Growing Up Rodham

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

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.

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."

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.

Hugh never shed his working-class roots, or his "tightfistedness." He turned off the heat at night, and he refused to buy anything on credit. "Do you want us to end up in the poorhouse?" he'd ask Hillary and her two younger brothers, Hugh Jr. and Tony. Hillary never got an allowance. "I feed you, don't I?" her father replied when she asked for one.

When Dorothy urged the children to learn for learning's sake, he interjected, "Learn for earning's sake." To demonstrate what a life of comparative ease they led, he drove to skid row, pointing out the vagrants. He wanted his children "to see what became of people who, as he saw it, lacked the self-discipline and motivation to keep their lives on track," Clinton wrote.

Clinton has described her father as "hardheaded and often gruff," and she acknowledges that he was a mass of prejudices. Hugh was 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, with a head of thick black hair. He doled out corporal punishment liberally.

"You get in trouble at school, you get in trouble at home," he warned. When he was displeased, he stared and said, "Hillary, how are you going to dig yourself out of this one?" It made her think of backhoes.

"The message I heard loud and clear was 'You have a lot going for you -- you'd better not screw it up,' " she wrote.

He had a booming laugh and a softness for his daughter, but he didn't express love easily. The chief way he showed it was to tease. When she brought home straight A's, he said, " 'Well, Hillary, that must be an easy school you go to."

There was another way Hugh showed love: He refused to curb her ambitions or to force her into a traditional female role. By age 10, Hillary was a tomboy obsessed with baseball, especially the switch-hitting Mickey Mantle. She played ball in the street with Ricky Ricketts and other neighbor boys using sewer covers as bases. "Usually I was the only girl on the team," she says.

When she announced that she wanted to learn how to hit a curveball, Hugh just said, "Okay." For the next several weekends, "we drilled for countless hours," she says. He showed her the backspin of a fastball and the ducking topspin of a curve, and he trained her to be patient, to wait for pitches over the center of the plate and judge the break of the ball before swinging.

"It's not only a true story, but a good metaphor," she says.

When the boys ran football routes though the elm trees, Hillary did, too. "I learned the give-and-take of competition, and winning and losing, and that you couldn't take it so personally," she says. "You just had to get up the next day and come back and do it better."

Every August, the family went to a cabin with no plumbing or heat built by Hugh and his father on Lake Winola in the Poconos north of Scranton. Hugh taught his daughter to shoot a gun, and to play pinochle with the Rodham men and their friends, guys with names like Old Hank, who would stomp up the steps and say: "Is that black-haired bastard home? I want to play cards." When they lost, they would cuss and upend the table.

But the most competitive sport in the Rodham household was political discussion. The kitchen table was roiled by debate, sparked by Hugh's declarations about commies, corporations and political crooks. Years later, Bill Clinton got a taste of it and remarked: "Lord, they loved to argue. Each one tried to rewrite history to put the proper spin on it."

Dorothy had her own ideas but struggled to be heard over Hugh. "He was so sure of himself in ways that eclipsed her mother," says Jan Piercy, a college roommate of Hillary's. Dorothy's childhood was difficult; she was semi-abandoned and forced to work from the age of 14 as a nanny and a secretary. She played the role of deferential homemaker in the interest of domestic stability, but she was a frustrated intellectual who devoured books, and she influenced Hillary in her own way. She taught her daughter how to read a carpenter's level, she told Clinton biographer Gail Sheehy. "Imagine having this carpenter's level inside you," she said. "You try to keep that bubble in the center. Sometimes it will go way up there," she tilted the level. "And then you have to bring it back."

At school, Hillary was a precocious teacher's pet in a round-collared blouse. She won her first office in fifth grade, co-captain of the safety patrol. She wore a little white belt. Ricketts remembers how their teacher, Miss Elizabeth King, would pose a question to the class and there would be dead silence. After a long pause, Miss King would say, "Why don't you tell them, Hillary."

Hillary never got in trouble. Not even when Miss King taught square dancing and Ricketts, antic in a bow tie and spit curl, made her choke with laughter by chanting under his breath, "Swing your partner by the neck. Swing her till she's dead."

By ninth grade at Maine Township High, she was on every virtually committee in the student government and was enthralled by a fiercely anti-communist history teacher named Paul Carlson. Schoolmate John Peavoy recalls that during the 1960 presidential election, 30 students were assigned to watch the Kennedy-Nixon debate. All but two, "a couple of oddballs," declared themselves Nixon supporters. (When Nixon lost, Hugh was convinced that Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley stole the election for Kennedy, and Hillary rode a bus downtown to check for fraudulent voter addresses.)

It was Carlson who gave Hillary a copy of Barry Goldwater's "The Conscience of a Conservative," and she consumed it, struck by the javelin-like power of sentences such as "The Conservative looks upon politics as the art of achieving the maximum amount of freedom for individuals that is consistent with the maintenance of social order." She wrote a 75-page term paper on it.

Carlson was her unchallenged mentor until a day in 1961 when Don Jones blew into town, in a red Chevy Impala convertible. The new youth minister at the First United Methodist Church wore white bucks and played the guitar. "Really more Pat Boone than Mario Savio," he says. He was full of ideas about personal faith as social action, which he had absorbed while studying Reinhold Niebuhr at Drew University seminary.

Jones made Hillary rethink almost everything. He hosted a youth group called the University of Life, in which he asked Park Ridge teenagers: "How do we in the 20th century discern the existence of God or the dimension of the sacred in our common life?" He explained Picasso's "Guernica" as religious art. He screened edgy films, such as James Dean's "Rebel Without a Cause," and then asked: "Where did you find sin in the movie? Where did you find grace?"

Jones arranged discussions with disadvantaged children in Chicago and took his youth group to hear Martin Luther King Jr. speak at Orchestra Hall on a Sunday night in 1962. King's address was "Sleeping Through the Revolution," and in his vibrato he decried suburbanites who passed the poor by. Jones introduced the children to King personally, and Hillary was so affected that she volunteered to babysit for the children of migrant workers during harvest.

Not surprisingly, Carlson resented Jones's liberal sway over his prodigy, who by then was vice president of her junior class. "Hillary was one of his main projects because he admired her and respected her as one of the best students he had," Jones says. Jones thought Carlson was a slanted ideologue. Ricketts recalls: "Don represented the questioning of values, and Paul Carlson was the values being questioned."

The final straw came when Jones found Carlson distributing anti-communist pamphlets in church. Jones complained to senior ministers, who convened a meeting of the two men in front of the youth group. It was supposed to be conciliatory, but Carlson and Jones went at it. Carlson suggested that the church's educational thrust was pro-communist. An exasperated Jones cried out, "Who do you think you are, Paul Carlson, Jesus Christ?"

Shortly afterward, Jones was forced to resign. He'd lasted just two years in Park Ridge. "Then he was gone," Ricketts says. "But it was too late. The seeds were planted."

* * *

All that was before the United States was ripped in half, before screaming protesters told people to "throw your bodies on the machine," and you didn't need drugs to feel narcotized because there was a cataclysmic sensation of things being torn down and upended.

At Wellesley College -- Hugh said he would pay for his daughter to go anywhere but west or to that hippie den Radcliffe -- Hillary continued to be pulled both ways. She was president of the Young Republicans as a freshman in 1965, only to inch left in increments, first toward Nelson Rockefeller and later to antiwar candidate Eugene McCarthy. "I moved slowly but surely," she says.

Hillary stayed in touch with Jones, sending him single-spaced missives on pages torn out of spiral notebooks, carefully assessing her changing beliefs. She also wrote cerebral musings to Peavoy, later quoted by biographer Sheehy. "Emotion without thought . . . is pitiful."

She lost her grip on her emotions just slightly in the anguish of 1968. King's assassination caused her to wail aloud and fling her books against a wall, and her relationship with Hugh deteriorated as they fought over bra-burnings and Bohemians. But she recovered her composure, and it was her signature as president of the Wellesley student government. "She's anchored by it," says Alan Schechter, her college adviser. "She was the sort of person who thought the way to win goals at a place like Wellesley was to go to people who held power and reason with them."

Unlike some, she staved off cynicism and never lost confidence in orthodox politicking. Asked why, she replies: "I think I understood the give-and-take of history, the fact that oftentimes you can be so disillusioned and heartbroken, as we were, but I also believed that there was at root a resilience in this country. And you couldn't just stand on the sidelines if you believed we were capable of rebounding. . . . Yeah, there were moments of great despair and loss. But never to the extent that one just gave up and quit."

Typically, Hillary attended both political conventions that summer of 1968. She was an intern for Rockefeller at the Republican gathering in Miami, and weeks later viewed the Democratic chaos in the streets of Chicago. She and Betsy told their parents that they were going to a movie but drove instead to Grant Park, where they dodged rocks and police nightsticks and stared at the surreal sight of a toilet thrown out a window of the Conrad Hilton Hotel.

The experience only convinced her that the place to be was inside, where the power was. "With her, it wasn't a theoretical discussion. She really believed she could obtain power," Peavoy says. "A lot of us didn't. We believed we could protest, but the idea that we could get into the system, that seemed like a world we couldn't enter. It was like wanting to be a movie star. You could say you wanted to be one, but actually becoming one seemed impossible."

* * *

The Iowa that Hillary Clinton campaigns through is furrowed as far as the eye can see, an ocean of corduroyed yellow-stubble fields under a robin's-egg-blue winter sky. Her motorcade glides past clapboard farmhouses, listing barns and fat rolls of gray-yellow hay that sit in the harrowed fields like sluggish animals.

She is heading toward Correctionville.

"Prepare to Meet Your God," declares a sign posted in a vacant field brown as aged parchment.

At local halls and county fire stations, she invokes her conservative Midwestern past to people in workaday clothes sitting in folding metal chairs. With her buff-colored hair and narrow shoulders in a brown suit, she blends with the landscape. In a flat accent, she echoes all that she heard at the dinner table, talking about "American innovation" and "good jobs with a rising income!" She intends to "restore the habits of our parents and grandparents" and says, "Everything I've put forward, I've said how I would pay for it."

A breath later, she channels her mother, empathizing with those who aren't making it. "They're doing the best they can, working as hard as they know how, and sometimes life doesn't deal them a fair hand," she says.

Hugh Rodham died of a stroke in 1993, during the Clintons' first year in the White House. By then, father and daughter enjoyed a wry, fond connection, even though Hillary had fulfilled his worst fear. She not only became a Democrat but married one as well. In 1975, Hugh grudgingly handed over the bride. When the minister asked "Who will give away this woman?" everyone stared at Hugh, who wouldn't turn loose. Finally, the minister said, "You can step back now, Mr. Rodham."

The Rodhams moved to Little Rock to be closer to their daughter, and Hugh even campaigned for his son-in-law. At a party to celebrate William Jefferson Clinton becoming president, Hugh sipped a drink alone in a corner. According to the Associated Press, when an old friend from Scranton paused to congratulate him, he replied quietly, "My daughter is a real special girl."

President Clinton eulogized Hugh at a memorial service in Little Rock before he was carried home to the family plot in Scranton. He described a man "passionately involved" with his children, who never quit hoping that the capital gains tax would be repealed and who believed that family trumped differences.

"In 1974, when I made my first political race, I ran in a congressional district where there were a lot of Republicans from the Middle West," he said. "And my future father-in-law came down in a Cadillac with an Illinois license plate; never told a living soul I was in love with his daughter, just went up to people and said: 'I know that you're a Republican and so am I. I think Democrats are just one step short of communism. But this kid's all right.' "

Now Hillary Rodham Clinton is the candidate. It raises a question: Just what would Hugh Rodham, conservative with a small "c," have thought about a Democratic woman running for president? For a moment, Clinton isn't sure how to reply. Then an old lesson about curveballs comes back to her, and a smile enters her voice.

"If it was his daughter," she says, "he'd have been fine with it."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company