Editor’s note: This story was originally published on January 12, 1993.
Park Ridge had been so isolated. It was white people and more white people -- a big Frank Capra set, wide lawns, narrow minds, fading "Au-H20 '64" bumper stickers on the Oldsmobiles and Cadillacs. Hillary Rodham would go home to Illinois every summer after she left for college. She caught up with family, sat around with Betsy Johnson Ebeling, cooled off in the public pool -- but she was starting to change so much at Wellesley... .
She didn't agree with her father's politics anymore, not about LBJ or Nixon, not about Vietnam. Every year she grew firmer, rethought something, became more resolved. And these were amazing years to be at college -- Time magazine's "Man of the Year" in 1966 turned out to be an entire generation: "Twenty-five and Under." Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April 1968, and Hillary marched with a black armband in Boston. That summer she took the train with Ebeling into Chicago, almost innocently, to see the demonstrations -- that turned out to be riots -- outside the Democratic National Convention. "We saw kids our age getting their heads beaten in. And the police were doing the beating," Ebeling says now. "Hillary and I just looked at each other. We had had a wonderful childhood in Park Ridge, but we obviously hadn't gotten the whole story."
Things started coming together, shifting into place. All those Girl Scout badges. All those DAR community service awards she'd won back in Park Ridge. All those things her youth minister, Don Jones, had been saying all along. In two years' time she would meet her next mentor, Marian Wright Edelman, the children's rights activist -- the very same year she'd meet Bill Clinton -- and the pieces would begin to fit. She wanted to serve, oddly enough. She had a calling. It was obvious to her, as it was obvious to everyone who knew her at Wellesley and then Yale. There's no way she was ever going to be, say, a corporate lawyer.
What, as a teenager, appeared to be Hillary Rodham's compulsive do-gooding became something more powerful. And the farther away she got from Park Ridge, every year, every new experience, every new bit of information, the picture inside her head became sharper -- about what piece of the world she'd help fix.
"Hillary was smart enough to realize that, eventually, she had to make a choice," says Jan Piercy, a roommate at college. "Lots of people became paralyzed trying to decide where to focus their energy. At Wellesley, certainly, she hadn't found that focus yet -- she was involved in everything."
Growing up, she'd been a chronic teacher's pet, had run for class offices and had even organized her own neighborhood "Olympics" on her family's front lawn. Now she found herself at Wellesley -- a political science major with her mind set on law school -- and as a member of the student senate, with all the organizational skills required for a '60s college activist lifestyle: Rodham protested curfews, fought to lift the ban on men in the dormitories. She campaigned for greater minority student admission and for the extinction of mandatory classes.
A few years later at Yale Law School, she would find herself involved in more campaigns, more battles, protesting everything from the war to the lack of Tampax machines in the women's rooms. She had become a fighter. Scrappy -- like all the Rodhams -- but it was a Hillary-style rebellion: methodical, rational, fair. "I wouldn't say she was angry," says Piercy. "Intense anger is sometimes the result of frustration -- from not being effective. And Hillary has always been effective."
You know how people talk about Army brats? Hillary Rodham was a government brat. She was at home wherever there were rules, a system she could figure out. "I was worried about her," says Dorothy Rodham, her mother, "but Hillary adjusted to Wellesley without a problem. She joined clubs and was active immediately." She dated -- guys at Harvard and MIT mostly -- but nobody serious enough to mention. She studied a great deal, and is remembered by Patsy Sampson, her child psychology professor who is now the president of Stephens College, as "intense and very serious ... the lowest grade I gave her was an A, the rest were A-pluses" -- but she wasn't to become a valedictorian.
But Hillary couldn't say no to a meeting: Get out the Robert's Rules of Order and she would come flying through the door. "She has a vitality that arises from her convictions," says Piercy. "She loves talking about ideas. She loves asking questions. Ask her about herself, and I think you'll find she shuts down. Oh, she may answer your question, but I don't think you'll see much energy behind it."
Years later, it became a joke between Hugh Rodham and his only daughter that sending her to Wellesley had been a "great miscalculation." She had left a Republican, a Goldwater Girl -- even wore a sash! -- but there she was, just four years later, standing on the podium in her somber cap and gown and glasses, the first student at Wellesley ever asked to give a commencement address. Dorothy stayed home with the boys, but Hugh Rodham, after driving up to Massachusetts alone in the Cadillac, sat and watched while Hillary began her speech by delicately chewing out the previous commencement speaker -- Republican Sen. Edward Brooke of Massachusetts -- for being out of touch.
In keeping with the times, she was outspoken. In keeping with her personality, she was balanced, mature -- rather thoughtful. Without notes, Hillary addressed her class of graduating seniors. The speech, on paper, nearly 24 years later, is still passionate and eloquent and wise and "full of uncompromising language," as she would say later. In places, it reads as though she'd been taking too many philosophy classes -- there's something about an "authentic reality" and an "inauthentic reality" -- but slipped in too, here and there, you can see how she had begun to integrate, to tie her Park Ridge upbringing and family values to her new ideology:
"There's a very strange conservative strain that goes through a lot of New Left college protests that I find very intriguing," she said, "because it harkens back to a lot of the old virtues, to the fulfillment of original ideas. And it's also a very unique American experience. It's such a great adventure. If the experiment in human living doesn't work in this country, in this age, it's not going to work anywhere."
Sometime later, Life magazine came out with a story about her commencement address -- along with Hillary Rodham's photograph.
The smoothness she had in her sixth-grade class picture is still there. She's in motion, but completely poised, leaning forward. She has long, straight brownish hair. She has an unworried, intelligent face without a trace of adornment. It was 1969 after all, and women were either thick with makeup, or earthy and natural. A great deal of effort was made, or none.
Last year, she confessed at another Wellesley commencement how she came to celebrate her adulthood: After speaking and graduating, she went swimming in Lake Waban -- in the middle of campus, at a place where swimming is forbidden. Stripping down to her bathing suit, she carefully left her clothes and "Coke-bottle glasses" on the shore, where, unfortunately, they were confiscated by a patrolling guard. "Blind as a bat," she said, "I had to feel my way back to my room at Davis."
That summer she explored further, taking off for Alaska, where she traveled around doing odd jobs. At one, a fish cannery, she told the owner that his fish looked a little black and weird and maybe not fit for consumption. He fired her.
Marian Wright Edelman was discouraging at first, when Hillary Rodham approached her after a lecture at Yale in the spring of 1970 saying she wanted to spend the summer working for the Children's Defense Fund. There wasn't any money to support a summer intern, even of Rodham's caliber.
A few weeks earlier, Rodham had read about Edelman in Time magazine -- and then, "in one of those strange twists of fate that enters all our lives if we're open to hear and to see them," as Rodham would say later, she saw Edelman's name again, stuck on a bulletin board: She was coming to speak at Yale. Sitting in the audience listening, Rodham had a revelation. "I knew right away," she told a group at Spelman College last year, "that I had to go to work for her."
So, Rodham -- the government brat, worker within the system -- found herself a grant to work for Edelman in Washington, the summer of 1970, and began pursuing her great new love: the law and children.
Bill Clinton wouldn't turn up at Yale Law School until the fall after that internship. He was straight from Oxford, but all he talked about was Arkansas. Watermelons and lookout points and fried everything. She was seeing other people -- but a close friend of Rodham's remembers her being interested in him right off.
The way the story goes -- and it starts to sound like the Legend of Paul Bunyan after you hear it a few times -- Rodham and Clinton were eyeballing each other for months, noticing and noticing, catching glimpses, overhearing each other's conversations. Yale Law School is a small aquarium full of big fish -- only 500 to a class, compared with Harvard's 1,500, all eating and sleeping and thinking deep thoughts within 100 yards of one another.
Finally, Rodham just got up from her chair in the library, walked right for him and uttered a line worthy of Lauren Bacall:
"If you're going to keep looking at me and I'm going to keep looking back, we at least ought to know each other. I'm Hillary Rodham."
The next year they moved out of the dorm and began sharing a little rented house in New Haven. During the summer of 1972 or so -- it might have been that Christmas, the Rodham family is at odds on the date -- she took him home to Park Ridge, to meet everybody.
"I thought he was interesting," says Dorothy. "He was sincere and had traveled a lot. I remember asking him what he was going to do after Yale, and without blinking, he said: I'm going back to Arkansas -- to help the state. I thought, gee, that's great for him. Least he knew what he wanted."
"I was cutting the grass," says Tony Rodham -- 18 years old when he first met Hillary's new boyfriend. "He climbed out of the car, came right over and started helping me cut the grass. We had a nice little chat, and, of course, I had something else I wanted to do -- so Bill immediately volunteered to help finish the job with the grass. I think Dad came out of the house and put a stop to it."
She was scheduled to graduate a year before him, but Rodham chose to stay around New Haven instead, while Clinton finished law school. She took a fourth year to study child development at the Yale Child Study Center and researched her now well-known legal writing on the rights of children for the Harvard Educational Review. In the article, she argued that all minors should not be considered legally incompetent -- that children over 12 years old can, in some instances, demonstrate an ability to make more responsible decisions about their lives and future than the adults raising them.
It's always tricky -- having the state mess around with the sanctity of the family unit -- and usually controversial. While Rodham's piece is not about teenagers suing their parents for making them take out the trash, as some critics have characterized it, the article does say that children should have the same procedural rights in court -- meaning the competence of the child to decide his own fate should be decided, case by case, by the courts. It also suggests reversing the presumption of the "identity of interests between parents and their children."
This was her baby -- her field, the calling she had chosen. She wasn't thinking about being married to a man running for president, or what the National Review would write many, many years later. Rodham was 26, beginning to fashion for herself a career as a children's rights advocate, a legal pioneer.
In 1979, she wrote again -- now the wife of the governor of Arkansas, now a partner in a Little Rock law firm with a corporate practice -- and provided further explanation: "Decisions about motherhood and abortion, schooling, cosmetic surgery, treatment of venereal disease, or employment, and others where the decision or lack of one will significantly affect the child's future should not be made unilaterally by parents. Children should have a right to be permitted to decide their own future if they are competent."
Her bills for phone calls to Clinton were pretty huge that next winter and spring and summer. It was 1974. Rodham was living in Washington, D.C., and her life consisted of eating yogurt while standing up in the kitchen, working 18 hours a day for the House Judiciary Committee impeachment inquiry, and making late-night phone calls to Clinton, who was teaching at the University of Arkansas Law School in Fayetteville.
"I barely ever saw her," says Sara Ehrman, a Washingtonian who gave Rodham a bedroom and bathroom in her town house in Southwest -- they had met a couple of years earlier, working on the McGovern campaign in Texas. "I just remember driving her at 7 a.m. to the Watergate committee offices in an old converted hotel. We used to laugh and laugh about the absurdity of the life she was leading."
Rodham had first come to Washington, after Yale, to work as a staff attorney at the Children's Defense Fund. But in January 1974 she got a call from John Doar, who was running the Democratic side of the House Judiciary Committee's impeachment commission. It was an opportunity she couldn't pass up. So, from January until after Richard Nixon resigned in August, Rodham and more than 40 other lawyers worked together -- Republicans and Democrats alike (William Weld, the current governor of Massachusetts included) -- slaved in tiny offices, doing whatever high-stakes grunt work was necessary, researching things like the legal precedent for throwing the president out of office. If they left at 9 at night, they called it "leaving early."
Rodham remembers one Saturday when she was locked inside a soundproof room, with headphones on, listening to tapes -- of Nixon listening to his own tapes, and offering his own defenses to the things said by him, Haldeman, Ehrlichman. "It was surreal," she told the Arkansas Gazette in 1990. "You'd hear him say, What I meant when I said that was ... Unbelievable, but it was a real positive experience because the system worked. Everything was done in a very professional, careful way."
As she rose in the legal ranks, Hillary Rodham found herself surrounded by more and more men. At Yale, at least 15 percent of her law school class had been women; at the impeachment inquiry, Rodham was one of just two.
"It's funny, but I don't think Hillary ever saw herself as some kind of trailblazer," says Mike Conway, a Chicago lawyer who was with her in law school and then on the impeachment inquiry. "She never seemed to wear that on her sleeve. She clearly belonged at Yale -- and belonged on the Watergate committee. She's never had a confrontational attitude about it. She led more by example."
At the summer's end she visited Clinton. He was teaching in Fayetteville, at the University of Arkansas Law School, and running for Congress against John Paul Hammerschmidt. Hillary's brothers, Hughie and Tony Rodham, even came to hang signs -- "Clinton for Congress" -- on trees and lampposts. Clinton was doing what he always said he'd do, wanted to do. But what was Rodham going to do? Get on the fast track, join a top-rank law firm such as Williams & Connolly? The D.C. firm had been talking to her, had wanted her.
Hillary also was offered a job teaching criminal law and trial advocacy at the University of Arkansas -- not in the top rank. But there was a chance to start a legal aid program there. Why not? Why not see how it is down there? Clinton was crazy for her. She was crazy back. "I loved him," she has said many times, and: "I had to."
What kind of sacrifices are you supposed to make for love? "I wondered if Arkansas would be so great for Hillary," says Dorothy Rodham, "but you know? I've never told my children what to do. I had to rely on Hillary's judgment -- there'd never been any reason not to."
What kind of sacrifices are you supposed to make for your career? "People heard that Hillary was moving to Arkansas," says Jan Piercy, "and couldn't believe it."
She took the long, long drive to Arkansas with Sara Ehrman, away from Washington, away from Wellesley and Yale and Park Ridge, with her 10-speed and book boxes packed in the back of Ehrman's Buick. "I told her every 20 minutes that she was crazy to bury herself in Fayetteville," says Ehrman. " 'You are crazy. You are out of your mind. You're going to this rural, remote place -- and wind up married to some country lawyer.' "
She'd been in the middle of everything, on the edge of everything, Ehrman says. "She was on the fast track to becoming a great legal star."
Sensibly, carefully, Hillary Rodham waited a year before marrying Bill Clinton. She taught at the law school first, figured out the system, founded the legal aid program, made friends immediately. "We'd take long walks together," says Diane Blair, a political science professor in Fayetteville who had grown up in D.C. and moved to Arkansas 12 years before. "There were simple small town/big town differences that she was getting used to. Everybody knew her, knew who she was ... there weren't many professional women here then, and she was The Lady Lawyer."
"We knew that Hillary was coming down to sort of check things out," says business professor Ann Henry, whose husband, Morris Henry, was the state chairman of the Democratic Party at the time. "Since she was so special to Bill -- and he wanted her to love it here -- we did everything we could to make sure she realized she could have a wonderful, full life in Arkansas."
Integration: Your life is one solid whole. This is what Hillary Rodham was starting to figure out, what she believes still. You don't just work like a slave. You don't spend your life eating dinner in front of the refrigerator. You have friends, you have a family, you have work, and you have public service. It's something like a system. And when it breaks down, you fix it.
Betsy Ebeling came down from Chicago and was the maid of honor. Hughie Rodham turned up a little late -- after taking his LSATs. Hillary wore a Jessica McClintock Victorian lace sort of dress that she'd gotten at the last minute, with Dorothy, over at Dillard's department store. There was a small ceremony in Clinton and Rodham's little house near campus, then a bigger reception at the Henrys'. The three-car garage was converted into the party room. There was a terraced cake with pale yellow roses. Somebody played the piano.
Friends came from Yale. Friends came from Oxford and Wellesley and Georgetown and Park Ridge and Hot Springs. It's unclear whether Hillary, unable to wear contact lenses at the time, was able to recognize them.
Had Clinton won that congressional seat in 1974, maybe she would have returned to Washington, after just a semester or two. "I don't think teaching was ever enough to engage her," says Ann Henry. "She was expected to do legal writing, research, take on groundbreaking cases -- but she's not really an academic. She likes to get in the fray, live in the real world."
Maybe she would have become a congressman's wife, gotten a town house on the Hill, become a partner defending white-collar criminals. ... That doesn't sound right, does it? Are we getting a better sense of her now? Hillary wasn't very interested in being a legal star. She wanted to make things happen, not make money. She wanted to fix things, help children, and, not too far off in the future, start having some of her own.
The next year, they'd be moving to Little Rock -- Clinton had won the race for attorney general. Maybe it would take a little longer to get back to Washington after all, but ... heck, she was starting to like it in Arkansas.