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The Front-Runners: Hillary Clinton

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Sally Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 10, 2007; 1:00 PM

" '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 Rorschach test, 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 Methodist youth minister, Don Jones, was 'controlled and circumspect' even then."

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Washington Post writer Sally Jenkins was online Monday, Dec. 10 at noon ET to discuss her article exploring Hillary Clinton, her relationship with her father, and her campaign for the presidency.

The transcript follows.

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Baltimore: The article is great, but one question: How did a sports columnist get the assignment?

Sally Jenkins: Let's start with this one. Good question. I'm still trying to figure it out myself. I believe the answer is that our editors decide to pick a wide variety of writers from around the newsroom to tackle profiles of the front-runners. I think they wanted to experiment with putting some fresh eyes on some of these folks, about whom so much has been written already. So I think they were looking for some unlikely pairings. They certainly got one in this case.

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Chicago: If Sen. Clinton loses the nomination, what do you think the rest of her political career holds? It seems likely that she could serve as U.S. Senator from New York for as long as she wants ... but would she want that? In some ways, I could see her becoming the "next" Ted Kennedy: someone who never became president (despite trying to succeed a family member in that office) but who becomes the grand "lion/lioness" of liberal politics and who could establish a very distinguished legislative record. Would she leave elective politics and try to serve in a cabinet? Would she leave politics altogether? If a Republican won in 2008, would she make another run in 2012? What do you think?

Sally Jenkins: Hi Chicago. That's a tantalizing question, and I think the answer is contained in the way you framed it. Hillary Rodham Clinton loves being a Senator, and appears to be pretty good at it. She's on three committees and about a dozen subcommittees, she's respected by her colleagues as knowledgeable and hard-working, and she swept every region of New York in the most recent election. Yesterday I even heard Newt Gingrich singing her praises as a Senator. So I think she'd be perfectly happy spending many more years there. She really does seem to be suited for what Carl Bernstein calls "the drudgery of government."

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Scranton, Pa.: We in Pennsylvania, where Hillary Clinton's family lived part-time, probably were more disappointed that Hillary wasn't a Bill Scranton girl instead of a Goldwater girl, but we can forgive that. What is well known was that, between 1964 and 1968, the Vietnam War redefined politics. Has Hillary Clinton ever discussed how the Vietnam War impacted her political thinking and what lessons she learned from that war?

Sally Jenkins: Hi there, Scranton. Yes, Clinton discusses the impact of the Vietnam War on her at length in both "Living History" and "It Takes A Village," her two autobiographical works, and she has discussed it publicly several times in interviews. She lived on the same street as a boy who was killed in the war, and she knew lots of guys who were wrestling with the issue of whether to go or to resist.

She describes it as being a very anguished time for her, and one in which she had to fight off a fair amount of cynicism. It's one thing that really moved her to resign as president of the Young Republicans at Wellesley as a freshman. By her senior year she was working for anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy, driving to new Hampshire on weekends.

Wellesley from 1965-1968 was somewhat sheltered from the more hard-core campus radicalism, by the way -- but while she was there she helped organize "teach-ins" on the war and on Civil Rights. And then she was in Grant Park watching the mayhem at the '68 Democratic Convention. It convinced her that if you objected to the war and wanted to do something about it, the best thing to do was to become a policy-maker yourself. And incidentally, even her conservative father had very mixed feelings about the war.

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Philadelphia: Sally, just curious as to whether you think your own background having a renowned sportswriter as your father, and how he influenced your own writing/attitude towards sports, may have affected the way in which you approached this story about the complicated but critical relationship between Clinton and Hugh Rodham?

Sally Jenkins: Sure it did. I mean, I'm hugely influenced by my father -- despite the fact that I disagree with about 80 percent of what he says. My father has rather strongly held opinions, and good luck changing his mind. I used to parrot him, and then I grew up and developed my own rather strongly held opinions. And we had to deal with that and find a way not to take it so personally. But one of the great things that results from the sparring is that you figure out what you think, and you learn to defend your position. It makes you stronger. I think that Clinton is a product of a similar relationship. It's interesting because she has discussed at length her relationship with her mother, whom she plainly idolizes, and who influenced her heavily on issues like child development and women's issues. But her relationship with her father has been less well-understood and examined, and it was the rare area of her political life where there hadn't been a hundred stories already written. And she seemed to enjoy talking about it, and exploring it a little bit with me.

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Father-daughter tension?: How much do you think that Hillary's observance of her mother as a "frustrated intellectual" influenced her free thinking? Do you believe that Hugh Rodham ever resolved his feelings as to Hillary's changing camps and becoming a Democrat?

Sally Jenkins: One of the things Sen. Clinton said to me that didn't make it into the story because of space was that her father, in the end, proved capable of change. He came around on some of his ideas (that doesn't mean he became a Democrat by any stretch). For instance, the main way that Goldwater conservatism failed the young Hillary Rodham was that it didn't take into account the fact that the deck is stacked against some people; Hugh eventually seems to have conceded that maybe that was sometimes the case, that there were some inequalities that needed to be addressed.

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Broad Run, Va.: What would you say to critics who would say covering Hillary at Wellesley or Yale would be more comparable to the Mitt Romney profile? Is it possible that she didn't just "inch" to the left once she came out from under her father's influence? How did the Ivy League change her?

Sally Jenkins: You could write another very long story on Hillary Rodham at Wellesley and Yale. I looked into Wellesley enough to agree with her biographers, such as Carl Bernstein, that her progress from right to left was indeed pretty incremental there. Even as late as '68 she still interned for Melvin Laird and worked for Rockefeller at the Republican Convention in Miami. She definitely moves, but she remains a moderate. As for Yale, I didn't examine her time there in my reporting, and you could write not just a long story but a whole book about Yale in those years. Think for a moment about who is on that campus then. George W. Bush, Strobe Talbott, Hilary Rodham, Bill Clinton, Howard Dean, Joe Lieberman, and Henry Louis Gates, among others. That's just for starters. It's a cauldron of a place, politically and socially and school president Kingman Brewster is just trying to keep the lid on.

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Bethesda, Md.: For much of the campaign Hillary seemed to be making next to no mistakes, and was incredibly poised. Do you think she started getting lazy, presuming that she had it in the bag? She really has looked unprepared and downright jittery lately, and lacked the poise and confidence that she had earlier in the year. What happened?

Sally Jenkins: Well, I'm not the brilliant Dan Balz, I'm just a sportswriter. But I'll give you my view from the top of Idiot Hill. Her misstep on the driver-licenses-for-illegals question was a momentum-changing event, not unlike a turnover in a football game. Her relatively poor performance in that debate changed everything. It wasn't laziness; I would attribute that performance to the fact that she was sick (her campaign pace, by the way, is incredible). And I think since then her advisors haven't served her very well. What was "inevitable" wasn't a Clinton victory, but rather that the race would tighten and that one of the other candidates would make a big surge. That's just a fundamental reality of any competition -- it's hard to hold a big lead against a good opponent. My own opinion is that her advisors have overreacted. I thought Newt Gingrich had an awfully good appraisal of her campaign on one of the Sunday morning talk shows yesterday. He said her campaign has "underachieved" the past couple of weeks.

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Chicago: Sen. Clinton is a Rorschach test for feminists as well -- many view her as cold and calculating, others as merely political. We'll have the opportunity to see if women will vote for her -- first at the primary level, and then perhaps at the presidential candidate level. What are your thoughts on women's opinions of Sen. Clinton and how that will play out in this very interesting campaign?

Sally Jenkins: You know, the idea that women vote as a unified block is absurd. That's my first reaction. "Women's opinions" of Sen. Clinton range from contempt to reverence. Even within age groups you can find real disagreement over her, whether they think she's a carpetbagger or they don't like the way she handled her husband's infidelities and treated his accusers, or they like her record in the Senate, or they believe that her commitment to issues affecting poor children is genuine and lifelong. It really varies.

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New York: A truly well-written article. I was riveted from beginning to end and it was so interesting to read something different about Mrs. Clinton. Excellent job.

Sally Jenkins: Thank you. I'm posting this because who doesn't like an ego bath?

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Success, Ark.: Do you believe her flop-flopping from being a life-long Cubs fan to a Yankees fan hurt her in the nomination process?

Sally Jenkins: Ha! I'll say this much -- she really is a baseball fan. That part's no lie.

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Washington: How much do you think Oprah Winfrey's stumping for Barack Obama will hurt Hillary's Democratic female base? Is it truly mostly a race issue (i.e. vote for the African American candidate if you are African American), and will that trump the more basic condition of being female?

Sally Jenkins: Interesting. We'll see. All I know is this: My own mother will look closer at Obama because of Oprah, and she's a Republican.

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Los Angeles: Why is Hilary Clinton running for president?

Sally Jenkins: Because she thinks she can do the job. I'm glad you asked, and I'm serious about the answer. One thing people tend to miss about her is the degree to which she likes to roll up her sleeves and get into problems. Whether you agree with her methods or solutions, the fact is that she likes the drudge work of government. You can't miss that in reporting about her -- she was doing it in junior high school, when she was in charge of organizing the prom and student elections.

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Crofton, Md.: My perception is that Mrs. Clinton is too calculating, and it reduces her appeal. Have there been or could there be some issues on which she truly reveals some passion, imagination and spark?

Sally Jenkins: You know, Dana Milbank's take on how she talks was just dead-on. If she has a real weakness as a candidate, it's her addiction to committee-speak. She has genuine passions -- child advocacy has been a lifelong commitment, and I mean going back to when she was 14 and babysitting for immigrant farm workers' kids -- but it gets lost in her wonky verbiage. And I think she distrusts overt displays of passion -- in the story I quote a letter she wrote to a friend in college, in which she says "emotion without thought ... is pitiful."

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washingtonpost.com: Teaching the Teachers: Nobody Knows More Than Hillary (Post, Dec. 9)

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Stewartstown, Pa.: I don't see what was really wrong about Hillary's answer concerning drivers licenses and illegal immigrants. It is a complicated issue. In real life, issues usually are not black-and-white, and there is something to be said for different points of view. It's a sign of intelligence and maturity to acknowledge this. Furthermore, episodes like this have made me less sympathetic to the complaint that politicians aren't honest. When they are honest, as Hillary was with that question, they're usually rejected. Your thoughts?

Sally Jenkins: In Iowa one day when I was following her, someone asked a difficult question about gun control, I think it was. And she said: "Sometimes yes or no is an easy out. There are some issues that are so difficult and complicated that a 'yes' or a 'no' isn't the best answer." So she would agree with your point, and I do too. But I think the real problem is not about taking a stand -- there's an honesty issue at stake. People can accept complexity; they aren't stupid. But the underpinning to those sorts of questions is the suspicion that Bill and Hillary Clinton have not always been forthright.

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Kettering, Ohio: Hi Sally. Great article, although I hope you stay in sports. You do great as a sportswriter because your work product seems so effortless, genuine -- and that's why your Clinton article works. I appreciated your opinion on what life might be like for her if she failed to win the nomination, and that may not be a bad thing. As a card-carrying Clinton opponent, I do respect the Senate work she has done, although I disagree with nearly three-quarters of her positions.

Sally Jenkins: Thank you. Sports is my life.

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Reading, Pa.: Can Hillary really keep running from the fact that she was vehemently anti-Israel for so many years? And aren't many women secretly repulsed by her "standing by her man" even when Bill has admitted to being a sex addict and compulsive adulterer ?

Sally Jenkins: I think I was just talking about the wide range of opinions Hillary Clinton provokes.

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Point of Rocks, Md.: Are we detecting a bit of feminism in your literary opening about life in the Bellowing Mitch Miller tyranny in Park Ridge? Why is it so funny for liberals to still laugh at people inveighing about the "communists"? I don't think they were laughing in Eastern Europe.

Sally Jenkins: Are we detecting a bit of the suggestion that all female sportswriters are liberals, and that all feminists are secretly father-hating communist sympathizers?

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North McLean, Va.: It's hard to overstate the disdain that some on the right have to Senator Clinton. Her "It Takes a Village" book really infuriates many because they see it as an implication that The Government knows best how to raise your children. Do you think the senator will try to reach out to such people, or will she simply write them off as a lost cause?

Sally Jenkins: I think that's a good question. When I was researching the piece I came across a very long interview Clinton did with Brian Lamb of C-SPAN when she was promoting "It Takes A Village," and he basically asked her about how involved government should be in raising kids. And she said "the government can't and shouldn't try tell people how to raise their kids." But she does believe that there are some areas where the government has an appropriate role when it comes to being able to relieve some problems affecting kids. Yours is a great question, and to me she's at her most interesting when she answers it and doesn't shy away from it. You might be surprised by how persuasive she can be on this subject.

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Elkridge, Md.: Good article -- I learned some new things about one of the most written-about people on the planet. I also learned new things in the Romney piece. Your editors hit a home-run on this series. Thanks...

Sally Jenkins: Ahhhh, the ego bath.

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Chronology?: So if Hillary was really influenced by her youth minister in the early 1960s, isn't it a bit of a stretch to assert (as some do) that she was a conservative Goldwater Girl by conviction, rather than perhaps just a growing young progressive going through the motions for her dad?

Sally Jenkins: Good point. But she clung to it long enough -- she kept "
"Conscience of a Conservative" on her bookshelf in college -- that I'd suggest it was a real enough influence. And don't forget how well-liked she is by some on the other side of the aisle, starting with Gingrich and McCain. There's a genuine affinity there.

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Washington/Virginia transplant in New York: I found the article quite riveting in style and content. For those who think that Hillary is too polished, intellectual and artificial, the article provided an alternative by describing her upbringing and relationship with family, church and politics. My question: What are the sources for the articles in this series? Is the material mostly drawn from biographies and/or previous articles?

Sally Jenkins: The sources for the article, in no particular order, are: probably a dozen interviews with old friends, classmates and teachers from Park Ridge, my interview with Clinton herself, lots of old interviews and newspaper articles I dug up in the library -- such as the Brian Lamb interview on C-SPAN -- and five assorted biographies of Clinton by people like Carl Bernstein and Gail Sheehy, along David Maraniss's wonderful bio of Bill Clinton and her own autobiographies.

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Richmond, Va.: I am a woman, I would like to see a woman president, but I don't want this woman (Clinton). Do you hear that a lot?

Sally Jenkins: I've heard it, but I wouldn't say a lot. More often I hear "do you think she's electable?"

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Decatur, Ga.: Sally, how did your relationship with your father inform your reporting and questions to Hilary regarding her relationship with her father?

Sally Jenkins: I found it interesting that Hugh Rodham, conservative with a small "c" and man of a certain era, taught his little blond ringleted daughter to hit a curve ball. That fascinated me. There weren't any other Park Ridge fathers doing that in 1956. Most fathers were telling their daughters they could be stewardesses but not pilots, or secretaries but not lawyers. So that really caught my eye when I read it. And it was the first question that I asked her. Granted, it was a bona fide softball, but the question seemed to absolutely delight her, and it got us off on a good conversation.

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Baltimore: Do you think that Clinton is underestimating the voters' feelings about how they were duped about the Iraq war and that she did vote so that President Bush could go ahead with that war? Do you think that her "Margaret Thatcher style" will win her the nomination, and in turn the presidency?

Sally Jenkins: I can't answer the war question, and I wouldn't presume to say that I know how all Americans feel about the war. As for her "Thatcher" style, I think that she has performed well enough so far that if people doubted whether she had the mettle, or toughness, or whatever you want to call it, to do the job, she certainly has shown she's got the steel for it. But I'm not sure that is her biggest issue with undecided Dems. ... Okay folks, got to run back to sports -- thanks for chatting.

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