Clinton has long been reluctant to talk about her work during the 1970s. She should instead be promoting it.
The continuing doubts about Hillary Clinton’s “authenticity” go beyond her email server.
Many Americans feel she has not presented her life story, fully, honestly. Being more policy wonk than natural pol doesn’t help. But she also suffers from her own caution, built up by being burned as a controversial frst lady. Pressured to abandon her maiden name and change her hairstyle in the 1980s, humiliated in 1992 and 1993, Hillary Rodham learned to hide in public. In telling her story, Hillary Clinton should reframe two defining traumas from her national debut, instead of dodging them.
The Hillary everybody thinks they know is the hippie feminist turned unhappy Southern governor’s wife who became a polarizing first lady. Clintonites often neglect Hillary Clinton’s impressive résumé from the 1970s because Republicans caricatured her so effectively during the bruising 1992 presidential campaign.
In the American Spectator’s “The Winnie Mandela of Little Rock” and other harsh articles, opponents blasted this supposed left-wing lunatic for helping Black Panther radicals dodge murder convictions and encouraging children to sue their parents. Then, when as first lady she started an important national conversation about finding meaning in America, reporters sneered.
Humiliated, the real Hillary obscured much of her past and one of her central passions. Just as trauma specialists urge patients to rewrite difficult moments, Hillary Clinton should take back her own story. Rewriting her past could help secure her political future.
In fall 1969, Hillary Rodham enrolled in Yale Law School—disappointing her radical mentor and senior thesis subject Saul Alinsky—because she wanted to use the law to improve America. She found a summer job in 1970 at the Children’s Defense Fund. In 1974, she staffed the House Judiciary Committee, which was considering impeaching President Richard Nixon. When Nixon’s resignation made the impeachment question moot, Hillary Rodham followed her heart to Arkansas. There, she married a fellow Yalie, Bill Clinton, on Oct. 11, 1975.
The two most devastating charges made in 1992 about the Seventies are exaggerations. The Black Panther rumor is so ubiquitous Snopes.com refutes it. Nine Black Panther activists were tried in New Haven in 1970, accused of torturing, then murdering, Alex Rackley, a 19-year-old suspected informer. Liberals did romanticize Black Panther violence, and Hillary Rodham did organize law students to monitor the trials of “The New Haven 9.” Still, that minor role didn’t affect the trial’s outcome.
Similarly, at the 1992 Republican National Convention, Pat Buchanan charged that: “Hillary believes that 12-year-olds have a right to sue their parents, and she has compared marriage as an institution to slavery—and life on an Indian reservation.” Buchanan and others distorted a Harvard Education Review essay Hillary Rodham wrote analyzing children’s expanding legal status. She compared institutions that deprive people of “rights in a dependency relationship,” including family, “marriage, slavery, and the Indian reservation system.” She speculated about “new lines of legal theory” to defend kids, but never assailed the family and marriage as her opponents wish she did.
Whether or not you approve of her liberalism, Hillary Clinton has few apologies to make about her 1970s. During a stage of life when the hearty-partier George W. Bush was drinking heavily, the pot-smoking Barack Obama was trying cocaine, and the draft-avoiding Bill Clinton was “not inhaling” marijuana, this smart idealist was trying to change the world. Despite looking like a flower child wannabe, Hillary Rodham always stayed within the system.
In Arkansas, Hillary Rodham Clinton became a governor’s wife, a mother, and The Rose Law Firm’s first female partner. She also became the first Clinton with a national job—periodically commuting to Washington to serve on the board and eventually chair the Legal Services Corporation (LSC).
If Clinton fails to celebrate such achievements, her rivals will denigrate them. Just as some allege that her boss fired Hillary Rodham from the House Judiciary Committee—overlooking Nixon’s resignation—critics paint the LSC as pinko lawyers subverting America. Hillary Clinton’s bio should emphasize that the LSC began under Richard Nixon. During recent 40th anniversary festivities, the conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia saluted these “lawyers who have dedicated their careers to justice. For without access to quality representation there is no justice.”
As first lady, Hillary Clinton endured a different trauma. On April 6, 1993, she spoke at the University of Texas in Austin. With all we have, “we lack at some core level meaning” in our lives, she lamented. Crime in the streets, nihilism on the news, fury in our politics, reflected “alienation and despair and hopelessness.”
Hillary Clinton’s push for a “politics of meaning” culminated in a New York Times Magazine story Michael Kelly wrote, “Saint Hillary.” She appeared on the cover clad in celestial white. Kelly caught her in the act of dreaming, like her husband, about reviving America’s soul while reforming the body politic. What Kelly snidely called “a mix of Bible and Bill Moyers, of New Testament and New Age,” and others called “psychobabble,” sought a 1950s-style suburban stability tempered by the 1960s’ liberating openness. Kelly deemed it moralistic and judgmental, “unintentionally hilarious Big Brotherism.” Burned, Hillary Clinton ignored the episode in her memoirs, and was more cautious in public thereafter, although her 1996 bestseller It Takes a Village raised these issues in a safer, more all-American Mom manner.
Hillary Clinton must tell her story more proudly. Her ads offered two bios intertwining Hillary’s story with her mother’s. The latest commercials use regular women named Sara, Alexis, Cheryl, and Mindy to support saccharine endorsements of gender equity and easing college loan burdens, amid Hillary’s narration. Viewers glimpse the candidate when she “approves this message” at the end. Only unpopular candidates hide in their own ads. Having first emerged as Bill’s wife, America’s first serious female presidential candidate should not become Dorothy’s daughter—or dodge voters.
Hillary Clinton calls herself “a progressive who likes to get things done.” Hillary’s 1970s, and her Politics of Meaning push, show she has been trying to get things done since her impressively productive twenties. To win in 2016, Hillary Clinton must learn politics 101: If she doesn’t define that defining decade in her life and subsequent moments, her opponents will.