle with her father, her grandfather, her uncle Willard, and some of their odd pals, including two cranky old men named Old Pete and Hank, both terrible sore losers. ("Is that black-haired bastard home?" Old Pete would ask Hillary of her father as he marched up the front porch stairs, rattling his cane. "I want to play cards.") More than once, Old Pete toppled a card table after a tough defeat.
Hillary learned lessons about work and sportsmanship from the men in the family, but it was her mother who provided the most direct and intimate evidence of the importance of scholarship for girls at a time when few opportunities were available to them. "My mother loved her home and her family, but she felt limited by the narrow choices of her life," Hillary wrote in her autobiography. "It is easy to forget now, when women's choices can seem overwhelming, how few there were for my mother's generation."16 Hillary saw her mother's frustration with the limited number of personal and professional choices. She was also touched by her mother's lifelong zeal for learning. Dorothy took college courses, and though she never graduated, she managed to accumulate dozens of credits in a wide range of subjects. "My mother wanted us to learn about the world by reading books," Hillary recalled. And much of Hillary's childhood was spent doing exactly that. "She took me to the library every week, and I loved working my way through the books in the children's section."
Long before she entered public life, Hillary struggled to reconcile often diametrically opposed values and viewpoints offered by her father and her mother. "I grew up between the push and tug of my parents' values, and my own political beliefs reflect both," Hillary wrote in her autobiography. "My mother was basically a Democrat, although she kept it quiet in Republican Park Ridge. My Dad was a rock-ribbed, up-by-your-bootstraps, conservative Republican and proud of it. He was also tightfisted with money."
In Living History, Hillary connected her father's staunch Republican politics with a disciplined fiscal conservatism, and the link was hardly an accident. As he had shown with his Cadillac purchase, Hugh Rodham believed firmly in the axiom "Cash is king," and he ran his business on a "strict pay-as-you-go policy." Like many who grew up during the Depression, he was driven to work hard by the fear of falling back into the quagmire of poverty. A by-product of his frugal ways was an intense dislike of wastefulness, even if the wasted amounted to no more than a few pennies. "If one of my brothers or I forgot to screw the cap back on the toothpaste tube, my father threw it out the bathroom window," Hillary recalled. "We would have to go outside, even in the snow, to search for it in the evergreen bushes in front of the house. That was his way of reminding us not to waste anything. To this day, I put uneaten olives back in the jar, wrap up the tiniest pieces of cheese and feel guilty when I throw anything away."
Hugh Rodham was "highly opinionated, to put it mildly," Hillary said. "We all accommodated his pronouncements, mostly about Communists, shady businessmen or crooked politicians, the three lowest forms of life in his eyes." Every night at the dinner table, he moderated raucous debates about politics or sports, and by the age of twelve, Hillary had learned to defend her positions on a wide array of issues, though she had also realized that it rarely made sense to directly confront her father. "I also learned," she wrote, "that a person was not necessarily bad just because you did not agree with him, and that if you believed in something, you had better be prepared to defend it."
When she was attending Maine East junior high school, Hillary was influenced profoundly by her first history teacher, Paul Carlson. Carlson, a burly, deeply conservative man, taught a course entitled History of Civilization, a class that came to life in particularly vivid fashion when the subject turned to World War II. The hero of most lessons was General Douglas MacArthur, whose face in a portrait stared down at the ninth-grade students from the front of the classroom.
Carlson's zeal for history left an impression on Hillary, but he would also leave a lasting mark in a decidedly different way. In class one day, Carlson played an audiotape of MacArthur's famous farewell speech before both houses of Congress. After the old general's famous coda, "Old soldiers never die; they just fade away," Carlson told his students, "Better to be dead than Red!" A student named Ricky Ricketts, who was seated in alphabetical order directly in front of Hillary, began laughing, and Hillary joined in. Carlson asked them, "What do you think is so funny?"
"Gee, Mr. Carlson," Ricky replied, "I'm only fourteen years old and I'd rather be alive than anything." This reply just made Hillary and Ricky laugh harder, and Carlson became enraged by their disrespectful outburst. Hi s face flushed, he shouted, "Quiet! This is serious business!" But Hillary and Ricky could not contain their laughter and were thrown out of the classroom. It would be the only time in Hillary's life that she was disciplined by one of her teachers.
Although Hillary now insists that her brand of politics was influenced equally by the divergent leanings of her mother and her father, there is no doubt that Hugh Rodham shaped most of his daughter's early political beliefs. As a preteen, Hillary was a spirited and deeply conservative young Republican. In the fall of 1960, when she was in the eighth grade, her father supported Vice President Richard M. Nixon for the presidency, as did Hillary's eighth-grade social studies teacher, Mr. Kenvin. And, of course, Hillary also wanted Nixon to win. The day after the election, Hillary's social studies teacher showed his students the bruises he said he had received when he challenged the Democratic Party's poll watchers at his voting precinct on Election Day. Hillary and her friend Betsy Johnson were infuriated. To Hillary, her teacher's ordeal dramatically supported her father's contention that Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley's "creative vote counting had won the election for President-Elect Kennedy." Hillary and Betsy were so upset about what had happened to Mr. Kenvin that they took a moment during their lunch period to use a pay phone outside the school cafeteria to call Mayor Daley's office to complain.
On the Saturday morning after the election, the determined young women decided to help a Republican group check voter lists against addresses in an attempt to find voter fraud. Both girls participated without getting permission from their parents. Hillary was driven to a poor neighborhood on the South Side, where she went knocking on doors, an act that was "fearless and stupid," she recalled. "I woke up a lot of people who stumbled to the door or yelled at me to go away. And I walked into a bar where men were drinking to ask if certain people on my list actually lived there."
Hillary found clear evidence of voter fraud — a vacant lot that was listed as the address for a dozen alleged voters. She was thrilled with her detective work and could not wait to tell her father that she had discovered that Daley had indeed stolen the election for Kennedy. "Of course, when I returned home and told my father where I had been, he went nuts. It was bad enough to go downtown without an adult, but to go to the South Side alone sent him into a yelling fit," she recalled. "And besides, he said, Kennedy was going to be President whether we liked it or not."
A year after Kennedy's victory, in the fall of 1961, another change in administration would further challenge Hillary's beliefs. A twenty-six-year-old Methodist youth minister named Donald Jones arrived at First Methodist Church in Park Ridge, having completed four years of service in the navy and a degree from Drew University's Divinity School. Jones was a complete departure from three previous youth ministers at the church; he was tall, had a blond crew cut, and drove a 1959 fire-engine red Impala convertible, a "controversial" choice of car, Jones recalled. More than a few young girls had crushes on him. Most notably, every Sunday and Thursday evening, beginning that September, Reverend Jones taught his University of Life program, which included a heavy helping of radical politics, poetry, art history, and countercultural thought. His message was that a Christian life should embody "faith in action," which included trying to help people who were less fortunate. At thirteen, Hillary accompanied Jones's group on a visit to a community center on Chicago's South Side. There, Hillary and her fellow students spent a few hours with a group of inner city children, analyzing the meaning of a painting that they had never seen before, Picasso's Guernica. Jones recalled that "the whole point was to get inner-city kids and suburban kids in a conversation around something that none of them knew anything about." While the suburban kids were largely silent, a young black girl said that the painting made her wonder, "Why did my uncle have to get shot because he parked in the wrong parking place?"
Hillary said that Reverend Jones helped her "reconcile my father's insistence on self-reliance and my mother's concerns about social justice." But his views and teaching also put Jones in direct conflict with Paul Carlson in the fight for the youngsters' hearts and minds. (When Carlson heard about the trip, he was livid.) Hillary tried to remain on the fence, listening carefully to the diametrically opposed views but refusing to pick a side. She kept her kinship with Jones a secret from her father, though she shared it with her mother, "who quickly came to find in Don a kindred spirit," Hillary later recalled.
Perhaps the greatest revelation Jones offered was that there were less fortunate people than Hillary and her friends in Park Ridge, and that America was experiencing the beginnings of a great disenchantment. "In the discussions we had sitting around church basements, I learned that, despite the obvious differences in our environments, these kids were more like me than I ever could have imagined," Hillary said. "They also knew more about what was happening in the civil rights movement in the South. I had only vaguely heard of Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King, but these discussions sparked my interest."
When Hillary was seventeen, Jones announced that he was going to take the group to hear King speak at Chicago's Orchestra Hall. Hillary was thrilled, though some of her friends' parents refused permission for their children to listen to the "rabble-rouser." More than one thousand people were there, and Hillary was enchanted with King and his speech, which was entitled "Remaining Awake through a Revolution." "The old order is passing away and a new one is coming in," King said that night. "We should all accept this order and learn to live together as brothers in a world society, or we will all perish together." After the speech, Jones escorted Hillary and her friends to meet King.
Despite being exposed to what at the time was considered radical thinking, Hillary remained basically content to "parrot" the conventional and decidedly conservative beliefs that were deeply held in Park Ridge. The political climate proved too much for Jones, and after enduring two years of bitter confrontations with Carlson, he left United Methodist and became a professor at Drew University, where he stayed for the rest of his career.
"I now see the conflict between Don Jones and Paul Carlson as an early indication of the cultural, political and religious fault lines that developed across America in the last forty years," Hillary recalled years later. "I liked them both personally and did not see their beliefs as diametrically opposed then or now." Her willingness to play down this conflict reveals an ideological war within Hillary; sometimes she works as a facilitator to find common ground between antagonists, but other times she intensifies a conflict by going on the attack. Jones and Hillary remained close across all the years; he helped preside over the wedding of her brother Tony Rodham in the White House Rose Garden on May 28, 1994.
Though she was far from politically radicalized, hearing and meeting Martin Luther King Jr. fired something deep inside Hillary, a desire to try to change the world — or, for a start, her high school, Maine South. Hillary was viewed by some of her classmates as aloof, but a few friends attributed it to her poor eyesight. "She saw shapes, but she couldn't make out the person until they got very close," recalled Mike Andrews, a classmate. "And with all the kids passing in the hall, you might miss somebody. So I think a lot of people probably remember her as being aloof or something like that, but I never found that a problem."
In 1964, Hillary decided to run for senior class president or, simply, "The Presidency," as she had called it in a letter to a friend. Although Hillary was already serving as the vice president of her junior class, this was a bold move. In Park Ridge, girls did not usually run for the top office.
She was running against two boys, one of whom told her that she was "really stupid if I thought a girl could be elected President," Hillary recalled years later. His insult pretty much defined the tenor of the campaign, and the personal negativity directed at her by both boys deeply hurt her feelings. She delivered an address to an assembly of five thousand students, and her eloquence and poise impressed not only them but many teachers. As her mother had always remarked, she seemed mature beyond her years. But it was not enough to convince a sufficient number of students to vote for her. Hillary took her defeat (to a boy named John Kirchoff) hard. But as she would do many more times in her life, she did not wallow in self-pity. Instead, she picked herself up and sought new challenges, including heading the student government's Organizations Committee.
By this point, Hillary was also focusing on college. Most of her friends were applying to schools in the Midwest to remain close to home. Hillary planned to do the same until two teachers at Maine South — a recent graduate of Smith College and a recent graduate of Wellesley College — urged her to apply to their alma maters. An all-women's-college education was special, they argued, with fewer "distractions." Hillary asked her parents' advice. Dorothy said she should go wherever she wanted, but Hugh was reluctant to see her enroll in an Eastern college, especially Radcliffe, which he had heard was "full of beatniks." Hillary never visited either campus, but she attended local alumnae-held events for both Wellesley and Smith, and was impressed with the energy of the students and both colleges' commitment to academic excellence. In the end, she chose Wellesley, "based on the photographs of the campus," she said.
Hillary's high school government teacher, Gerald Baker, warned her that college would likely change her conservative politics. "You're going to go to Wellesley," he told her, "and you're going to become a liberal and a Democrat." Hillary blanched at that prediction.
"I'm smart," she replied. "I know where I stand on the issues. And that's not going to change."
When her parents drove her from Park Ridge to Boston, the family got lost and ended up in Harvard Square. The beatnik atmosphere they found there merely confirmed Hugh's suspicions that Wellesley might be a bad idea. But once the Rodhams finally found the Wellesley campus outside Boston, with no bohemians in sight, "he seemed reassured," Hillary recalled.
Years later, Hillary said her mother "cried the entire thousand-mile drive back from Massachusetts to Illinois." Her tears were understandable. Theirs was a close, tight family, and with Hillary's departure, things would not be the same. Dorothy Rodham's only daughter was now on her own.
Excerpted from Her Way by Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown and Company.