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.

Bill's thought process is different. He is slow to recognize the malevolence in others; he wants to assume the best about them, and he is willing to spend months trying to win their hearts and minds. Hillary means to cut off the enemy at the pass.

The first public glimpse of their political partnership -- and indications of what Morris, Greenberg and others later discerned -- came during the 1972 Prize Trial at Yale Law School. Hillary and Bill were assigned the role of prosecution team. They spent more than a month preparing their arguments, citations and tactics. They had a tough case to prosecute, as it was based on the murder trial of a Kentucky cop who disliked young people who looked like hippies. "But is that enough motivation to beat and kill someone?" read posters advertising the trial and laying out the case.

Bill and Hillary failed to win the prize. But their preparation and performance were prototypical of a methodology they would perfect over the next quarter-century, carving out complementary roles that played to the strength and character of each. Their full partnership was apparent to their peers, who watched, fascinated, as they laid out their unusual division of labor. Nancy Bekavac described the dynamic perfectly: "Hillary was very sharp and Chicago, and Bill was very 'To Kill a Mockingbird.' "

It took Hillary more than two years to make up her mind to marry Bill. She had serious doubts not only about his womanizing but about living in Arkansas, about the intensity with which he pursued his passions (including even his passion for her, which sometimes could be overwhelming). She wanted children, but she didn't want them to grow up in a strained marriage. The experience of her mother--an abandoned child and an abused wife (a term Hillary avoided)--weighed on her. Hillary's hesitant decision was reached only after dipping her toes in the Arkansas waters and calculating that she could learn to live there. She carefully positioned herself during those years to have a fallback plan in case their marriage or political journey ran aground. She knew that Bill's history of compulsive infidelity during their courtship meant the chances for a stable marriage, especially a marriage without adultery, were at best a crapshoot.

In the end, she married for love, and the shared dream of a grand political future someday in Washington. But that future would be focused on him, not her, she reluctantly conceded to friends who were urging her to pursue a more independent course and separate identity. Going to Arkansas meant forgoing a prestigious job in the capital or New York, and all but extinguishing her own flash in the season of her greatest promise.

Since her graduation from Wellesley, she had been speeding toward national prominence. But on Nov. 3, 1973, the D.C. Bar Association notified Hillary that she had failed the bar exam. For the first time in her life, she had flamed out--spectacularly, given the expectations of others for her, and even more so her own.

Still, when she settled in Arkansas, her diverse undertakings were already remarkable. She'd worked at menial jobs (washing dishes at a lodge in Mount McKinley National Park and sliming fish in Alaska, where she wore knee-high boots in bloody water while removing the guts of king salmon with a spoon); studied law as it affected the wealthiest and poorest of clients; spent a summer interning at a California law firm noted for representation of the Black Panthers and the Communist Party; and served as a summer intern for the House Republican Conference. Now she had been a lawyer in the congressional impeachment investigation of Richard Nixon.

And she could throw a football.

In Arkansas, she would not be a woman in charge--something she knew was not necessarily antithetical to being married but was antithetical to being married to Bill, on his turf. She would, by choice, inhabit the more traditional universe in which she would invest her talent, dedication and energy to brighten her man's star--as her mother's generation had done. She would be the partner, the manager, the adviser. She would follow her heart.

Carl Bernstein shared, with Bob Woodward, a Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of Watergate for The Washington Post. This article is adapted from his forthcoming book, "A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton."

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