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In the ’60s, a Future Candidate Poured Her Heart Out in Letters

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  • Greg Cannon
    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/29/us/politics/29letter.html?_r=2&hp=&oref=slogin&pagewanted=print&oref=slogin July 29, 2007 In the ’60s, a Future Candidate
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 28, 2007

      July 29, 2007
      In the ’60s, a Future Candidate Poured Her Heart Out
      in Letters

      WASHINGTON, July 28 — They were high school friends
      from Park Ridge, Ill., both high achievers headed East
      to college. John Peavoy was a bookish film buff bound
      for Princeton, Hillary Rodham a driven, civic-minded
      Republican going off to Wellesley. They were not
      especially close, but they found each other smart and
      “interesting” and said they would try to keep in

      Which they did, prodigiously, exchanging dozens of
      letters between the late summer of 1965 and the spring
      of 1969. Ms. Rodham’s 30 dispatches are by turns
      angst-ridden and prosaic, glib and brooding, anguished
      and ebullient — a rare unfiltered look into the head
      and heart of a future first lady and would-be
      president. Their private expressiveness stands in
      sharp contrast to the ever-disciplined political
      persona she presents to the public now.

      “Since Xmas vacation, I’ve gone through three and a
      half metamorphoses and am beginning to feel as though
      there is a smorgasbord of personalities spread before
      me,” Ms. Rodham wrote to Mr. Peavoy in April 1967. “So
      far, I’ve used alienated academic, involved
      pseudo-hippie, educational and social reformer and
      one-half of withdrawn simplicity.”

      Befitting college students of any era, the letters are
      also self-absorbed and revelatory, missives from an
      unformed and vulnerable striver who had, in her own
      words, “not yet reconciled myself to the fate of not
      being the star.”

      “Sunday was lethargic from the beginning as I wallowed
      in a morass of general and specific dislike and pity
      for most people but me especially,” Ms. Rodham
      reported in a letter postmarked Oct. 3, 1967.

      In other letters, she would convey a mounting
      exasperation with her rigid conservative father and
      disdain for both “debutante” dormmates and an
      acid-dropping friend. She would issue a blanket
      condemnation of the “boys” she had met (“who know a
      lot about ‘self’ and nothing about ‘man’ ”) and also
      tell of an encounter she had with “a Dartmouth boy”
      the previous weekend.

      “It always seems as though I write you when I’ve been
      thinking too much again,” Ms. Rodham wrote in one of
      her first notes to Mr. Peavoy, postmarked Nov. 15,
      1965. She later joked that she planned to keep his
      letters and “make a million” when he became famous.
      “Don’t begrudge me my mercenary interest,” she wrote.

      Of course, it was Hillary Rodham Clinton who became
      famous while Mr. Peavoy has lived out his life in
      contented obscurity as an English professor at Scripps
      College, a small woman’s school in Southern California
      where he has taught since 1977. Every bit the
      wild-haired academic, with big silver glasses tucked
      behind bushy gray sideburns, he lives with his wife,
      Frances McConnel, and their cat, Lulu, in a one-story
      house cluttered with movies, books and boxes — one of
      which contains a trove of letters from an old friend
      who has since become one of the most cautious and
      analyzed politicians in America.

      When contacted about the letters, Mr. Peavoy allowed
      The New York Times to read and copy them.

      The Clinton campaign declined to comment.

      The letters were written during a period when the
      future Mrs. Clinton was undergoing a period of
      profound political transformation, from the “Goldwater
      girl” who shared her father’s conservative outlook to
      a liberal antiwar activist.

      In her early letters, Ms. Rodham refers to her
      involvement with the Young Republicans, a legacy of
      her upbringing. In October of her freshman year, she
      dismisses the local chapter as “so inept,” which she
      says, audaciously, she might be able to leverage to
      her own benefit. “I figure that I may be able to work
      things my own way by the time I’m a junior so I’m
      going to stick it out,” she writes.

      Still, the letters reveal a fast-eroding allegiance to
      the party of her childhood. She ridicules a trip she
      had taken to a Young Republicans convention as “a
      farce that would have done Oscar Wilde credit.” By the
      summer of 1967, Ms. Rodham — writing from her parents’
      vacation home in Lake Winola, Pa. — begins referring
      to Republicans as “they” rather than “we.”

      “That’s no Freudian slip,” she adds. A few months
      later, she would be volunteering on Senator Eugene
      McCarthy’s antiwar presidential campaign in New
      Hampshire. By the time she delivered her commencement
      address at Wellesley in 1969, she was citing her
      generation’s “indispensable task of criticizing and
      constructive protest.”

      But in many ways her letters are more revealing about
      her search for her own sense of self.

      “Can you be a misanthrope and still love or enjoy some
      individuals?” Ms. Rodham wrote in an April 1967
      letter. “How about a compassionate misanthrope?”

      Mr. Peavoy’s letters to Ms. Rodham are lost to
      posterity, unless she happened to keep them, which he
      doubts. He said he wished he had kept copies himself.
      “They are windows into a time and a place and a
      journey of self-discovery,” he said in an interview.
      “This was what college students did before Facebook.”

      The letters are Mr. Peavoy’s only link to his former
      pen pal. They never visited or exchanged a single
      phone call during their four years of college. They
      lost touch entirely after graduation, except for the
      30-year reunion of the Maine South High School class
      of 1965, held in Washington to accommodate the class’s
      most famous graduate, whose husband was then serving
      his first term in the White House.

      “I was on the White House Christmas card list for a
      while,” Mr. Peavoy said. Besides a quick
      receiving-line greeting from Mrs. Clinton at the
      reunion, Mr. Peavoy has had just one direct contact
      with her in 38 years. It was, fittingly, by letter,
      only this time her words were more businesslike.

      In the late 1990s, Mr. Peavoy was contacted by the
      author Gail Sheehy, who was researching a book on the
      first lady. He agreed to let Ms. Sheehy see the
      letters, from which she would quote snippets in her
      1999 biography, “Hillary’s Choice.” When Mrs. Clinton
      heard that Mr. Peavoy had kept her old letters, she
      wrote him asking for copies, which he obliged. He has
      not heard from her since.

      “For all I know she’s mad at me for keeping the
      letters,” said Mr. Peavoy, a pack rat who says he has
      kept volumes of letters from friends over the years. A
      Democrat, he said he was undecided between supporting
      Mrs. Clinton and Senator Barack Obama.

      Ms. Rodham’s letters are written in a tight, flowing
      script with near-impeccable spelling and punctuation.
      Ever the pleaser, she frequently begins them with an
      apology that it had taken her so long to respond. She
      praises Mr. Peavoy’s missives while disparaging her
      own (“my usual drivel”) and signs off with a simple
      “Hillary,” except for the occasional “H” or “Me.”

      As one would expect of letters written during college,
      Ms. Rodham’s letters display an evolution in
      sophistication, viewpoint and intellectual focus. One
      existential theme that recurs throughout is that Ms.
      Rodham views herself as an “actor,” meaning a student
      activist committed to a life of civic action, which
      she contrasts with Mr. Peavoy, who, in her view, is
      more of an outside critic, or “reactor.”

      “Are you satisfied with the part you have cast
      yourself in?” she asks Mr. Peavoy in April 1966. “It
      seems that you have decided to become a reactor rather
      than actor — everything around will determine your

      She is mildly patronizing if not scornful, as she
      encourages her friend to “try-out” for life. She
      quotes from “Doctor Zhivago,” “Man is born to live,
      not prepare for life,” and signs the letter “Me” (“the
      world’s saddest word,” she adds parenthetically).

      Ms. Rodham becomes expansive and wistful when
      discussing the nature of leadership and public
      service, and how the validation of serving others can
      be a substitute for self-directed wisdom. “If people
      react to you in the role of answer bestower then quite
      possibly you are,” she writes in a letter postmarked
      Nov. 15, 1967, and continues in this vein for another
      page before changing the subject to what Mr. Peavoy
      plans to do the following weekend.

      Ms. Rodham’s dispatches indicate a steady separation
      from Park Ridge, her old friends and her family,
      notably her strict father. She seethes at her parents’
      refusal to let her spend a weekend in New York (“Their
      reasons — money, fear of the city, they think I’ve
      been running around too much, etc. — are ridiculous”)
      and fantasizes about spending the summer between her
      sophomore and junior years in Africa, only to dismiss
      the notion, envisioning “the scene with my father.”

      While home on a break in February of her junior year,
      Ms. Rodham bemoans “the communication chasm” that has
      opened within her family. “I feel like I’m losing the
      top of my head,” she complains, describing an argument
      raging in the next room between — “for a change” — her
      father and one of her brothers.

      “God, I feel so divorced from Park Ridge, parents,
      home, the entire unreality of middle class America,”
      she says. “This all sounds so predictable, but it’s

      Ms. Rodham has been described by people who knew her
      growing up as precocious, and in the letters she is
      scathingly judgmental at times. She spent the bulk of
      one letter on a withering assessment of dormmates.

      “Next me,” Ms. Rodham says wryly. “Of course, I’m
      normal, if that is a permissible adjective for a
      Wellesley girl.”

      In other notes, she speaks of her own despair; in one,
      written in the winter of her sophomore year, she
      describes a “February depression.” She catalogs a
      long, paralyzed morning spent in bed, skipping
      classes, hating herself. “Random thinking usually
      becomes a process of self-analysis with my ego coming
      out on the short end,” she writes.

      Another recurring theme of Ms. Rodham’s musings is the
      familiar late-adolescent impulse not to grow up. “Such
      a drag,” she says, invoking the Rolling Stones, a rare
      instance of her referring to pop culture.

      Her letters at times betray a kind of innocent
      narcissism over “my lost youth,” as she described it
      in a letter shortly after her 19th birthday. She wrote
      of being a little girl and believing that she was the
      only person in the universe. She had a sense that if
      she turned around quickly, “everyone else would

      “I’d play out in the patch of sunlight that broke the
      density of the elms in front of our house and pretend
      there were heavenly movie cameras watching my every
      move,” she says. She yearns for all the excitement and
      discoveries of life without losing “the little girl in
      the sunlight.”

      At which point, Ms. Rodham declares that she has spent
      too much time wandering “aimlessly through a verbal
      morass” and writes that she is going to bed.

      “You’ll probably think I’m retreating from the world
      back to the sunlight in an attempt to dream my child’s
      movie,” she says.

      The letters contain no possibly damaging revelations
      of the proverbial “youthful indiscretions,” and
      mention nothing glaringly outlandish or irresponsible.
      Indeed, she tends toward the self-scolding: “I have
      been enjoying myself too much, and spring and
      letter-writing are — to the bourgeois mind — no

      She reports in one letter from October of her
      sophomore year that she spent a “miserable weekend”
      arguing with a friend who believed that “acid is the
      way and what did I have against expanding my

      In a previous letter from her freshman year, she
      divulges that a junior in her dorm had been caught at
      her boyfriend’s apartment in Cambridge at 3:15 a.m. “I
      don’t condone her actions,” Ms. Rodham declares, “but
      I’ll defend to expulsion her right to do as she
      pleases — an improvement on Voltaire.”

      Ms. Rodham’s notes to Mr. Peavoy are revelatory, even
      intimate at times, but if there is any romantic energy
      between the friends, they are not evident in Ms.
      Rodham’s side of the conversation. “P.S. thanks for
      the Valentine’s card,” she says at the end of one
      letter. “Good night.”

      Her letters contain no mention of any romantic
      interest, except for one from February 1967 in which
      Ms. Rodham divulges that she “met a boy from Dartmouth
      and spent a Saturday night in Hanover.”

      Ms. Rodham skates earnestly on the surface of life,
      raising more questions than answers. “Last week I
      decided that even if life is absurd why couldn’t I
      spend it absurdly happy?” she wrote in November of her
      junior year. “Then, of course, the question naturally
      bellows operationally define ‘happiness’ Hillary
      Rodham, acknowledged agnostic intellectual liberal,
      emotional conservative.”

      From there, she deems the process of self-definition
      to be “too depressing” and asserts that “the easiest
      way out is to stop any thought approaching
      introspection and to advise others whenever possible.”

      The letters to Mr. Peavoy taper off considerably after
      the first half of Ms. Rodham’s junior year; there are
      just two from 1968 and one from 1969.

      “I’m sitting here at a stolen table in a pair of dirty
      denim bell-bottoms, a never-ironed work shirt and a
      beautiful purple felt hat with a purple polka-dotted
      scarf streaming off it,” she writes in her final
      correspondence, March 25, 1969. A senior bound for law
      school, she betrays exhaustion with the times, a
      country at war and a culture in tumult. “I’m really
      tired of people slamming doors and screaming
      obscenities at poor old life,” she says, and describes
      the sound of chirping birds amid the “soulless
      academia” that she will inhabit for just a few more
      weeks as an undergraduate.
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