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A Woman In Charge
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Excerpt from A Woman in Charge:

On Hillary Clinton and Religion

Hillary Rodham’s childhood was not the suburban idyll suggested by the shaded front porch and gently sloping lawn of what was once the family home at 235 Wisner Street in Park Ridge, Illinois. In this leafy environment of postwar promise and prosperity, the Rodhams were distinctly a family of odd ducks, isolated from their neighbors by the difficult character of her father, Hugh Rodham, a sour, unfulfilled man whose children suffered his relentless, demeaning sarcasm and misanthropic inclination, endured his embarrassing parsimony, and silently accepted his humiliation and verbal abuse of their mother.

Yet as harsh, provocative, and abusive as Rodham was, he and his wife, the former Dorothy Howell, imparted to their children a pervasive sense of family and love for one another that in Hillary’s case is of singular importance.

Dorothy and Hugh Rodham, despite the debilitating pathology and undertow of tension in their marriage (discerned readily by visitors to their home), were assertive parents who, at mid-century, intended to convey to their children an inheritance secured by old-fashioned values and verities. They believed (and preached, in their different traditions) that with discipline, hard work, encouragement (often delivered in an unconventional manner), and enough education at home, school, and church, a child could pursue almost any dream. In the case of their only daughter, Hillary Diane, born October 26, 1947, this would pay enormous dividends, sending her into the world beyond Park Ridge with a steadiness and sense of purpose that eluded her two younger brothers. But it came at a price: Hugh imposed a patriarchal unpleasantness and ritual authoritarianism on his household, mitigated only by the distinctly modern notion that Hillary would not be limited in opportunity or skills by the fact that she was a girl.

Hillary’s first boyfriend in college, upon visiting the Rodham house, wondered almost immediately why Dorothy had not walked out of the marriage, and how Hillary had endured her father’s petulance. But Hillary somehow found a way in difficult times to either withdraw or focus on what her father was able to give her, not what was denied. Hillary knew she was loved, or so she said. As a child, Hillary had tried every way she knew to please him and win his approval, and then spent years seething at his treatment of her. As she later did with her husband, Hillary eventually took an almost biblical view in her forgiveness and rationalization of her father’s actions: “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” The lesson came directly from Hugh Rodham: “He used to say all the time, ‘I will always love you but I won’t always like what you do,’ ” said Hillary.“ And, you know, as a child I would come up with nine-hundred hypotheses. It would always end with something like, ‘Well, you mean, if I murdered somebody and was in jail and you came to see me, you would still love me?’

“And he would say: ‘Absolutely! I will always love you, but I would be deeply disappointed and I would not like what you did because it would have been wrong.’ ”

Lissa Muscatine, Hillary’s chief White House speechwriter, who helped her work on Living History, once said of Hillary: “She’s a prude, she’s hokey, she’s a fifties person who grew up Methodist in the Chicago suburbs.” It wasn’t quite as simple as that.

Hillary had been confirmed at the First United Methodist Church of Park Ridge in the sixth grade. Hugh Rodham’s parents claimed that John Wesley himself had converted members of the Rodham family to Methodism in the coal-mining district near Newcastle in the north of England. Dorothy taught Sunday school at United Methodist. Hillary attended Bible classes and was a member of the Altar Guild. “[My family] talked with God, walked with God, ate, studied and argued with God,” Hillary said. Her mantra became John Wesley’s . explicit message of service: “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, as long as ever you can.”

In 1961, while Hillary was in tenth grade and the conflict with her father became more tense, there arrived in a red Chevy Impala convertible a dashing, transforming figure who, until she met Bill Clinton, would become the most important teacher in Hillary’s life. He was a Methodist youth minister, the Reverend Don Jones, twenty-six, who had completed four years in the Navy and had just graduated from the Drew University seminary in New Jersey. Hillary had never met anyone like him. Jones became something between a father figure, adored brother, and knight-errant. He had an ally in Dorothy Rodham, who regarded him as a kindred sprit.

Until Jones showed up, Hillary’s sense of politics (dominated by her father’s Goldwater Republicanism) and her sense of religion existed on two different planes. Now they began to meld into one as Jones promoted what he called the “University of Life” two evenings a week at the church. Jones brought a message of “faith in action,” based on the teachings of Wesley and twentieth-century theologians, including Reinhold Niebuhr and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who believed that the Christian’s role was essentially a moral one: balancing human nature, in all its splendor and baseness, with a passion for justice and social reform. He assigned Hillary and other members of the Methodist Youth Fellowship in Park Ridge readings from T. S. Eliot and e. e. cummings; showed them copies of Picasso’s paintings, which he sometimes explained in theological and geopolitical terms; discussed the significance of Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov; played “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” from Bob Dylan’s new LP, and on weekends shepherded the privileged Protestant children of Park Ridge to black and Hispanic churches in Chicago as part of exchanges with their youth groups.

Jones had taken up his assignment in Park Ridge during the summer of the Freedom Rides in Mississippi and elsewhere in the Deep South. That fall, when Martin Luther King Jr. came to preach in Chicago, Jones took Hillary and other members of his youth group to Orchestra Hall to hear him. After the program Jones took his awed students backstage to meet Dr. King. King’s sermon, “Sleeping Through the Revolution,” had woven the message of God with the politics of conscience: “Vanity asks the question Is it Popular? Conscience asks the question Is it Right?” He also cited Jesus’ parable about the man condemned to hell because he ignored his fellows in need.

Jones became not only the most important teacher in young Hillary’s life, but also a counselor over the decades whose ministrations would show her ways to cope with adversity, and to “give service of herself” at the most difficult moments: to “salve [her] troubled soul” through the doing of good works. At almost every juncture of pain or humiliation for the rest of her life, she would return—in her fashion—to this lesson. For more than twenty years she would maintain a fascinating correspondence with Jones in which they discussed the requirements of faith and the vagaries of human nature. Before he left Park Ridge in Hillary’s senior year of high school, Jones gave her a copy of J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye to read. She did not like it. Holden Caulfield reminded her too much of her brother Hughie. Salinger’s coming-of-age novel seemed to stir up all kinds of difficult questions and feelings about family and family traits, including her own tendency toward aloofness and detachment. Over the decades some of Hillary’s greatest admirers came to question whether she genuinely liked people, at least in the aggregate, or whether she merely preferred the company of a few and embraced the multitudes as part of her sense of Christian responsibility and political commitment. Shortly after Jones left Park Ridge, Hillary seemed to raise the question herself, in a letter: “Can you be a misanthrope and still love or enjoy some individuals?” she wondered. She added, “How about a compassionate misanthrope?

By the time seventeen-year-old Hillary Rodham left Park Ridge, for Wellesley College, almost all the essential elements—and contradictions—of her adult character could be glimpsed: the keen intelligence and ability to stretch it, the ambition and anger, the idealism and acceptance of humiliation, the messianism and sense of entitlement, the attraction to charismatic men and indifference to conventional feminine fashion, the seriousness of purpose and quickness to judgment, the puritan sensibility and surprising vulnerability, the chronic impatience and aversion to personal confrontation, the insistence on financial independence and belief in public service, the tenacious attempts at absolute control and, perhaps above all, the balm, beacon, and refuge of religion.

* * *

Hillary came of age at a time in America when the sexuality of women, especially young women, was undergoing a profound change, in large measure because of the easy availability of “the Pill.” Geoff Shields, from the beginning of his romance with Hillary in her freshman year at Wellesley, was aware both of Hillary’s desire for “responsible” sexual exploration and her extraordinary seriousness of purpose, discipline, and focus. That she was “personally very conservative” was obvious from the beginning of their relationship, which flowered through the height of late 1960s abandonment. (The Sgt. Pepper album, the Beatles’ ode to psychedelic ecstasy, was released in the spring of 1967; the ensuing summer became known in the counterculture as the Summer of Love.) Shields never knew her to smoke marijuana (though the smell of pot wafted through the Stone-Davis dorm hallways), never saw her drink to excess, and she was hardly promiscuous. Yet she was definitely not one of those Wellesley women who were considered “grinds.” She enjoyed parties; dancing to Elvis, the Beatles, and the Supremes; cheering for the Harvard football squad; playing catch with a Frisbee or football; being on the water in a boat or a canoe and diving over the edge to swim. Hillary and Shields took frequent hiking trips to Cape Cod and Vermont. They and their friends engaged in long hours of political discussion. One of Geoff’s roommates was black and active in civil rights campaigns; Hillary’s solidarity was evident and enthusiastic, even excessively expressed. Being able to discuss intimately with a black friend the realities of black life and struggle in America represented “for both Hillary and I . . . a time of awakening,” said Shields. When she expressed her views—and they tended to be firmly held—they were well argued and informed, whatever the issue: dorm rules, the feminist revolution, campus dress codes, the war in Vietnam, student power, racism. The time she seemed to light up the most was when there was a sharp, heated debate about the issues. She showed little interest in more abstract or philosophic concerns or even literature. One exception made an impression on Shields: a discussion about whether there was an absolute or only a relative morality. “She was very much into debating the basis of moral decisions,” and more than a few Wellesley women and Ivy League men believed she had a self-righteous streak, though it was hardly the overwhelming aspect of her character.

Her correspondence with Shields, particularly, is full of desire for exploration—cultural, personal, professional, political, social. With Reverend Jones, it was more philosophical and reportorial.

When she sometimes found herself “adopting a kind of party mode,” as she called it in a letter to Jones, she claimed herself capable of getting “outrageous . . . as outrageous as a moral Methodist can get.” She defined herself at the time as “a progressive, an ethical Christian and a political activist.”

Though Shields was her boyfriend, the role of Jonesduring her years at Wellesley continued to be formative. By mail, he became her counselor, correspondent, confessor, partner in Socratic debate, and spiritual adviser. When emotional depression struck, and she considered leaving Wellesley in her freshman year, she turned to him, as she would for the next three decades, including the year of her husband’s impeachment. He focused her on Paul Tillich’s sermon “You Are Accepted,” in which the theologian posited that sin and grace coexist. “Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness,” said Tillich. “It happens; or it does not happen.” Hillary, with Jones’ encouragement, became convinced there would be grace in her life and meanwhile she would just carry on.

For the rest of her life, spiritual and quasi-spiritual axioms (some imbued with New Age jargon, others profound) would serve as soothing balms in painful times, and provide answers to questions and situations that seemed otherwise confounding. These comforting postulations would also be used by Hillary to justify, often publicly, her or her husband’s less palatable actions or aspects of character.

One of Jones’s letters to Hillary at Wellesley alluded to Edmund Burke’s emphasis on personal responsibility and raised the question of “whether someone can be a Burkean realist about history and human nature and at the same time have liberal sentiments and visions.” In her response, Hillary mused, “It is an interesting question you posed—can one be a mind conservative and a heart liberal?”

No description of the adult Hillary Clinton—a mind conservative and a heart liberal—has so succinctly defined her as this premonitory observation at age eighteen.

* * *

In the summer of 1972, Hillary Rodham and Bill Clinton, by then in the second year of their courtship and law school studies, went to Texas to work in George McGovern’s presidential campaign. The McGovern campaign, which had grown out of the antiwar movement, was at the grassroots level a youth crusade. The candidate’s campaign manager, Gary Hart, thirty-five, one of the movement’s most talented organizers, chose Clinton to be McGovern’s state co-coordinator in Texas with Taylor Branch, a fellow Southerner who had organized antiwar protests and worked as a political journalist for The Washington Monthly. (Later, Branch would write a classic three-volume biography of Martin Luther King and win a Pulitzer for one of its volumes.)

Bill had asked Hillary to come to Texas for the campaign, and she signed on to register voters in San Antonio. Clinton was physically and organizationally a dominating presence in the state campaign, but Hillary created an equally memorable impression. Many of the women in the campaign regarded her as the real luminary, with a more impressive résumé than Bill’s. Given the likelihood of Richard Nixon overwhelming McGovern in the election, they looked to her as someone who could help pick up the pieces of the Democratic Party and, in the next few years, run for office herself.

In San Antonio she lived and worked with Sara Ehrman, who was fifteen years older. “We were two oddballs in San Antonio,” Ehrman said of the two of them—a middle-aged Jewish housewife with the assertive edge of her native Brooklyn, and a hippie-looking Ivy Leaguer possessed with an intensity every bit the equal of her own. Hillary, recalled Ehrman, “came into campaign headquarters a kid—in brown corduroy pants, brown shirt, brown hair, brown glasses, no makeup, brown shoes. Her Coke-bottle glasses. Long hair. She looked like the campus intellectual that she was. She totally disregarded her appearance.” Hillary’s politics at the time were “liberal, ideological, the same as my own,” Sara said. She described the Hillary she knew that Texas summer as a “progressive Christian in that she believed in litigation to do good, and to correct injustices and to live by a kind of spiritual high-mindedness.” She carried her Bible almost everywhere, marking in it and underlining as she read. Sara said Hillary was a compulsive reader: contemporary fiction, religious tomes, academic materials about child psychology. Hillary seemed to have everything in balance—the gift of seriousness leavened by the ability to have a good time. She was witty, genuinely funny; there was nothing stuffy about her, Sara thought.

Hillary was vivid and pragmatic in approaching her task in San Antonio: trying to establish a strong connection between the local Mexican- American community and the McGovern campaign. Ehrman found her to be firm and indomitable, knocking on doors in tough neighborhoods to register Hispanic voters. Hillary was so un-intimidated that Sara took to calling her by the nickname “Fearless,” Ehrman also noted another, less apparent aspect of Hillary’s character—“I’d call it a kind of fervor, and self-justification that God is on her side.” That summer Sara sensed Hillary was trying to reconcile her rigorous liberal political theology with her middle-class Methodist upbringing.

* * *

In their first months in the White House, both Bill and Hillary were force-fed the unpalatable truth that, contrary to their expectations, the capital was not to be easily commanded in the same way they had dominated the politics of a small Southern state. Bill matured politically during his eight years as president, learning to achieve many of his objectives piecemeal in the face of adamant Republican opposition. But in terms of his character, he remained basically unchanged: ambitious, narcissistic, charming, brilliant, roguish, undisciplined, incredibly able— and often personally disappointing. The engine of Hillary’s evolution and of her enormous capacity for change seemed sturdily bolted under the hood of her religious convictions, a set of beliefs that to some bordered on a messiah-like self-perception, to others a license to do whatever she pleased in the name of God, and to others a touchstone of spirituality that infused her notions of love, caring, and service.

Since mid-century, with the exception of the Carter years, the White House had been largely the spiritual province of such establishmentarian preachers, priests, and evangelists as the Reverend Norman Vincent Peale, Francis Cardinal Spellman, and Dr. Billy Graham. Their eminent visitations had lent an imprimatur of white Christian approval to the works of Democrats and Republicans alike. The Clinton White House, however, from the earliest days of the administration, became a welcoming beacon for a procession of less exalted reverends and rabbis, theologians and gurus, New Age spiritualists and sages, from serious to (arguably) charlatan. Eventually, Graham’s role of unelected spiritual adviser to the president would be inherited by the Reverend Jesse Jackson, a comfortable and—especially during the Lewinsky affair—politically useful presence whose own sins of the flesh were of a nature quite familiar to the first couple.

Part of the changed religious dynamic of the Clinton White House was an openness to new ideas and spiritual paths plowed since the 1960s and 1970s, particularly offshoots of the movements inspired by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and the black church, and the psychospiritual pseudosciences derived from twelve-step philosophy and theories of co-dependence. But most of the change was attributable to the simple fact that Bill and Hillary were both genuinely religious. Bill would say that one of the two most impressive world figures he’d met during his presidency was Pope John Paul II (the other was Yitzhak Rabin), notwithstanding the Clintons’ profound disagreement with the pope’s views about women’s rights, abortion, and birth control. Before the presidential campaign, she had done occasional lay preaching and taught adult Bible classes. During the campaign, she had carried with her everywhere a tiny Bible.

Perhaps the most revealing interview she gave between her husband’s election and inauguration was with the United Methodist News Service, though it received scant attention in the mainstream press. A single paragraph encapsulated much of what her friends found so appealing about her, and her enemies were most enraged by: her seeming moral certainty. Methodism’s “emphasis on personal salvation combined with active applied Christianity,” she said, was what she believed in. “As a Christian, part of my obligation is to take action to alleviate suffering. Explicit recognition of that in the Methodist tradition is one reason I’m comfortable in this church.”

As a woman in her thirties, she had preached a series of Sunday school and church sermons in Arkansas (never unearthed by the national press) which were clearer evidence that she was evolving a sophisticated politics that borrowed heavily from her spiritual notions.

She had also ever so briefly considered a job offer—as president of Hendrix College, which was affiliated with the United Methodist Church when Bill had been turned out of the governor’s mansion by Arkansas’ voters after a single term in 1980. As she had set about rebuilding her life and Bill’s, she joined the First United Methodist Church in Little Rock, became a member of its board, and did pro bono legal work on its behalf. Her renewed emphasis on spiritual life led her to give a series of talks around the state on why she was a Methodist, including a visit to a Baptist church across the Arkansas River in North Little Rock where her topic was “Women armed with the Christian sword—to build an army for the Lord.” Bill, meanwhile, had found a job of sorts at the law firm that little more than a political pit stop with a desk and telephone: “Political leaders,” he said tellingly at the time, “were usually a combination of darkness and light. The darkness of insecurity, depression, family disorder. In great leaders, the light overcame the darkness.”

* * *

Though Hillary had often spoken from the pulpit, never had she allowed herself so public an epiphany, or preached so grandly, as at the University of Texas Field House in Austin on April 6, 1993, with fourteen thousand congregants in attendance, while her father lay dying not far away in Little Rock. The occasion was the annual Liz Carpenter Lecture, named for Lady Bird Johnson’s White House press secretary, Both Lady Bird Johnson and Liz Carpenter were seated on the stage with Hillary.

It had been her intent, and that of the White House political staff, to use the occasion—on the seventy-fifth day of the Clinton presidency— for her first major speech on health care reform. Instead, as she flew from Washington to Austin on Executive One that morning, she began scribbling notes that reflected both the intense internal turmoil, personal and political, of the past weeks, and the calm, purpose, and steadiness she found in scripture and religion. The stroke her father suffered eighteen days earlier had left him in extremely critical condition and the family with an imminent decision about discontinuing life support. She had rarely left his bedside for more than a day since. Newspaper photos of Hillary during the previous two weeks, taken between hospital and car, “showed the toll of universal truths about what it means to lose a loved one,” a Washington Post reporter wrote.

The themes of the speech she delivered in Austin, though obviously rendered more immediate and profound by the fact of her father’s illness (“When does life begin?” she asked at one point, then lowering her voice, “When does it end?”), had been developing in her mind for months, maybe even years, some of her aides said later. The speech—a sermon, really—was as audacious a public address in memory by a first lady, ample evidence of how far (or not, some critics later decided) Hillary had traveled as a thoughtful human being and as a speaker since Wellesley. Instead of searching for words at the podium, as she had at her commencement valedictory, they now flowed almost perfectly, in full, often elegant sentences delivered from her handwritten notes jotted on the plane, extemporaneous bursts, and (to a much lesser extent) from an earlier draft of a health care speech she had worked on with the White House speechwriters. Yet, as she’d struggled to do since Wellesley, she was still determined to solve the mind-conservative, heart-liberal, dilemma. Her message was as presumptuous as it was direct. The United States, she declared, was undergoing nothing less than a grave national “crisis of meaning and spirituality,” which she further diagnosed as “a sleeping sickness of the soul.” The latter phrase was that of Albert Schweitzer, she noted, who had discovered in colonial central Africa that more than the body could be ravaged by sleeping sickness.

To support her sweeping assertion of sea-to-sea affliction, she shrewdly invoked the repentant deathbed remarks of Lee Atwater, the young architect of the slash-and-burn Republican politics of the Reagan- Bush era, who when he was “struck down with cancer . . . said something . . . which I cut out and carry with me in a little book I have of sayings and scriptures that I find important and that replenish me from time to time.” Her tack, brilliantly executed, sought (not incidentally) to reclaim from the Republican right its corner on issues of so-called family values. In the twelve years since the defeat of Jimmy Carter by Ronald Reagan, the male moguls of the Democratic Party had eschewed prominent mention of God or of the old verities and virtues, which by 1992 seemed to have become an exercise of Republican divine right. Hillary meant to change that.

“Much of the energy animating the responsible fundamentalist right,” she said in an interview a few days after her Austin sermon, “has come from their sense of life getting away from us—of meaning being lost and people being turned into kind of amoral decision-makers because there weren’t any overriding values that they related to. And I have a lot of sympathy with that. The search for meaning should cut across all kinds of religious and ideological boundaries. That’s what we should be struggling with—not whether you have a corner on God.” Her witness was Atwater. “He said the following,” she proclaimed to her audience in Austin:

Long before I was struck with cancer, I felt something stirring in American society. It was a sense among the people of the country, Republicans and Democrats alike, that something was missing from their lives—something crucial. I was trying to position the Republican Party to take advantage of it. But I wasn’t exactly sure what it was. My illness helped me to see that what was missing in society is what was missing in me. A little heart, a lot of brotherhood.

The eighties were about acquiring—acquiring wealth, power, prestige. I know. I acquired more wealth, power, and prestige than most. But you can acquire all you want and still feel empty. What power wouldn’t I trade for a little more time with my family? What price wouldn’t I pay for an evening with friends? It took a deadly illness to put me eye-to-eye with that truth, but it is a truth that the country, caught up in its ruthless ambitions and moral decay, can learn on my dime. I don’t know who will lead us through the nineties, but they must be made to speak to this spiritual vacuum at the heart of American society—this tumor of the soul.

“That, to me, will be Lee Atwater’s real lasting legacy, not the elections that he helped to win,” declared Hillary Rodham Clinton, the first Democratic first lady since Lee Atwater had enunciated the postmodern Republican gospel.

In fact, Hillary regarded the result of the 1992 presidential election as a cleansing of the national soul, a spiritual and political verdict.

And there came from the crowd filling the arena in Austin shouts of “Amen” and “Yes, yes,” and cheering, followed by the kind of fervent murmur that, appropriately, usually attends a religious rally, not a political speech.

A few weeks earlier, Hillary had been visited in the White House by Michael Lerner, the editor and publisher of Tikkun, a bimonthly secular Jewish journal that was an amalgam of liberal cultural and political commentary, post-Marxist dialectic, Talmudic principle, and New Age jargon. In Hillary’s office, as he had in his magazine, Lerner had propounded his Politics of Meaning, a vision of spiritually infused public life that very much fit Hillary’s perception of the raison d’être of government service. Lerner’s underlying assumption held that government had satisfactorily addressed the basic question of political rights, if not the economic needs, of the people; “but for the majority of Americans, there’s another set of needs, totally ignored: The need to be part of an ethically based spiritual community that links us to a higher purpose. Many of us are involved in social change movements like the women’s movement, the environmental movement, the movement for economic justice, the civil rights movement, the gay rights movement, the labor movement,” Lerner had written. “And yet, we believe that these movements have tended to underplay or even deny a very important dimension of human life—the spiritual dimension.”

In Austin, Hillary borrowed from her discussion with Lerner, asserting that “We are, I think, in a crisis of meaning. Why is it in a country as economically wealthy as we are . . . there is this undercurrent of discontent—this sense that somehow economic growth and prosperity, political democracy and freedom are not enough? That we lack, at some core level, meaning in our individual lives and meaning collectively— that sense that our lives are part of some greater effort, that we are connected to one another, that community means that we have a place where we belong no matter who we are?

We need a new politics of meaning. We need a new ethos of individual responsibility and caring.We need a new definition of civil society which answers the unanswerable questions posed by both the market forces and the governmental ones, as to how we can have a society that fills us up again and makes us feel that we are part of something bigger than ourselves.”

Balancing the conservative-mind, liberal-heart equation, addressing “this tumor of the soul,” filling the “spiritual vacuum” that Lee Atwater had discovered on his deathbed, these notions, she suggested, would inform the Clintonian principles of governance. On this day, Hillary appeared intent on articulating for herself, her husband, and their presidency an overarching, benevolent, even deistic governmental philosophy that embraced both traditional notions of family and individual responsibility, as well as belief in compassionate government programs to help those less able to help themselves “That is what this administration, this President, and those of us who are hoping for these changes are attempting to do.” It sounded a little like a presidential partnership with God.

* * *

For a person so focused on religion and spiritual notions, Hillary seemed to many acquaintances to be surprisingly devoid of introspective instinct, and when things went wrong, she habitually looked elsewhere for the reasons.

On the weekend of April 23–25, less than three weeks after her sermon in Texas, Bill and Hillary attended a political retreat for Senate Democrats in Williamsburg, Virginia, that was closed to the press. Hillary updated those in attendance about the progress of the health care reform task force and the upcoming reform bill. Hillary’s Golden Rule could be a sometime thing. Her remarks now were received with disgust and distrust by two senators in particular, Bill Bradley and Pat Moynihan, who were among the most thoughtful and highly regarded men in Congress and who should have been natural allies of the Clintons. Instead, they became deeply alienated from both. Bradley and Moynihan later said they were flabbergasted at Hillary’s words and attitude that afternoon, but each came to believe that the incident was indicative of something more revealing about her character. Hillary understood—has always understood—that words count, and on this occasion she was asked by Bradley whether the Clintons’ failure to meet their promise of submitting health care legislation to Congress in one hundred days—by then only a few days ahead—would make it more difficult to win passage as the administration’s plan became competitive with other legislative goals on the calendar. Perhaps some substantive changes might be required in the interest of realism, Bradley suggested.

No, Hillary responded icily, there would be no changes because delay or not, the White House would “demonize” members of Congress and the medical establishment who would use the interim to alter the administration’s plan or otherwise stand in its way.

“That was it for me in terms of Hillary Clinton,” Bradley said many years later. “You don’t tell members of the Senate you are going to demonize them. It was obviously so basic to who she is. The arrogance. The assumption that people with questions are enemies. The disdain. The hypocrisy.”

Lawrence O’Donnell explained the depth of Moynihan’s disappointment with the woman who would eventually succeed him in the Senate. The senator “didn’t hold grudges, didn’t personalize such matters,” said O’Donnell. “But the ‘demonizing’ colored his perception of Hillary, and how she operated, for the rest of his life.”

* * *

Bill Clinton, no matter how fiercely embattled or frustrated in the first six months of his presidency, woke up every day thrilled and enthusiastic about the task ahead. He’d had his sights set on this job since he was a teenager. “I love this stuff,” he often said, even while forced by circumstance to cut the budget and trim the programs he and Hillary had promised the voters.

An optimist by nature, he had confidence in his vision and his ability to move past the obstacles. His anger and ill-humor in those early months rarely lasted long. The pattern had been established many years before: he blew up, used and sometimes abused people around him who became accustomed to his outbursts (though he seemed oblivious to his own excess), but he was invariably invigorated by the challenges. “The difference between their temperaments is very simple as far as I’m concerned,” said Bob Boorstin, Hillary’s deputy for press and communications on the health care task force. “He gets angry, and he gets over it. She gets angry, and she remembers it forever.”

A White House aide who saw Hillary almost daily observed, “Some mornings she would wake up pissed off, and some mornings it would be okay. Sometimes it would be a glorious day. She has the capacity for epiphanous, spiritual awakenings.” Unfortunately, those days on which the spiritual equation was wrong-sided could be brutal for others. “The person on the receiving end never gets over it,” her longtime aide and family retainer Carolyn Huber had observed of Hillary’s ire in the last year Bill served as governor.

One of the most senior White House officials, who was often at her (and her husband’s) side during the many critical events of the 1992 presidential campaign and the White House years, raised in a conversation toward the end of the Clinton presidency the question of whether Hillary had ever been by nature a genuinely happy or even contented person. This deputy maintained that perhaps the most essential thing to understand about Hillary was that (from what he had learned and observed) she must have been an unhappy person for most of her adult life. And a very angry one at that, in his view, often in a state of agitated discontent in the years he worked with her, sometimes icy cold and embittered, though obviously capable of fun and laughter and warm friendship (though rarely of irony). Not everyone agreed, especially the first lady’s aides in Hillaryland. And it’s important to note that much of the anger and unhappiness seemed to dissipate following her election to the Senate. Thereafter, for the first time since her wedding day, she began to eclipse and succeed in the public consciousness—and Democratic Party—the dominating presence of her husband. It was her turn, and that might have liberated her.

The deputy believed that Hillary’s deepest anger was toward her husband, perhaps the source of most of it, unless it came from her childhood and had been aggravated by Bill and the compromises she’d allowed herself to make in their marriage. But the deputy was also aware of the enormous strength of the bond the Clintons had forged, their own obvious belief (most of the time) in the love between them, their shared commitment to certain important values and ideals, to Chelsea, and, within weeks of their arrival in Washington, their growing sense that they couldn’t catch a break.

Hillary was thrown more off-balance than the president in the first months of the administration. Her attention lurched without apparent method from one problem or issue to another. Her seeming disorientation was not without cause. More than Bill, she seemed to recognize early-on the seriousness—even intractability—of some of the problems they were already up against, and the interconnectedness of so many seemingly disparate factors that would determine the administration’s success or failure. She comprehended, beyond the budget mess and health care, that lethal dangers lay ahead (partly because she had superior knowledge of some of the troubling matters lurking in the past, aside from his womanizing). She recognized earlier that they were under attack from very powerful forces who would use that past to undermine the Clinton presidency.

According to Webb Hubbell, both he and Vince Foster formed the impression by early spring that Hillary feared her health care agenda could become an unintended casualty. She felt blindsided by her husband’s own economic team. The opposition from Republicans, outside lobbying interests, and a nasty chorus on talk radio felt to her not like criticism on a single issue, but a first strike against “Clintonism.”

After six months in the White House, she was under constant strain, still grappling with the death of her father, unable to get the time or space to grieve in private. More than Bill, she was physically exhausted; she lacked his stamina and was losing weight. A newspaper story noted archly that Hillary “looks thinner than ever, even though she confesses that her exercise regimen has gone the way of the middleclass tax cut since she moved into the White House.” On trips to the Hill, her aides noticed how she would perform perfectly during an appointment, then immediately afterward begin yawning and then collapse in the car on the way back to the White House. Bill would stay up to two or three in the morning, looking at the pictures in the halls, or reading, especially about the presidency, playing cards, picking up the phone at any hour to discuss some matter of strategy. She spent tiring hours each afternoon and evening trying to help Chelsea with her own difficult adjustment, and the extraordinary attention accorded the daughter of a president.

Not surprisingly to those who knew her best, and without calling any public attention to it, Hillary turned to prayer under duress. On February 24, three weeks before her father suffered his stroke, Hillary and Tipper Gore had been invited to a luncheon of a Christian women’s prayer group at the Cedars, a grand estate on the Potomac maintained by the Fellowship, sponsor of the National Prayer Breakfast movement and hundreds of prayer groups under its auspices. They were a surprising group, among them Susan Baker, the wife of James Baker, the Bush family’s grand retainer and former secretary of state; Joanne Kemp, wife of former Republican congressman Jack Kemp, who would run for vice president in 1996; Grace Nelson, wife of Democratic senator Bill Nelson of Florida; and Holly Leachman, wife of Washington Redskins chaplain Jerry Leachman and herself a lay minister at the McLean Bible Church in Virginia, where many prominent Republican senators and conservative luminaries worshipped, including Kenneth Starr. Each of Hillary’s “prayer partners,” with whom she tried to meet each week when she was in town, promised to pray for Hillary regularly and presented her with a handmade book of biblical passages, personal messages, and spiritual quotations to help sustain her during her time in Washington. Susan Baker later visited Hillary and showed her great compassion about the death of Hugh Rodham and Hillary’s personal political difficulties. Holly Leachman came to the White House to pray with Hillary or just to cheer her up throughout the Clinton presidency.

Hillary would later be accused of cynically becoming religious and adopting more traditional values for the purpose of political advancement after her election to the Senate. That’s hard to imagine, given that knowledge of her affiliation with the prayer group during the White House years was kept to a few in her inner circle.

* * *

Hillary had always had a tendency to look at people and events with almost biblical judgment. “She often weighed matters in terms of good and evil,” noted an old friend in Fayetteville, Dick Atkinson. By that summer, after Vince Foster’s suicide and the appointment of a special counsel to investigate his death and the so-called Whitewater allegations about the Clintons’ investments back in Arkansas, she “found more to judge as evil,” Atkinson could see. “There seemed to be something basic that was reinforcing her view of good and evil, an element of embitterment there, and the notion of conspiracy. There was no reason to have that so early in her life. But it existed.” Yet Atkinson also believed she was forming “a dangerous attitude—not just with Republicans and enemies, but even toward people like [George] Stephanopoulos: ‘Are you with us or are you against us?’ And that led to more demonizing, more judgment of evil around her. It seemed more potent because of self-justification fueled by these Old Testament judgments of good and evil.”

A Clinton aide had noted, “She doesn’t look at her life as a series of crises but rather a series of battles. I think of her viewing herself in more heroic terms, an epic character like in The Iliad, fighting battle after battle. Yes, she succumbs to victimization sometimes, in that when the truth becomes too painful, when she is faced with the repercussions of her own mistakes or flaws, she falls into victimhood. But that’s a last resort and when she does allow the wallowing it’s only in the warm glow of martyrdom—as a laudable victim—a martyr in the tradition of Joan of Arc, a martyr in the religious sense. She would much rather play the woman warrior—whether it’s against the bimbos, the press, the other party, the other candidate, the right-wing. She’s happiest when she’s fighting, when she has identified the enemy and goes into attack mode. . . . That’s what she thrives on more than anything—the battle.

Foster’s suicide, the president told friends and aides, had “destroyed” Hillary. “I think she just bled deep inside,” a close friend of Foster observed. “I don’t think she ever really quite recovered from that.” “She was so far down,” David Gergen said, “you just sort of felt like you wanted to reach out, and say, ‘It’s okay. You’ll be okay.’ Because she opens herself up then, and it’s a very real woman with vulnerability. And there’s nothing false about it. It’s just there.”

In Living History, Hillary described going on “automatic pilot” for the six months following Foster’s death, feeling a “private” pain and getting by on “sheer willpower.”

* * *

The book It Takes a Village, conceived at her post-electoral ebb, was intended to define Hillary Clinton as she saw herself and wanted to be seen, and to establish a public persona based on thoughtfulness, seriousness, and traditional family values.

For nine Christmas seasons before Bill’s election as president, Hillary, Bill, and Chelsea together had attended Renaissance Weekends with the families of other prominent Americans. Scientists, journalists, educators, business executives, and political figures were afforded a chance at these gatherings to participate in off-the-record panel discussions and workshops that focused as much on individual empowerment and public service as policy. In contrast to Washington political discussions, the Renaissance meetings tended to include a spiritual or religious dimension, from mainstream Protestantism to New Age.

Of all the New Age thinkers whom the Clintons had gotten to know from these weekends, few had intrigued Hillary (and millions of other Americans) more than Texas-born Marianne Williamson. Like many New Age authors and circuit-riders, Williamson’s résumé was a mix of the serious (infusing politics with spiritual principles), the celebritized (presiding over Elizabeth Taylor’s eighth wedding), and the silly (promoting a version of solitaire with a fifty-card “miracle deck”). She was five years younger than Hillary, and her “underlying message,” according to one reviewer, “encourag[ed] women to seek and find God via the love inside themselves and to reinforce their sense of self-esteem.”

In December 1994, when Hillary seemed near the point of emotional collapse, her failed health care mission and alleged ethical lapses having led to the election of the Newt Gingrich Republican majority in Congress, with Bill deeply depressed and dysfunctional and their political future imperiled, Hillary reached out to Williamson. New Age thought borrowed heavily from traditional theology, especially its message of going deep within and finding personal strength in adversity. No one had preached this message more effectively, or profitably, than Williamson, who took the initiative to suggest that Hillary and Bill consider getting together with her and a group of people far removed from the political establishment to discuss alternative ways of looking at the next two years of the presidency, and the difficulties of the previous two. Hillary was receptive, and the weekend of December 30 and 31 was set aside at Camp David. Williamson, with Hillary’s approval, picked the other participants, including Anthony (Tony) Robbins, the motivational infomercial king and author of Awaken the Giant Within, and Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and its successor best-sellers. The titles were suggestive both of the participants’ approach and Hillary’s sense of what might have been missing in their first two years.

Since Don Jones’s counsel to Hillary during her depression at Wellesley, she had been receptive to a pep talk that advised digging down into yourself to call on your inner resources, while maintaining belief in some sort of higher power. Though she had come to see herself since the inauguration as a victim, she was not one to collapse in a heap of self-pity. Even her decision to retreat from the front lines of the administration— regarded by many acolytes and opponents alike as a kind of abdication —represented this precept of taking action.

For the Camp David weekend, Williamson had also engaged two lesser-known women on the seminar and lecture circuit whom she thought Hillary would take comfort in talking to in her current state: Mary Catherine Bateson and Jean Houston, who often worked in tandem. Bateson, the daughter of renowned anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, was a highly regarded cultural anthropologist, specializing in the burgeoning field of gender studies. Hillary had read and recommended to friends Bateson’s 1989 book, Composing a Life, which concerned itself with choices women in the post-feminist era could make in balancing and constructing their lives. Jean Houston, with her husband, Dr. Robert E. L. Masters, was co-director of the Foundation for Mind Research, in Pomona, New York, best known for research into psychedelic drugs, hypnosis, sexual behavior, and “humanistic psychology.” She was also founder and principal teacher of “the Mystery School,” a bicoastal seminar ($2,995 per student) of “cross-cultural, mythic and spiritual studies, dedicated to teaching history, philosophy, the New Physics, psychology, anthropology, myth and the many dimensions of human potential.” She described herself as a “scholar, philosopher and researcher in Human Capacities,” as well as a best-selling author. Her books included The Varieties of Psychedelic Experience: The Classic Guide to the Effects of LSD on the Human Psyche, written with her husband; The Passion of Isis and Osiris, which used Egyptian myth as a modern “design for the marriage of body and soul, life and death, the tangible and the hidden”; and Godseed: The Journey of Christ, in which, through “mythology, Jungian psychology, mysticism, anthropology, new science, and just plain creativity,” Houston suggested ways to “experience the Christ life.”

More than anything else, the weekend at Camp David was tacit acknowledgment that Hillary’s hard-edge approach to governance had failed. The direction she was now inclined to test didn’t leave much room for hard edges. The concept of trying to love one’s opponents and enemies was, of course, a cornerstone of Christ’s teachings, and Williamson eagerly applied it to politics in her work. She did not, however, recite at Camp David her published prayer, “For the Healing of America,” in which she had written: “God loves Bill Clinton and Rush Limbaugh both, and He loves them equally.” Yet, in some way, that was one of the main points the healers (Houston’s term) seemed intent on making: there was only one way to overwhelm Limbaugh’s prejudices and politics, which was through one’s own good works, and to turn the rest over to God. If there was one thing the New Agers were not, it was demonizers. Williamson, Bateson, and Houston (by the second day of the retreat Robbins had to make an unscheduled return to his Aspen headquarters) all had a healthy dislike for the Gingrich crowd, but they had earned their livelihoods preaching harmony. Over the next year, Bateson and, especially, Houston—who would form an unusually close relationship with Hillary—struggled to get the first lady onto a new, more “positive” track and off her “negative” woman-warrior path.

Both Bateson and Houston were shocked at how fragile and confused Hillary seemed: “battered . . . tormented” (noted Houston), lacking her customary confidence in herself, clearly exhausted—reaching out for some help, and settling on a course of making things better through prayer, travel, and writing.

Later Hillary would write about summoning the strong voices inside oneself of parents, mentors, and teachers whose messages of encouragement and care helped children grow into confident, capable adults able to weather the inevitable storms of a lifetime. But at this juncture Hillary seemed depleted even of those voices.

There were hardly any staff members present for the weekend, partly to keep the sessions, with their obvious potential for ridicule, from leaking. In summoning the participants, Williamson had told them that Hillary was at a “low point” and wanted to discuss, among other things, how to better communicate the administration’s message in the next two years. Houston “did the major guiding” (as she later put it), which evolved into a discussion of “the communication of visions” for the remainder of the term. Chelsea, fourteen now, listened in fascination, pausing from her work at a large table on a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle of the White House. Periodically the adults would join her, trying to fit pieces together.


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