Chances are, you probably already have a fairly strong opinion about Senator Hillary Clinton. Paradoxically, she is one of America’s most popular politicians and the single most controversial figure in modern American politics. Deeply despised by most conservatives as a representative of feckless liberalism, she is hotly debated among more liberal-leaning groups as well. Netroots activists and the populist wings of the Democratic Party frequently criticize her ties to corporate interests, her past tendency to “triangulate” against party liberals, and, most especially, her strong support of the Iraq war until well after the 2004 elections. She is nevertheless popular amongst mainstream Democratic constituencies who praise her long experience and political skill, and believe she is the surest bet to win the presidency in 2008. In addition, as the first female candidate with a serious chance of becoming President of the United States, her appeal to liberal-to-moderate women cannot be ignored.
Hillary Rodham was born in 1947. An outstanding student and the child of a successful family of Illinois conservative Republicans, the young Ms. Rodham got involved in politics early, canvassing for Richard Nixon in the 1960 election at age 13, and later becoming a “Goldwater Girl,” working for the rightwing standard bearer in his failed 1964 presidential bid to unseat Lyndon Johnson.
The young Ms. Rodham began college as an active Republican, but her increasing opposition to the Vietnam War and her support for civil rights drove her toward the Democratic Party. Her ideological shift culminated in an unusually strong commencement speech, which elicited a standing ovation and significant media attention. Yale Law School seemed like a very natural next step.
At Yale, Hillary Rodham became further involved with public service and was mentored by Marion Wright Edelman, a respected liberal and children’s rights activist. Yale was also where she met an even more powerful figure in her life, the young Bill Clinton. Born of a shared passion for public life, their romance blossomed and the couple would date and live together through several years of serious political and public service work. The young woman moved to Bill Clinton’s native Arkansas and Ms. Rodham finally agreed to marry the budding politician in 1975, though she initially chose to keep her name.
(Note: Since marrying Bill Clinton, at various times Hillary Clinton has used the names “Hillary Rodham,” “Hillary Rodham Clinton” and “Hillary Clinton.” This may explain why so many writers simply refer to her as “Hillary.” For the sake of simplicity, we will refer to her as “Hillary Clinton” or “Senator/Ms. Clinton” for the rest of this biography.)
The young power couple rose quickly. Bill Clinton was first elected Arkansas’s attorney general and then became governor in a 1978 special election. Meanwhile, Ms. Clinton was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to the board of the Legal Services Corporation, a government sponsored organization created to provide legal services to the poor.
In 1980, Bill Clinton lost the governorship to a Republican, while the Legal Services Corporation faced a Republican foe of its own, the newly elected President, Ronald Reagan. Hillary Clinton and her good friend, Vince Foster, were temporarily successful in restraining the new president’s plans to alter the organization. Ultimately, however, she would be forced to leave the office, but Ms. Clinton had already had already had a major success of another kind when she gave birth to her daughter, Chelsea, in 1980.
Two years later, Bill Clinton was able to win election as Arkansas’s governor for a second time, and Ms. Clinton was once again the state’s first lady. For the next several years, she was active both in state politics and in her legal practice. Alongside her ongoing pro-bono work on behalf of children, she would also sit on several corporate boards, including the controversial mega-retailer, Wal-Mart.
Meanwhile, both Clintons were starting to position themselves for national office. By the time of Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 presidential bid, they were thoroughly identified as “New Democrats,” a centrist or moderate leaning group tied to the right-leaning, pro-corporate Democratic Leadership Council.
Though the nineties are now widely regarded as a time of relative peace and plenty, things were always eventful at the Clinton White House. In those days, Hillary Clinton was perceived as somewhat more liberal than her husband and as savvy “power behind the throne”–almost a sort of female Rasputin in the minds of some conservatives. She became a lightning rod for the increasingly combative and ideological right wing, particularly as it manifested itself via such rightwing talk radio performers as Rush Limbaugh.
The power of the emerging rightwing “noise machine” was felt strongly when Ms. Clinton spearheaded a complicated proposed national healthcare policy. The proposal was successfully attacked by Republican conservatives and the health insurance industry via a sophisticated ad and awareness campaign featuring the fictional couple of “Harry and Louise.” So-called “talking points” were another popular tool and soon the nation was told repeatedly that “Hillarycare” would limit access to certain medical techniques while creating a needless and expensive bureaucracy. The bid went down to defeat and was perhaps partly responsible for the historic Republican take-over of congress in the 1994 congressional election.
Despite the defeat, Hillary Clinton remained a major player in the Clinton Administration throughout its eight years. She was involved in a number of less high profiles, especially relating to such issues as the health and welfare of children. That concern sparked her best-known book, It Takes A Village: and Other Lessons Children Teach Us.
Still, much of her work was drowned out in the media by the steady drumbeat of alleged scandals on two separate fronts. On the one-hand were ongoing charges of sexual infidelity, and worse, by the President. Of course, these charges cast Hillary Clinton more as a victim than a villain. On the other hand, complex allegations of business and/or political impropriety tended to focus on Ms. Clinton. Most, but not all, of these charges related to a failed business investment dubbed “Whitewater.” These complicated scandals, real or imagined, were all vigorously promulgated by conservative elements in the media and in the Republican-controlled congress. At times, the charges grew wild, including whispers of a conspiracy leading to the death of Vince Foster. For each charge, there was a book to go with it. For a time, it seemed as if bookstores would start needing to set aside space for a special anti-Clinton section.
The political drumbeat eventually became deafening, and nearly destroyed the administration when an illicit relationship was exposed between the President and White House intern Monica Lewinsky. The Clintons had to endure being the #1 topic for late night comedians for a period of years. Far worse, charges of perjury on the part of the President led to Bill Clinton being only the second U.S. President to be impeached by the House of Representatives.
When it was all over, however, President Clinton was still in office, embarrassed but still popular with most Americans. For her part, Hillary Clinton was, in many ways, more admired than ever before. Now, she not only had the support of most liberals and moderates, but she also benefited for her calm demeanor in the face of a major personal crisis. Oddly enough, by remaining married to the President, she seemed to be enacting the “traditional family values” espoused by her political foes. As the scandals slowly faded, talk of her own political future became rife.
In 1998, the Clintons purchased a home in New York, preparing for a bid for the senate seat being vacated by the retiring Daniel Patrick Moynihan. When her opposition in the general election turned out to be not former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, but Rick Lazio, a socially conservative congressman viewed as a lightweight, her victory seemed likely. Despite charges of “carpetbagging” and a vigorous campaign, the sitting first lady was elected by a comfortable thirteen-point margin. Instantly, she was America’s most famous Senator.
In office, she has stayed on a course similar to that charted by her husband’s administration. As a senator, she had mostly liberal voting record but still worked on the right flank of her party. In the aftermath of 9/11, like many others, Senator Clinton’s rhetoric and voting record started to move towards the hawkish right, culminating in her support for the vote providing President George W. Bush with the authority to invade Iraq. At the same time, she also worked for increased benefits for those affected by the 9/11 attacks, and continued working on such long time causes as children’s health.
Nevertheless, when Senator Clinton launched her long-anticipated 2008 Presidential campaign, it was her past support for the now unpopular war, and her refusal to recant it that sparked a number of sharp exchanges with her primary rivals and much of her opposition within the Democratic Party.
Regardless, one thing nearly all Democrats like about Hillary Clinton is that she is not one to be play defense. With a host of other crucial issues before the country and with the support countless women and men within traditional Democratic Party constituencies, she remains perhaps one of the two or three most powerful political figures in the current political landscape. If anyone is underestimating her, they’re not going to get very far.
Hillary Clinton on the Web:
Hillary for President
The official website of the Clinton campaign. Along with the usual links and blog, it includes links to news hubs and various opportunities to get involved in the campaign, while also providing space for supporters to start their own blogs.
A detailed account of Senator Clinton’s life and career.
Presidential Forum on Faith, Values, and Poverty
A CNN forum with Soledad O’Brien in which Senator Clinton answers questions from Ms. O’Brien and audience members. (One of two)
On the Campaign Trail:
As the first primaries approach, Hillary Clinton’s still-strong frontrunner status makes her the most visible single candidate of either primary. A formidable debater, she has surprised many with a seemingly newfound ease and sense of humor, often outdoing her two charismatic rivals, Barack Obama and John Edwards. She did arouse some controversy when, in one debate performance widely deemed as below par, she seemed to be “playing the gender card” against her all-male opponents, but the same major media pundits who had criticized that performance rallied to her side with the next debate.
Nevertheless, as the first primaries approach, her eventual nomination is no longer regularly being declared “inevitable,” and op-ed writers openly wonder whether the issue of “change” from the Bush Administration will cut against her, and for her less establishment-oriented rivals, particularly Senator Obama. Recent debates have also been marked by booing from the audience, first apparently directed by Clinton supporters against her rivals, who they felt were criticizing the Senator too strongly. More recently, boos have been directed at Senator Clinton from, according to reporters, supporters of her rivals.
Meanwhile, there is always the issue of unpredictable events and their impact on her campaign, exemplified by a bizarre hostage crisis in late November in which a gunman invaded Senator Clinton’s New Hampshire headquarters. The event, which fortunately resulted in no deaths or injuries, dominated the headlines for a day. The candidate’s calm performance under stressful circumstances was once again praised, though few believed it would have much long-term political impact.
Finally, a seemingly inexplicable statement by Bill Clinton in which he claimed to have been against the Iraq war from the start, was seen as a gaffe for the campaign. Fairly or not, the incident underlines how the two Clintons remain inseparable in the public consciousness.
The Quotable Hillary Clinton:
“I have gone from a Barry Goldwater Republican to a New Democrat, but I think my underlying values have remained pretty constant; individual responsibility and community. I do not see those as being mutually inconsistent.”
On government and child welfare:
“No government can love a child, and no policy can substitute for a family’s care. But at the same time, government can either support or undermine families as they cope with moral, social and economic stresses of caring for children.”
“Every nation has to either be with us, or against us. Those who harbor terrorists, or who finance them, are going to pay a price.”
On women’s roles:
“Our lives are a mixture of different roles. Most of us are doing the best we can to find whatever the right balance is . . . For me, that balance is family, work, and service.”
On women’s rights:
“There cannot be true democracy unless women’s voices are heard. There cannot be true democracy unless women are given the opportunity to take responsibility for their own lives. There cannot be true democracy unless all citizens are able to participate fully in the lives of their country.”
On media manipulation:
“If I want to knock a story off the front page, I just change my hairstyle.”