Portrait of the Candidate as a Young Climber

By Carl Bernstein
Sunday, June 3, 2007

The most important man in Hillary Rodham Clinton's life during her years at Wellesley College was Don Jones, a Methodist youth minister whom she had known since 10th grade, when he rolled into her hometown of Park Ridge, Ill., driving a red Chevy Impala convertible and advocating justice and social reform.

By mail, he became her counselor, confessor, partner in Socratic debate and spiritual adviser. When depression struck in college, she turned to him, as she would for the next three decades, including the year of her husband's impeachment. He focused her on theologian Paul Tillich's sermon "You Are Accepted," in which he says that sin and grace coexist. "Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness," Tillich said. "It happens; or it does not happen." Hillary was convinced there would be grace in her life, and meanwhile, she would just carry on.

Since then, spiritual and quasi-spiritual axioms (some imbued with New Age jargon, others profound) have served as soothing balms in painful times; they would provide answers to questions that seemed otherwise confounding. These comforting postulations would also be used by Hillary to justify, often publicly, her or her husband's less palatable actions or aspects of character.

Peter Edelman, who knew Hillary before she met his wife-to-be, Marian Wright Edelman, thought Hillary's politics while in college "reflected what you would expect in a certain kind of young person at the time . . . sort of on the liberal side. She was opposed to the war in Vietnam, and she had a very instinctive interest in children's issues that had already manifested itself" before she graduated from Wellesley in 1969.

She had caused a slight stir on campus when she brought a black classmate -- one of only 10 at the college -- with her to church services in town a week after classes began during her freshman year. "I was testing me as much as I was testing the church," Hillary wrote to Don Jones. She appeared interested in her own motives, which were not something she often expressed curiosity about.

For a person so focused on religion and spiritual notions, Hillary seemed to many acquaintances to be surprisingly devoid of introspective instinct, and when things went wrong, she habitually looked elsewhere for the reasons. It was only after she became a candidate for the Senate in 2000 that she meaningfully acknowledged personal responsibility for the failure to reform health care during her husband's first term. She told Jones that, had she seen someone else taking a black classmate to an all-white church, she might have thought, "Look how liberal that girl is trying to be, going to church with a Negro."

One of Jones's letters to Hillary at Wellesley alluded to Edmund Burke's emphasis on personal responsibility and raised the question of "whether someone can be a Burkean realist about history and human nature and at the same time have liberal sentiments and visions." In her response, Hillary mused, "It is an interesting question you posed -- can one be a mind conservative and a heart liberal?"

No description of the adult Hillary Clinton -- a mind conservative and a heart liberal -- has so succinctly defined her as this premonitory observation at age 18. She believed it was possible, though difficult, to be both.

Hillary's ambition was always to do good on a huge scale, and her nascent instinct, so visible at Wellesley, to mediate principle with pragmatism -- without abandoning basic beliefs -- seemed a powerful and plausible way to achieve it. Bill Clinton, too, wanted to do good, and on a grand scale, but his gaze had always been fixed at the ground level of practical politics. Hillary's looked heavenward, toward theologian John Wesley's message of service. Part of what Hillary brought to her union with Bill was an almost messianic sense of purpose, a high-mindedness and purity of vision that hovered above the conventionally political. Bill's political beliefs were strongly held, but "with Bill, you felt he just wanted to be president, whereas Hillary had this religious zeal," said a friend from their Yale Law School days. Hillary had seemed to believe since her adolescence that her life was an unending search to determine what was right and how to make it happen.

Bill, as he was falling in love with Hillary, perceived that she possessed the one necessary quality that was not native to his soul: a kind of toughness, the significance and nature of which would be endlessly debated by the Clintons' friends, advocates and adversaries. Without it, he could never have gotten to the presidency. After all, Bill Clinton would sometimes rather accommodate than fight, and it often took Hillary to push him into the ring. The Clintons' former pollster, Stan Greenberg, described this quality as a "fierceness," a "tough-mindedness" summoned by Hillary in pursuit of their shared goals because Bill, unlike his wife, was preternaturally "conflict-averse . . . and by nature uncomfortable attacking. . . . He didn't get there instinctively. He'd rather persuade people. He'd like to persuade everybody in the room."

Their most important political counselor and consultant for two decades, Dick Morris, remarked -- before he turned enemy -- that Hillary "has a quality of ruthlessness, a quality of aggressiveness and strength about her that he doesn't have. A killer instinct. Her genre of advocacy is always straight ahead -- fight, battle, take the fight to the other side. There's no subtlety, there's none of the nuance that he has."

But Hillary's is not the caricatured, bitchy, ball-breaking toughness that their enemies like to attribute to her. She has almost always been much more thoughtful than they granted. It is more like a kind of military rigor: reading the landscape, seeing the obstacles, recognizing which ones are malevolent or malign, and taking expedient action accordingly.

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