A Mother's Strength, a Candidate's Ambition

At the 1992 Democratic convention, Dorothy Rodham, left, was there for daughter Hillary Rodham Clinton.
At the 1992 Democratic convention, Dorothy Rodham, left, was there for daughter Hillary Rodham Clinton. (Photo By Ron Frehm -- Associated Press)
By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 23, 2007

Family friends offer harmless details about Dorothy Emma Howell Rodham. She likes to read. She travels on her own. She loves the National Zoo.

Down-to-earth and sturdy, with gray hair, she does not bear an obvious physical resemblance to her daughter, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, but even if she did, few people would recognize her because she is rarely seen at public events. In an instance last summer when she was -- during a portrait unveiling at the Smithsonian Institution for her daughter and son-in-law -- Rodham, 88, sat unobtrusively in the front row, holding onto her granddaughter's arm.

When President Bush was asked once to name his favorite philosopher, he replied that it is Jesus Christ, a revealing response that would become an essential part of his biography. In a recent Democratic debate, Clinton offered a similarly telling insight. Asked for a defining moment in her life, one that put her on the path toward running for president, Clinton credited the women's movement and said her mother is her inspiration.

"More personally, I owe it to my mother, who never got a chance to go to college, who had a very difficult childhood, but who gave me a belief that I could do whatever I set my mind," Clinton said.

Still, 14 years after Hillary Clinton entered the White House with her husband and became known worldwide, the woman she identified as her most enduring influence 0remains a mystery. Clinton, who famously kept her own daughter, Chelsea, out of the public eye, is even more protective of her mother. No interviews with her or photographs -- and no interviews with Clinton on the subject.

Unlike the flamboyant Virginia Clinton Kelley, who played an outsize role in shaping Bill Clinton into a social extrovert and future president, or the sharp-tongued former first lady Barbara Bush who passed on her salty wit to her son, Rodham has stayed quietly on the sidelines in her daughter's career.

Hillary Clinton tends to describe her Midwestern childhood as straight out of "Father Knows Best." When she has discussed her mother's life, the picture has not been so rosy. "I'm still amazed at how my mother emerged from her lonely early life as such an affectionate and levelheaded woman," Clinton wrote in her autobiography, "Living History."

Born to dysfunctional, unhappy parents who divorced in 1927, Dorothy Howell was sent away from home at age 8, making an unsupervised cross-country train journey with her younger sister to live with unwelcoming grandparents. Dickensian events followed. The girl was banished to her bedroom for an entire year except for school after her grandmother caught her trick-or-treating. She moved out on her own at age 14, taking a job as a nanny.

Clinton has long resisted attempts to psychoanalyze her from afar. A 1999 biography by Gail Sheehy, "Hillary's Choice," that portrayed her as trying to impress a domineering father while learning to suffer in a bad marriage from a submissive mother, was rejected by her office as riddled with inaccuracies. But amid otherwise positive portrayals of her immediate family, Clinton has given, in speeches and in her book, a three-dimensional picture of her mother that helps to explain her own worldview.

A Democrat in her husband's conservative household and a dutiful stay-at-home mother who inculcated a love of learning in her only daughter, Rodham seems to have poured her curiosity about the world into her oldest child.

After living on her own during her high school years, Dorothy Howell heard from her mother, who asked her to return to Chicago. She jumped at the chance to reconnect, but discovered that her mother, newly remarried, wanted her to work as her housekeeper.

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