Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be politicians.
But these mothers did – Dorothy Howell Rodham and Virginia Clinton Kelley. Their offspring, Bill and Hillary Clinton, have occupied the Arkansas attorney general’s and governor’s offices, the Oval Office, a U.S. Senate seat and a Cabinet post.
An exhibit featuring these two women, their children and grandchildren, including Chelsea Clinton, is on display at the William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock.
On a recent sultry Sunday afternoon, the library, and in particular this exhibit, was packed with tourists who soaked in the two women’s family trees, studied their private collections of jewelry, art and paper weights and tried to figure out what kind of women produced two of the world’s most powerful leaders.
Having covered the Clintons as a journalist for decades, I knew quite a bit about the colorful, daring Virginia who loved good times, gambling and gallivanting. Several books were written about her during the early days of her son’s presidential campaign, and she freely gave interviews before her death in 1994.
But Dorothy, who died in November, is more of a mystery. She’s described as private by friends and family in various video interviews and exhibit displays.
Chelsea introduces visitors via video to her two grandmothers, linking these “remarkable women” with “extraordinary lives” who were born at a critical time for their gender. Rodham was born the year women won the right to vote, Kelley at the cusp of the 1920s. Chelsea describes her grandmothers as “two of the most inspiring women I have ever met” who possessed “grit and grace.”
Many personal family pictures and antidotes tell those stories. There’s a lot of Bill in the face of Virginia and a lot less of Dorothy in Hillary’s. But Dorothy’s determination, which Hillary seems to have inherited, is adamant from an early age.
Dorothy grew up in an unhappy home with very little parental warmth. She escaped as a teenager by taking refuge as a caregiver to two small children in a home filled with love. It was there, it’s said, that she learned how to love.
In the 1970s, after her children were grown, Dorothy earned an associate’s degree in liberal arts from Oakton Community College in Illinois. Her report cards, showing high grades, and diploma are on display.
Her favorite band, surprisingly, was The Rolling Stones. A signed copy of Keith Richards’ biography “Life” sits in a case along with “Paris Interiors,” one of her favorite design books.
Dorothy may not be too far removed from the spunky mother character Ellen Burstyn plays on the new political drama “Political Animals.” In the first episode, which aired last week on USA Network, Burstyn’s character seems more Virginia than Dorothy when she says, “You can’t make margaritas with Jack Daniels.”
But one of Dorothy’s favorite drinks was, indeed, margaritas. Among s Rodham’s other passions: collecting rocks from places where she traveled, eating spicy guacamole and reading the novels of Alexander McCall Smith. For the devoted Clinton fans – and, yes, they exist – the lilac Vera Wang dress that Dorothy wore to Chelsea’s 2010 wedding is also on the display.
But there’s something else at play in this exhibit. From glimpses of these two women emerge new portraits of Bill and Hillary as kids, not baby boomer politicians, who talk about their moms.
A letter from Bill to Virginia on a Mother’s Day in the 1960s while he was studying at Oxford is revealing. He wrote: “Will this suffice for a Happy Mother’s Day card, with love from your son. It is the best I can do.”
Hillary says in a video clip, “I was always learning new things about my mother. In many ways, her example spurred me on in the work I tried to do over my life.”
If that’s the case, the last quote from Dorothy that visitors see before leaving the exhibit makes me wonder if Hillary doesn’t have another presidential race in her: “You can’t quit. You’ve got to see through what you’ve started.”
Suzi Parker is an Arkansas-based political and cultural journalist and author of “Sex in the South: Unbuckling the Bible Belt.” Follow her on Twitter at @SuziParker.