Hillary Clinton won’t back down. Or go away.

She won’t back down. Or go away.

Hillary Clinton’s unyielding mind-set could help her make history, if it doesn’t sabotage her again.

Published on June 11, 2015


Hillary Rodham Clinton looked into their eyes, her voice dropping. “I have to confess,” she said, and the group surrounding her in this little makeshift room leaned in.

Above: Hillary Rodham Clinton was in Washington in March to take part in a Center for American Progress roundtable on expanding opportunities in poor urban areas. She would her make her long-expected 2016 White House bid official three weeks later. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Make or Break: Presidential candidates are a breed apart, often propelled by traits that have shaped their careers and have deep roots in their personal histories. In this occasional series, The Washington Post is exploring key characteristics of the leading contenders that could help make one of them the country’s next commander in chief -- or sink their presidential ambitions.

Also in this series:
Ted Cruz: Principled or know-it-all?
Rand Paul: Heir to a 'libertarianish' revolution
Marco Rubio: A man in a hurry
Mike Huckabee: Is this folksy showman willing to get meaner?
Rick Perry: Can he close the deal?
Jeb Bush: A clan of ferocious competitors returns to the fray
Chris Christie: The human opera takes the stage

Usually the atrium at PS/IS 41 in Brooklyn is a community area, kids’ voices echoing off the tile walls. On this Wednesday in April, it was a political proving ground: Clinton alongside Chirlane McCray, the first lady of New York City, to promote a campaign that encourages parents to talk or sing to their children.

Clinton was just days away from launching a second run for the White House, determined to win what she lost in spectacular fashion in 2008.

But her won’t-back-down resolve — the quality that could make her America’s first female president if it doesn’t sabotage her first — was nowhere in sight as she sat at a table with about a half-dozen parents and educators, nodding at their stories.

This was a chance, in a carefully controlled setting, to project the warmer, more intimate persona she would be unveiling in Iowa and New Hampshire. She may have gotten her first campaign for the Democratic nomination wrong, but now she was planning to get it right.

So here she was, in a neighborhood dominated by public housing projects, trying to connect not as President Obama’s first secretary of state, or an ex-U.S. senator, or the former first lady of the United States — though her audience was acutely aware that she’d been all those things. Nor did she want to be seen as a $200,000-per-speech megastar who was driven in a private van to a public school where nearly all 525 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

Clinton was presenting herself as a mother, just like those gathered around the table with her. And maybe if she said it often enough — believed it hard enough — voters would see her as she likes to see herself.

And, anyway, about that confession: She can’t sing a lick. Years ago, Clinton told the group, amid laughter, that she would rock young Chelsea to sleep by singing her favorite song, “Moon River.” Her daughter was less than appreciative, her tiny finger pressing into her mother’s lips.

“No sing, Mommy,” Clinton recalled Chelsea saying, some of the child’s first words. Clinton was a young mother then and is a 67-year-old grandmother now, and my, how fast the time goes. The parents nodded.

Clinton was grooving now, comfortable and in command, offering a tender version of herself in a place where no one would challenge her about her e-mail accounts, or the attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, or the ugly political fights of the past four decades. Where no one would bring up the psychological Kevlar she wears into every room, the unyielding mind-set that has defined her since she was a child and still fuels her now.

“She will not give up when she knows she’s right,” says Sara Ehrman, a friend and confidante of Clinton’s since the 1970s. “She will not give up. And it is admirable — and annoying.”

Or as Clinton put it in a 2012 e-mail to a State Department colleague bracing to testify on Benghazi before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: “Well, what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger (as I have rationalized for years), so just survive and you’ll have triumphed.”

Hillary Clinton in her own words: Her take on women’s rights, Benghazi and more

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Fifteen miles from Chicago, jets descended over the northern suburbs into O’Hare International Airport. It was the early 1950s, and a 4-year-old girl danced alone in her family’s back yard, reaching for the rumbling sky.

This is one of young Hillary’s earliest memories, recounted decades later in her first memoir, “Living History.” She declined to be interviewed for this article, but in her book she remembers her mother, Dorothy, asking her why she wasn’t playing with other kids in Park Ridge, the suburb where the Rodhams lived.

Hillary started to cry. The problem was a girl named Suzy. Suzy was bigger, meaner, used to roughhousing with her older brothers, Hillary told her mother. She was afraid of her.

“Go back out there,” Dorothy Rodham ordered her oldest child and only daughter, nudging her out the door. Dorothy reminded her that if Suzy bullied her, she had her mother’s permission to punch back. “You have to stand up for yourself. There’s no room in this house for cowards.”

Hillary Clinton greets friends in Washington after participating in a roundtable at the Center for American Progress in March. For this series, Post photojournalists used a phone app with filters to capture the candidates as potential voters might. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Though Dorothy deferred always to her opinionated, domineering husband, Hugh, she was perhaps the household’s strongest soul. She had spent her own childhood mostly alone, taking care of her sister when their parents left them alone for days. Dorothy was 8 when her parents put her on a train in Illinois bound for California, shuffled off to live with relatives who weren’t any more caring.

Dorothy’s grandmother once confined her to a year in her room for the sin of celebrating Halloween. She left at age 14 to work full time, as a $3-per-week housekeeper and nanny for a family that actually seemed to love one another.

Years later, Dorothy watched from behind a curtain as Hillary marched out to confront Suzy. The bully backed down, and Hillary raced home to announce her victory: “I can play with the boys now!”

Hillary began defying the limits imposed on girls in that era. She dreamed of becoming an astronaut or a baseball player and ran unsuccessfully for student government president at Maine South High. When she later applied to law school at Harvard and Yale, a well-known professor told her at a cocktail party that Harvard didn’t need more women, Hillary’s final nudge toward Yale.

Still, Hillary sometimes harbored self-doubt. She was a freshman at Wellesley College, an all-girls school near Boston, when her first math and French grades came back. They weren’t A’s. She called home, holding back tears. Hugh Rodham told her to come on back to Illinois. Dorothy, who had never felt in control of her own life, said no such thing. She had been offered no opportunities; she wasn’t going to let her only daughter give up on hers.

“I realized,” Clinton would later write, “that I really couldn’t go home again.”

Hillary Rodham Clinton at left in New York with her mother, Dorothy Rodham, in July 1992. (Ron Frehm/AP)
The Clintons chat with Mochtar Riady, chairman of the Hong Kong Chinese Bank, during a 1985 visit to Hong Kong as part of a trade-promotion tour when Bill Clinton was governor of Arkansas. (Dick Fung/AP)

They stopped twice in Virginia and again in Tennessee. The question was always the same: “Are you sure?” And the answer was always yes, so they kept driving.

Hillary had moved to Washington after graduating from Yale Law School, where she had met a bright and charismatic student named Bill Clinton. She worked as a staff attorney for the Children’s Defense Fund, then for the House committee investigating Watergate. Home during those years had been Ehrman’s Capitol Hill townhouse, where the roommates often talked about the future. Hillary’s ambition was among the most popular topics.

“She wanted a job. She wanted a life. She wanted to be recognized for what she was qualified to do,” Ehrman recalls.

Now, as they drove south, Ehrman was trying to talk her friend out of a decision that contradicted all that: Hillary wanted to join Bill in Arkansas, where he was a law professor with lofty ambitions of his own. Ehrman agreed to drive her because it gave Ehrman time to talk Hillary out of it. “Are you crazy?” she asked during one of their stops, telling her friend that she was throwing her future away. Hillary's determination, Ehrman learned, also came with a frustrating side.

They arrived in Fayetteville, Hillary taking her first steps toward a new life that would eventually make her one of the most powerful — and most controversial  — women in the world. Ehrman, still certain her friend was making a terrible mistake, sat in her car and cried.

Hillary married Bill in 1975 but refused to take on Clinton’s last name, raising eyebrows in conservative Arkansas. When Bill ran for governor in 1978, advisers urged her to rethink such a trivial matter, but the fact was, this wasn’t trivial to her. Hillary, who would go on to be the first female partner at Rose Law Firm, wouldn’t be talked out of flying to New York a month before Chelsea was born to make a presentation alongside board members of the Arkansas Children’s Hospital — and she wouldn’t be talked out of this.

“I was still me,” she wrote in “Living History.”

“She has always done what she thinks is the right thing,” says Sheila Bronfman, a longtime friend from Arkansas. “And she lives with her choices.”

Then Bill, seeking a second term as governor, lost to a Republican challenger named Frank White, and advisers put some of the blame on Hillary’s refusal to be a genteel Southern wife. When Bill announced he would seek the office again in 1982, his wife began calling herself Hillary Rodham Clinton — a notable compromise.

Winning, she realized, was more important. A few months later, Bill retook the Governor’s Mansion in a landslide.

[section headline="" description="" caption="Hillary Clinton leaves a campaign event at a bookstore in Exeter, N.H., in May. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post) " credit="" src="http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/national/wp-content/uploads/sites/11/2015/06/hillaryweb4.jpg" link="" align="full" ]

She stood alone sometimes looking out a White House window, watching as the tourists strolled by. Years of fighting had helped Bill Clinton become America’s 42nd president, but it had left Hillary with more enemies than allies.

She spent her first two years in Washington in the center of bare-knuckle exchanges: with media organizations, with Republicans, within her husband’s administration — no battle too small.

“I’m used to winning, and I intend to win on my own terms,” she once said to Diane Blair, one of her closest friends, according to a collection of Blair’s notes archived at the University of Arkansas.

Hillary had demanded her own 20-person staff and West Wing offices, unprecedented for a first lady, and was charged with running point on a task force to reform the country’s health-care system. She conducted many of the initial proceedings in secret, eventually leading to a lawsuit. The initiative died a painful death; she was lampooned and attacked, and she found herself unable to ignore barbs that grew increasingly personal.

During the dawn of the 24-hour news cycle, no topic was off limits. The Clintons’ marriage was dissected as a union not of love but of shared ambitions; she was depicted as a ruthless woman who craved power. Her approval rating dipped to 44 percent, and at a 1994 tobacco rally in Kentucky, a Hillary effigy was burned.

When she felt bullied, as she had been so many years earlier in Park Ridge, she wanted to punch back. “As always,” Blair once wrote in her journal, “she thinks the only answer to anything is to go on the offensive.”

But more often she found herself in a defensive crouch, walling herself off from her attackers, always seeking control.

Blair suggested she could spare herself headaches by being friendlier to the press and dabbling in fewer political decisions.

“I know how to compromise, I have compromised,” Blair wrote that Hillary told her during a phone call. “I gave up my name, got contact lenses, but I’m not going to try to pretend to be somebody that I’m not.”

During the months before the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995, she insisted on traveling to the Beijing event — a move that had the potential to offend the Chinese. When Democrats balked and the White House hesitated, she threatened to board a commercial flight and attend anyway, not as first lady but as a private American.

The administration relented, and she delivered the conference’s signature speech. “Human rights are women’s rights,” she told the gathering, “and women’s rights are human rights.”

When Hillary returned to Washington, it was as a global champion of feminism and, perhaps, a future politician herself. For kicks, Blair sometimes sent articles to her about the nation’s readiness for its first female president.

Then, in 1998, two years into his second term, Bill Clinton admitted to having an affair with a White House intern named Monica Lewinsky. The scandal led to impeachment and to the spectacle of Hillary, who had once dismissed questions about her marriage by declaring that she wasn’t “some little woman standing by my man,” doing exactly that.

Although preserving her marriage confounded some feminists, Hillary’s approval rating soared to 67 percent in December 1998, the highest it has been before or since. Her husband survived impeachment, and Hillary survived public humiliation and endless speculation about whether she remained married out of love, ambition, or a combination of both.

The Clintons had just six months left in the White House in 2000 when Hillary learned that her beloved friend Blair, who had been battling lung cancer, was dying. Hillary visited her in Arkansas, asking Blair how “Senator Hillary Clinton” sounded. Blair squeezed Hillary’s hand and whispered, “Don’t ever give up on yourself or what you believe in.”

Hillary, Bill and Chelsea Clinton leave the White House for a Thanksgiving getaway at Camp David in 1997. (Frank Johnston/The Washington Post)
Sen. Hillary Clinton is joined by Bill, Chelsea and her mother, Dorothy Rodham, on June 7, 2008, at the National Building Museum in Washington as she concedes the Democratic presidential nomination to Sen. Barack Obama. (Richard A. Lipski/The Washington Post)

Hillary Clinton looked into their eyes, her voice dropping. “This is very personal for me,” the senator from New York told a small group of undecided voters in a Portsmouth, N.H., cafe in January 2008.

Her voice cracked with emotion. Clinton’s campaign for president was foundering. Another history-seeking Democrat, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, had won the Iowa caucuses, and polls showed him with a double-digit lead over Clinton on the day before the New Hampshire primary.

A woman asked how Clinton did it — how, after all she had been through, she remained so upbeat. Clinton paused, tears welling in her eyes. “I see what’s happening,” she said. “And we have to reverse it.”

She had, until that point, been scripted and cautious, intent on projecting the gravitas of a commander in chief. Voters struggled to connect, and the campaign appeared adrift, beset by bickering and leaks that Clinton seemed unable to control.

Then, whether it was authenticity or a Hail Mary by a desperate campaign, Clinton went off the familiar script. Her voice softened. “I just don’t want to see us fall backwards,” she said. “You know?”

The next day, she erased Obama’s lead and won New Hampshire, though Obama’s historic momentum would be too much to overcome. Portsmouth, though, was more meaningful than one primary win. “I found my footing,” Clinton wrote in “Hard Choices,” her second memoir, “and my voice.”

She refused to concede to Obama, even when it was clear she couldn’t win. And by the end of her campaign, 18 million people had voted to nominate a woman for president of the United States.

When the time finally came to withdraw, an 89-year-old woman wearing green entered the atrium of Washington’s National Building Museum to listen to Clinton’s concession speech. “When you’re knocked down,” Clinton told hundreds of supporters, “get right back up and never listen to anyone who says you can’t or shouldn’t go on.”

The woman in green applauded, and Clinton continued.

“Although we weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it’s got about 18 million cracks in it,” she said as Dorothy Rodham watched from a few feet away.

[section headline="" description="" caption="Clinton exits after delivering the keynote address April 29 at the David N. Dinkins Leadership and Public Policy Forum at Columbia University in New York City. (Kevin Hagen/Getty Images) " credit="" src="http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/national/wp-content/uploads/sites/11/2015/06/hillaryweb6.jpg" link="" align="full" ]

A black van traveled out of New York last month and into the heart of America, through Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana, stopping at one point in Joliet, Ill., about 40 miles from the Chicago suburb where a mother once nudged her daughter outside to confront her tormentor.

The last of Dorothy’s fight had left her in 2011 as Hillary Clinton held her dying mother’s hand. For the first time, she would have to take on all those Suzys alone, no one but herself to push her out the door.

Clinton, who visited 112 countries in four years as secretary of state, announced her second run for the White House on a Sunday in mid-April, and Hillary haters cracked their knuckles. Her motives will again be scrutinized, and so, of course, will her marriage. Can she go the distance, avoiding the traps and attacks, including the self-inflicted ones? And what if she wins — making her, at 69, not just the first woman but the second-oldest president to assume office?

Clinton in 1985 wearing her inaugural-ball gown after Bill Clinton was reelected as governor of Arkansas. (Associated Press)

“I’m aware I may not be the youngest candidate in this race,” Clinton told Democrats in South Carolina in May. “But I have one big advantage: I’ve been coloring my hair for years. You’re not going to see me turn white in the White House. And you’re also not going to see me shrink from a fight.”

The day after her announcement video posted online, Clinton surrendered catered meals, private jets and prized privacy for stops at Chipotle, a converted van and unpredictable encounters  with strangers.

On a Tuesday in Iowa, seven vehicles passed grain silos, taking Exit 63 toward a community college in the rural town of Monticello. A small crowd waited outside to see which Hillary Clinton would emerge from the back seat: the defiant but locked-in former first lady, the controlled and locked-down secretary of state — or some new version of a candidate everyone thinks they know.

The van pulled up inside a loading area, and Clinton stepped out and waved. Then a door opened, the same as it did more than six decades earlier in Park Ridge, and she walked through it.

Make or Break: Presidential candidates are a breed apart, often propelled by traits that have shaped their careers and have deep roots in their personal histories. In this occasional series, The Washington Post is exploring key characteristics of the leading contenders that could help make one of them the country’s next commander in chief -- or sink their presidential ambitions.

Also in this series:
Ted Cruz: Principled or know-it-all?
Rand Paul: Heir to a 'libertarianish' revolution
Marco Rubio: A man in a hurry
Mike Huckabee: Is this folksy showman willing to get meaner?
Rick Perry: Can he close the deal?
Jeb Bush: A clan of ferocious competitors returns to the fray