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A Mother's Strength, a Candidate's Ambition
Dorothy Rodham's Experiences Shaped and Inspire Clinton

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.

Clinton said she once asked her mother why she went back. Her mother, she said, told her: "I'd hoped so hard that my mother would love me that I had to take the chance and find out. . . . When she didn't, I had nowhere else to go."

For that grandmother, Clinton has especially tough words, describing her as a "weak and self-indulgent woman wrapped up in television soap operas and disengaged from reality." Clinton's disdain for such behavior, coupled with what she heard from her mother about the impact of divorce and abandonment, seem to fit neatly into the narrative of discipline and marital persistence that have come to define her.

Growing Up Rodham

In 1942, Clinton's mother married Hugh Rodham, a gruff and energetic traveling salesman, and Hillary Rodham was born five years later. Accounts of the marriage have often described an iron-willed father and a mother serving as a quiet beacon of strength.

In his book released earlier this year, "A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton," Carl Bernstein wrote that Hugh Rodham was "harsh, provocative and abusive" -- in contrast with the firm-but-loving patriarch Clinton has described. Clinton's mother lived a "painfully demeaning" life under Hugh Rodham's rule, Bernstein wrote. "Unleashed, his rage was frightening, and the household sometimes seemed on the verge of imploding," he wrote.

By many accounts of their household, it was Dorothy Rodham who provided intellectual stimulation, reason and calm. Clinton describes her mother as a "classic homemaker" in their suburban Park Ridge neighborhood, a woman who was always cooking, washing and cleaning.

One mother-daughter anecdote has risen above the rest, becoming the central piece of lore about Rodham -- and suggesting the toughness she seemed to want to instill in her daughter, who was 4 years old at the time. Rodham retold the story during a 2004 appearance with Clinton on "The Oprah Winfrey Show." She has not granted an interview since.

"We moved into this new house, new neighborhood, and she would come in crying and screaming about the fact that she'd been set upon by a group of children, mostly her age, and this one girl who was exactly her age, Suzy, across the street," Rodham recounted. "She came in one day, and I said, 'You know, this is just about enough, Hillary. You have to face things and show them you're not afraid.' "

Rodham continued: "Anyway, I said, 'Just go out there and show them that you're not afraid, and if she does hit you again -- which she kept doing -- hit her back.' "

Clinton, in her own version, has said her mother told her, "There is no room in this house for cowards."

"She later told me she watched from behind the curtain as I squared my shoulders and marched across the street," Clinton wrote. "I returned a few minutes later, glowing with victory."

The point of the story -- that her mother taught her to fight back -- is not lost on family friends who list resilience as a trait Rodham and Clinton share. "It's that sense of self-confidence," said Betsy Ebeling, a childhood friend of Clinton's. Rodham, she said, seemed to compensate for her own neglected childhood by paying extra attention to her daughter's self-esteem.

"Dorothy had a vision far beyond her time, of encouraging her kids to be comfortable in their own skin," said Patty H. Criner, a friend of Rodham's in Little Rock. "Dorothy was a good mother and spent a lot of time with her children, and believes really strongly in quality time with her children and allowing her children to be individuals, and really helped them feel that they can be individuals and think for themselves, and gave them a lot of self-confidence."

But Rodham did not push her children any harder than other parents did theirs, several close friends said. "I think she believed that anything could be possible for her kids," Criner said.

Ebeling recalled Rodham as someone who "stayed home a lot" and encouraged her daughter to read. "I'm sure there was a whole group of kids that age that had mothers who were big PTA moms and overachieving in their social lives, as well," Ebeling said. Rodham, she said, "wasn't like that."

Traditional and Modern

Rodham has expressed mixed feelings about the pressures of public life. On "Oprah," she was asked whether she wanted her daughter to run for president.

"The day-to-day workload and all of that sort of thing, I don't know that I would wish on anyone, actually," Rodham said. "But she would do great. I have to say that."

It was hard to tell whether a woman who had such a traditional role in her own life shared the feminist outlook of her daughter.

"She certainly is a woman who didn't work outside the home, but I can't say she wasn't a woman who didn't have lots of life experiences and didn't make the most of being a mother, and, when her kids were raised, tried to embrace as many experiences as she could," said Melanne Verveer, a friend of Clinton's who served as the former first lady's chief of staff. "Did that make her a feminist? Did she really believe her kids were equal in terms of the possibilities they have? Certainly. It depends on how you define the word. But I would call her a modern woman."

Rodham has never spoken publicly about her daughter's marriage, though shortly before Bill Clinton's impeachment scandal, she vouched for the former president. "Everybody knows there is only one person in the world who can really tell the truth about a man, and that's his mother-in-law," Rodham said in a film shown at the 1996 Democratic National Convention.

At the time, Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky had already occurred, though it would be another 18 months before the affair became public and exposed the Clintons' relationship to heavy stress.

During her daughter's years as first lady, Rodham was living in Little Rock, where she and her husband had moved in 1987 to be closer to the Clintons. She stayed there after her husband died in 1993 but was a frequent visitor to the White House.

After Hillary Clinton was elected to the Senate in 2000, Rodham moved to Washington and played host to her daughter at her apartment while the Clinton home was being renovated. Now Rodham lives with the senator from New York at the Clinton home in Kalorama.

According to friends, Rodham spends time with her son Tony -- who lives in the Washington area and is divorced from Nicole Boxer, the daughter of Sen. Barbara Boxer -- and grandson Zachary. She keeps in close touch with granddaughter Chelsea, who lives in New York.

"She just stays close to her nest," Criner said, "and her children and grandchildren."

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