In the 60s, a Future Candidate Poured Her Heart Out in Letters
July 29, 2007
In the 60s, a Future Candidate Poured Her Heart Out
By MARK LEIBOVICH
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. Rodhams 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, Ive 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, Ive 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one-half of withdrawn simplicity.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 Ive 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.
Dont 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 womans 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 fathers 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 Im a junior so Im
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.
Thats no Freudian slip, she adds. A few months
later, she would be volunteering on Senator Eugene
McCarthys antiwar presidential campaign in New
Hampshire. By the time she delivered her commencement
address at Wellesley in 1969, she was citing her
generations indispensable task of criticizing and
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. Peavoys 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. Peavoys 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 classs
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, Hillarys 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 shes 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. Rodhams 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. Peavoys 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. Rodhams 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
worlds 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. Rodhams 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 Ive
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 Im 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 its
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, Im
normal, if that is a permissible adjective for a
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. Rodhams 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
Id 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
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.
Youll probably think Im retreating from the world
back to the sunlight in an attempt to dream my childs
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 boyfriends apartment in Cambridge at 3:15 a.m. I
dont condone her actions, Ms. Rodham declares, but
Ill defend to expulsion her right to do as she
pleases an improvement on Voltaire.
Ms. Rodhams 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.
Rodhams side of the conversation. P.S. thanks for
the Valentines 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 couldnt 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,
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. Rodhams junior year; there are
just two from 1968 and one from 1969.
Im 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. Im 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.