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HOW SHE GOT HERE

Growing Up Rodham

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By Sally Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 9, 2007

Fists cocked in preparation for Maine South High School's first mock election battle are, left to right, Hillary Rodham, director of the Republican organization, Matt Bunya, Democratic director, and Ellen Press, co-director of the Democrats.  From Oct. 16, 1964 student newspaper
Fists cocked in preparation for Maine South High School's first mock election battle are, left to right, Hillary Rodham, director of the Republican organization, Matt Bunya, Democratic director, and Ellen Press, co-director of the Democrats. From Oct. 16, 1964 student newspaper "Southwords."(Maine Township High School South)
Back then, chicken a la cheese won recipe contests, and an Amana Free-o-Frost was the answer to every woman's problems. Hugh Rodham woke up each morning in his thick-walled suburban dream home in Park Ridge, Ill., bellowing the songs of Mitch Miller and the Gang (Singalong favorites! "Ain't We Got Fun"!), and sat down each night to dinner served exactly at 6 p.m., over which he issued loud pronouncements about American self-reliance, as opposed to communists and deadbeats seeking handouts.That's when the argument would start. "Now, wait a minute," his wife, Dorothy Rodham, would suggest, voice soft as a housedress. "Sometimes things happen to people that they have no control over." Their daughter, Hillary, would follow the conversation, alternately agreeing with each, until Hugh had the last word. Fathers were the ultimate authority then. Fathers, and presidents.

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It's safe to say that the dinner debate at 235 Wisner St. was never resolved for Hillary Rodham Clinton.

"I think it was part of the balance I created in my own life, it became a balancing of all my different influences and values," she says, describing in a recent interview the way her father's conservatism shaped her. "A lot was worth admiring in the sense of rugged individualism. But it didn't explain enough for me about the world, or the world as I would want it to be."

It's a self-analysis that won't satisfy critics who accuse her of being a political chameleon, with views calculated and never quite fixed. Nevertheless, there was an original Hillary, before she was so heavily coated by perception: a girl reared in a conventional postwar middle-class hamlet who, according to her youth pastor, Don Jones, was "controlled and circumspect" even then. She was the conciliator of the "push and tug" of her parents' differences, and she clung to centrism even during the '60s as her teachers in Park Ridge engaged in a conservative-vs.-liberal duel for her "mind and soul," she writes in her memoir, "Living History."

"It's that Midwestern thing, cheesy or all-encompassing as that sounds," says her oldest friend, Betsy Ebeling. "You can't remove it from her fabric. . . . She's triangulated, if you will."

* * *

Park Ridge was a village-style enclave outside Chicago, where there were no blacks, Hispanics, divorces or Democrats. Except for Hillary's mother, who kept it a secret. Men went to work in dark suits, and women wore white gloves to shop at Marshall Field's.

"Everybody's father rode the train, and at rush hour the men would all be wearing hats, all smoking cigarettes, and they all had their newspapers," says neighbor Ernie "Ricky" Ricketts. "They'd be walking home like 'Dawn of the Dead' or one of those zombie movies."

Hugh Rodham purchased his family's brown-brick mock Georgian in 1950 for $35,000 in cash, the carefully saved profit from his drapery business. He worked 14-hour days and kept a Cadillac -- which he paid cash for as well -- in the driveway. Hugh didn't believe in debt, big government, the capital gains tax, or public assistance for anything other than roads and schools.

"My father really was an old-fashioned conservative with a small 'c,' " Clinton says. "He believed in hard work, and that everyone had to do their part and be willing to take responsibility."

Hillary Diane Rodham, center, as she appeared in a 1957 grammar school photo.
Hillary Diane Rodham, center, as she appeared in a 1957 grammar school photo. (Field School Yearbook Photo)
The Rodhams bought their first television set in 1951, and over the next decade American life poured forth from it. Dwight Eisenhower warned of the Soviet menace and "the new language of atomic warfare." Sputnik was launched, and Eisenhower told American children to study more science. Hillary discussed the matter with Ricky, sitting on a fence, and decided that "our president and our country needed us to do that," she recalled in her book "It Takes a Village."

Besides the television, not many luxuries made it into the Rodham household. Hugh was constricted by a lifelong "fear of poverty," according to his daughter. He came from a family of Welsh laborers who immigrated via steerage to Scranton, Pa., where he was reared amid textile mills, coal mines and train yards. Hugh escaped by playing football at Penn State, and he graduated in 1935, amid the Great Depression. He hopped a freight train to Chicago and worked as a traveling salesman across the Midwest until the war, during which he was a drill instructor at Naval Station Great Lakes.


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