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Defining moments | Hilary Clinton

From conservative roots sprang a call for change



The third in a series of occasional articles examining the 2008 candidates for president.

PARK RIDGE, Ill. - One evening in the early 1960s, Hillary Rodham's history teacher chose her to give an introduction for a refugee from Soviet terror who spoke to her schoolmates gathered at the town library. The Latvian man drew gasps with haunting stories of schoolbooks ripped off the shelves and church leaders shot in the streets when Soviet tanks rolled into his country in 1940.

On another school night, the young Hillary Clinton's youth minister drove her and other Sunday School students from their quaint Tudor-style church to a bare-bones community center on the South Side of Chicago to meet with black and Hispanic teenagers, many of them in gangs. As the children drew their chairs into a tight semicircle, the minister propped up a framed print of "Guernica," Picasso's tableau of wartime devastation. One black girl, tears streaming down her cheeks, stunned the visitors as she described her uncle being shot over a parking space.

Both of Clinton's mentors - the staunch anticommunist history teacher and the liberal minister - wanted to shake her with a warning about the world outside their placid suburban hometown.

The two men at one point clashed directly. They were battling for Clinton's mind and soul, she later wrote. Each thought he was winning.

"I can see her now, with her hair back, and I thought, 'My gosh, this is a godsend to have a student who is so interested in politics and so conservative,' " recalled the teacher, Paul Carlson, now 72.

"I thought of all the youth, she was probably the most open-minded," recalled the minister, Don Jones, now 76.

A few years later, with the battle still raging in her mind and soul, Clinton "went east" to Wellesley College, where her anguished commencement speech was chosen by Life magazine as an exemplar of the 1960s protest generation. Later, she made waves as the nation's first presidential spouse who had had a full-fledged career of her own. Yet she always insisted, in books and interviews, that there was much more to her political identity than upending social norms.

"My philosophy has evolved over time to reflect what I hope represents the best of the values I was exposed to and absorbed [as a child] and the exposure to the world by my education and other opportunities that were given to me," she said in an interview.

If elected, Clinton would be the first president from the great postwar middle class who grew up around large cities - a background so unlike the multigenerational wealth of the Bush family or the struggling small-town Southern world of the young Bill Clinton.

Now, as she campaigns around the country, Clinton is speaking more often about her upbringing in Park Ridge, the suburban Chicago enclave to which her conservative parents moved when she was 3. In discussing the national economy in Webster City, Iowa, earlier this month, she spoke of her father's refusal to go into debt to buy their house. Talking about climate change in Portsmouth, N.H., in July, she remembered how he admonished her for leaving lights on in empty rooms. And recently, on the 50th anniversary of the launch of the Sputnik satellite, she spoke of the great alarm in her community at the thought of Soviet ascendancy.

Both liberal supporters and conservative critics have questioned the notion of Clinton as a paragon of Midwestern values. Some conservatives see it as an election-year conversion to woo moderates. Some liberals see it as a betrayal of their ideals, especially on national-security issues.

But former classmates, teachers, and friends insist otherwise. They see a woman whose political life has been devoted to reconciling the contradictions of her baby-boomer childhood, when she experienced the comforting rituals of mid-century suburban living, but also caught her first glimpses of the shadows of the Cold War and segregation.

The young Clinton, they say, was raised on her father's passion for free enterprise, her teacher Carlson's vigilance against foreign aggression, her mother's compassion for the downtrodden, and her minister Jones's indignation about inequality.

"I think she's got an undercurrent of conservative values that's very strong there," Carlson said. "Just like Lake Michigan has an undertow, I think she has that undertow."

To those who see Park Ridge in Clinton, it is visible in a range of viewpoints that is hard to characterize. It is visible in her approach to national security, from her vote to authorize the Iraq war to her more recent backing of a congressional resolution declaring Iran's Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization. It is visible in her moderate economic stance, one that has leaned toward free trade and at times upset labor leaders who want a tougher line against the outsourcing of American jobs.

They see it in her longtime advocacy for children, and in her campaign this month against a "trapdoor" economy that has diminished the lives of the middle class.

In Park Ridge, friends recall playing softball in the middle of the street - under a thick canopy of elms - using the manhole covers as bases, and jumping onto the curb to let the odd car pass. On summer nights, fathers in the neighborhood would dress up in sheets and tell ghost stories. In winter, one of the neighbors flooded his backyard so the children could ice skate.

But while GI fathers and stay-at-home mothers taught their children that if they worked hard, America would be good to them, there were constant reminders of a more threatening world outside. Air raid sirens screamed out on Tuesday mornings. Clinton's second-grade class offered a prayer in thanks for their daily snack.

And there were also mentors like Carlson and Jones, who were determined to warn her away from complacency.

"She took the good parts of Park Ridge, and there are many, and she weighed them against the parts she wanted to change," recalled Ernest Ricketts, a friend since kindergarten. "You can call it feminism. You can call it activism. There are a lot of handles you can put on it. But it's the realization that we need to be thoughtful as Christians, as part of our community."

A MIDDLE-CLASS BEGINNING

Clinton's parents, Hugh E. Rodham and Dorothy Howell Rodham, were an ambitious couple, spurred by the troubles of their Depression-era upbringings, reaching for the good life promised by post-World War II America.

Hugh Rodham grew up in Scranton, Pa., a factory town where his father worked his way up to the supervisor's office at the Scranton Lace Co.

Graduating from high school in 1931, the height of the Depression, Hugh didn't see a life for himself beyond the mill, according to Clinton's memoir, "Living History." But then a friend who was recruited to play football at Penn State talked the coach into putting Hugh on the team, giving him a shot at a college education.

Dorothy Rodham's background was far bleaker. When she was as young as 3, her parents often left her alone all day in a fifth-floor walk-up on Chicago's South Side. They divorced in the late 1920s, a rare shame in those days.

At age 8, Dorothy and her 3-year-old sister were dispatched by train to California to live with their grandmother, who was equally neglectful, once locking Dorothy in her room for several months, Clinton wrote.

Hugh Rodham graduated from Penn State with a degree in physical education. Times were still hard, so he hopped a freight train to Chicago to look for a job. He found one as a traveling salesman hawking drapery fabrics. He met Dorothy when she applied for work as a typist at the company where he worked.

They were married in early 1942, not long after Pearl Harbor. Hugh Rodham enlisted in the Navy and became a fitness training instructor. After the war, he opened a one-man business in Chicago making drapery fabric and quickly made it a big success.

Dorothy gave birth to Hillary Diane on Oct 26, 1947. Hugh Jr., was born in 1950 and soon after, the family moved just north of the city to a suburb along the train line, Park Ridge.

It was a dramatic leap. Park Ridge was a bit above the middle of the middle class, though not as tony as the towns on Lake Michigan. Older Chicago bungalows outnumbered cookie-cutter ranches. The quaint center of town was dominated by the Pickwick movie theater, an Art Deco landmark built in the 1920s.

Park Ridge was bursting with upwardly mobile families like the Rodhams. The population doubled during the 1950s, from 16,500 to 33,000, while the number of businesses tripled to 225.

Hugh Rodham didn't believe in debt, but it took him only a few years to save up enough cash to buy a particularly nice home. The two-story brick Georgian, on the corner of Elm and Wisner, had two sundecks, a screened-in porch, and a cherry tree in the backyard. It was in Park Ridge's best neighborhood, just blocks from the country club, although the Rodhams never joined.

The town was all-white and largely Protestant, a self-satisfied, conformist place that only dimly felt the rumblings of the Civil Rights struggle, according to Clinton's friends and former teachers. Liquor sales were banned. No one's parents got divorced.

"We were supposed to be honest and forthright and caring about our fellow man. And if you worked hard, you would be rewarded," said Betsy Ebeling, Clinton's childhood best friend. "As cheesy as this may sound, those were the guiding principles."

Dorothy and Hugh Rodham wanted their daughter to have a more comfortable youth than they did, but they also wanted her to be tough. When a neighborhood girl pushed the 4-year-old Hillary, Dorothy instructed her daughter to fight back, saying, "There's no room in this house for cowards," according to Clinton's memoir.

Hugh was "a tough and gruff" man, as Bill Clinton put it affectionately in his eulogy for his father-in-law in 1993. He didn't hesitate to spank his children - sometimes excessively, Hillary Clinton wrote in "It Takes a Village."

The young Hillary had to walk only three blocks to the Field School. She and her classmates studied the St. James Bible each week, with a Biblical coloring assignment to go along, recalled her second-grade teacher, Caroline O'Laughlin. For the 10 a.m. snack of graham crackers and milk, O'Laughlin led the children in a simple prayer: "God is great, God is good, let us thank him for our food."

O'Laughlin believes that the reserved, apple-cheeked 7-year-old showed a glimmer of leadership even then. "The children would go to her and say, 'What are we going to play?' " O'Laughlin said. "If she'd go on her own to jump rope, they'd say, 'OK, we'll jump rope.' "

After school, Hillary and her younger brother Hugh Jr. roamed freely until dinner time. Their younger brother, Tony, was born in 1954. They pedaled their bikes through the streets, swam in the town pool, and competed in neighborhood Olympics, friends and neighbors remember.

But all was not fun and games. When the town held air raid drills on certain Tuesday mornings, Hillary had to scurry into the hallway with the other children and crouch down on the linoleum, hands over her head.

"It was an ominous presence we lived with as kids," Clinton's friend Ricketts said. "We were always thinking world politics could blow over into World War III."

When Clinton was 10, the Soviet Union launched the first man-made satellite, Sputnik, an aluminum sphere with an eerie robotic beep. Hugh Rodham bought binoculars, Clinton said on the anniversary of the launch, to assess the threat to American supremacy from his own backyard.

A STANDOUT AMONG HER PEERS

The Sputnik threat prompted a new interest in public education. In Park Ridge, girls were usually taken as seriously in school as boys, which enabled Clinton and some of her friends to envision professional careers that were not imaginable in previous generations. She thought about being a doctor or scientist.

Her penchant for taking charge became clear by the time she was 11, when she was named to the elite post of safety patrol co-captain because teachers noticed she stood up to unruly boys.

That same year, Clinton was decreed by a class prophecy as destined to become the dean of women at Northwestern University.

"We couldn't think of a more prestigious office for a woman," Ricketts said.

Hillary was the best student among her siblings, the one who took her parents' lessons most seriously. And Hugh and Dorothy, who had come so far in life, wanted to make sure Hillary knew that life was hard. Dorothy drummed into her children that "we were no better or worse than anyone else," and told stories about how the Japanese-American children in her California school had been taunted daily, Clinton wrote.

Hugh Rodham, unlike many other fathers of his era, raised his daughter to be ambitious. When she brought home straight A's, Rodham would say, "Well, Hillary, that must be an easy school you go to," she wrote.

From the time they were young, he occasionally drove his children from Park Ridge to help out at his drapery plant on the North Side, where he employed day laborers. One of Clinton's friends, Hardye Moel, remembers once when he detoured through a poor, dilapidated neighborhood in downtown Chicago, to show the girls how people struggled to get by.

Hugh Rodham took thrift to even greater heights than many survivors of the Depression. If Hillary, Hugh Jr., or Tony left the cap off the toothpaste, he would toss it out the window and send the child to search for it. An allowance was out of the question. "I feed you, don't I?" she remembers him saying.

Clinton speaks of her father admiringly, but some biographers have portrayed his admonitions to his wife and children as emotionally abusive. Friends of the family reject that characterization. Ebeling, Clinton's best friend, describes how he showed up at her door the morning of her wedding with a $100 check - an eye-popping amount in 1971 - to thank her for being close to his family.

But no one disputes his gruffness. "He was character building, like our winters in Chicago," Ebeling said.

Clinton wrote that she had political positions by the time she was 12, but they were largely appropriated from her father.

He was "highly opinionated, to put it mildly," Clinton wrote. "We all accommodated his pronouncements, mostly about communists, shady businessmen, or crooked politicians, the three lowest forms of life in his eyes."

Clinton wrote that her father "inherited every prejudice imaginable," from his family, including against Catholics, Jews, and blacks. Hillary didn't share his prejudices, but it doesn't appear that she challenged him either, beyond joking that she would grow up to marry a Catholic Democrat.

As strong as Hugh Rodham's opinions were, Clinton and Ebeling insist that he helped them learn how to think for themselves. He dropped "conversational bombs" at the dinner table that goaded the family, especially Clinton, to argue back, Ebeling remembers.

Clinton had just turned 13 when she first jumped into national politics, after John F. Kennedy beat Richard Nixon in the 1960 election. Her father was upset. Her mother voted for Kennedy but never admitted so to her daughter until the president was assassinated.

The day after the election, Clinton's social studies teacher showed her class bruises he said he earned while challenging Mayor Richard J. Daley's Democratic machine's poll watchers in Chicago.

Eighth-graders Clinton and Ebeling got sufficiently worked up about voter fraud that they took the bus into the city that Saturday morning, without telling their parents, to volunteer for a Republican group checking voter lists against street addresses, according to the two women.

Somehow, the two girls were separated and Clinton was sent alone into a poor South Side neighborhood. Besides waking a lot of people up and wandering into a bar, she did find a vacant lot at an address where a dozen voters were supposed to have lived. She went home unscathed and "happy that I'd ferreted out proof of my father's contention that 'Daley stole the election for Kennedy,' " she wrote.

Even so, her father had a yelling fit when he found out she had done something so dangerous.

THE HIGH SCHOOL YEARS

Maine East High School was a grand, mosaicked edifice modeled on an Italian monastery, with 5,000 students crushing each other in the halls.

Clinton had a good group of good female friends with whom she built homecoming floats and threw slumber parties. Her crowd was the smart kids and the student government types.

Friends saw her as loyal and quick to reward a joke with a big laugh. She was also confident, ambitious, and sometimes rude, they said. Art Curtis, who became the class valedictorian, recalls Clinton once declaring that she was smarter than he was.

She and Ricketts passed many afternoons on the stoop debating politics and baseball. Should he fail to remember an obscure statistic, she would skewer him. "If you didn't have the right information, you were going to get nailed," Ricketts said.

Friends also recall her as preternaturally level headed. When Moel would obsess about why a boy had not called, "she'd always tell me I should get my emotions in check and move on," Moel said.

Clinton didn't date much in high school, but she wasn't immune to the occasional crush. Curtis remembers her talking about the "tall, handsome, jock types" who caught her eye, maddening since he admits having had "more than a little crush" on her.

In ninth grade "History of Civilization," Clinton found a political tutor even more ardent than her father. Paul Carlson was determined to alert his students to the threat posed by the Soviets, communists organizing underground in the United States, and wayward youth with long hair who were just beginning to build a counterculture.

The teacher introduced Clinton to "The Conscience of a Conservative," by Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona. She was especially taken by Goldwater's passion for individual rights, which echoed her father's views. She wrote her term paper on the conservative movement, which she dedicated "To my parents, who have always taught me to be an individual."

In class, Carlson played General Douglas MacArthur's famous farewell address to Congress over and over. Once, the teacher concluded by exclaiming, "And remember, above all else, 'Better dead than red!' "

Carlson also established the after-school history club that met at the local library, where his focus was, he said, on "patriotism and free enterprise." He brought in guest speakers, including the Latvian refugee and Herbert Philbrick, a well-known FBI informant who described infiltrating a secret communist cell in Boston.

"I'm sure she went home and told her father and mother that 'We'd lose our house and our property and our way of life,' " under the tyranny of communism, Carlson recalled with pride.

ANOTHER MENTOR EMERGES

But Carlson also knew that there was another mentor in Hillary's life - one who had a very different political perspective.

When he arrived in Park Ridge in his red Chevy Impala convertible, Don Jones was a new seminary graduate hired as the youth minister at the First United Methodist Church, where the Rodhams worshiped.

In seminary, Jones imbibed Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Reinhold Niebuhr, Christian philosophers who preached social improvement. He had hung out in New York City, tuning in to beat poets. He believed "the civil rights movement was the greatest social revolution in American history," he said in an interview.

For a couple of years starting when Clinton was 13, Jones tutored her and about 60 other teenagers every Sunday and Thursday night on e.e. cummings and T.S. Eliot, Dostoyevsky and Bob Dylan. He called his lessons "the University of Life."

"These kids were in such a comfortable environment," Jones said. "I wanted to bring a little more edge to their way of thinking."

Clinton has said she knew almost nothing about Martin Luther King Jr. until Jones brought a group from the church to hear King speak at Chicago's Orchestra Hall in spring 1962.

Racial integration was bringing a new order into being, King declared. "We should all accept this order and learn to live together as brothers in a world society, or we will all perish together," he thundered.

Clinton wrote that she continued to "parrot the conventional wisdom" of Park Ridge and her father. But she was also electrified by what Jones taught her. She didn't articulate her struggle between those worldviews to her mentors at the time, but it is clear from the letters she wrote from Wellesley to Jones that she wrestled with them for a long time.

"The juxtaposition of the necessity of helping people while at the same time preserving the dignity of the individual creates many dilemmas," she wrote. "What many people refuse to accept is that because there are degrees of liberalism and conservatism, one may quite justifiably attach both terms to one's name."

In high school, Clinton already was showing signs of being a little of both, and her two mentors were at war with each other.

Carlson, who attended the First Methodist Church as well, complained that Jones was making the well-off, white suburban children feel responsible for things that were not their fault, like the plight of their minority peers. Jones, in turn, was upset that Carlson was leafleting the pews with alarmist anticommunist literature.

At a meeting of pastors and youth group leaders, including Clinton, Jones remembers crying out, "Who do you think you are, Paul Carlson, Jesus Christ?"

Clinton didn't tell either man how she felt about it at the time, but years later, when Jones visited her in the Arkansas governor's mansion, she brought up how startled she had been.

Carlson was admonished by the senior minister for his leafleting, but it was Jones who was eased out of the church after a couple of years for his unconventional approach to youth ministry.

Both remained close to Clinton.

ASPIRATIONS OF LEADERSHIP

Meanwhile at school, Clinton was getting involved in just about everything: student government, the "cultural values" committee, the student newspaper, and the "It's Academic" quiz show team, which competed on local television.

She was also elected vice president of her junior class. The president, Tim Sheldon, sometimes missed meetings for football practice, which she didn't take well.

"I remember Hillary got a little ticked," Sheldon said. "She said, 'I should be president, I'm running the meetings.' I said, 'Well, you can go to football practice for me.' "

So spring of junior year, she decided to run for president of the entire student government at Maine South, the new school to which she and many of her classmates were about to be transferred for their senior year.

She challenged Sheldon and two other boys, who were shocked to face a girl. "We thought, 'What's she doing? She should be running for secretary,' " recalled Sheldon, who is now an elected Republican criminal court judge in Illinois.

Clinton betrayed no fear speaking to several thousand students packed into the auditorium. Some of her female friends were awed.

"I really admired her, and in a way envied her, for being as strong a person as she was - being able to stand apart like that," said one friend, Bette Resis.

Clinton lost in the first round. Sheldon won, he believes, because of his stardom on the football field.

The election stands out as one of the rare times Clinton has described experiencing discrimination as a young woman. Another was when she wrote to NASA to volunteer for astronaut training, and received a reply telling her that girls were not welcome in the program.

Around the same time, Clinton, Ebeling, and another classmate manned a Youth for Goldwater office in Park Ridge. Ebeling recalls they held many meetings, passed out a lot of literature, and reveled in a "we can do this" spirit.

Just before the 1964 election, which was the fall of senior year, Clinton helped organize a mock election, complete with posters, buttons, and a big debate. To her horror, her government teacher insisted that she play Goldwater's opponent, Lyndon Johnson.

She wrote later that at first, she resented every hour she spent researching LBJ's platform on civil rights and the war on poverty. Yet by the time she was finished, "I found myself arguing with more than dramatic fervor."

In the end, Johnson swamped Goldwater, who carried only six states. But Clinton professes never to have lost her admiration for Goldwater's defense of the individual. When speaking to a group of liberal bloggers in Chicago in August, she paraphrased his defense of gays in the military: "You don't have to be straight to shoot straight."

The spring after the Johnson-Goldwater election, Clinton graduated in the top 15 of her class, Curtis recalled. She was voted the girl "most likely to succeed."

ON TO WELLESLEY

With trepidation about her future beyond Park Ridge, Clinton headed to Wellesley. In college, she went from heading the Young Republicans to stuffing envelopes for Eugene McCarthy, the antiwar Democratic presidential candidate. She organized a teach-in after King's death, fought to increase the number of black professors and students, and graduated a committed Democratic activist.The turmoil of the late 1960s shook Clinton deeply. Young men she met at dances were headed to fight in Vietnam. Friends remember her screaming and throwing her book bag at the wall when she learned of King's assassination. She and Ebeling set out to watch the protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and witnessed the police charge the crowd with nightsticks.

She fought more and more with her father and railed against the "unreality of middle-class America."

Yet she never became a radical. She remained, instead, the inveterate student government leader who talked the black student group out of a sit-in.

Wellesley's president, Ruth Adams, was reluctant to agree to demands that a student be allowed to speak at graduation. When she found out the class of 1969 had chosen Clinton, she gave in. Adams introduced Clinton to the crowd as "cheerful, good humored, good company, and a good friend to all of us."

Dorothy Rodham was sick, ordered by a doctor not to travel. Hugh Rodham flew to Boston for just one night, stayed by the airport, and took the commuter rail to campus.

Clinton's speech cried out with confusion and disappointment about American society. At times ad-libbing incoherently, she meditated on her generation's search for meaning.

But even then, in the showiest moment of protest in her life, Clinton summoned the values of Park Ridge.

"There's a very strange conservative strain that goes through a lot of New Left, collegiate protests that I find very intriguing because it harkens back to a lot of the old virtues, to the fulfillment of original ideas," she said. "If the experiment in human living doesn't work in this country, in this age, it's not going to work anywhere."

That passage from her speech remains fresh in the mind of Jones, the former youth minister. He admires what he views as Clinton's blend of compassion and circumspection. Many of his liberal friends are disappointed by her vote for the Iraq war in 2002 and concerned that she is too hawkish in general. Some see all that as posturing, but not him.

"I don't think it's inauthentic at all," he said. "Once again, there's a Hugh Rodham Sr. genetic or cultural endowment reflected in her."

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