NYT: In Turmoil of 68, Clinton Found a New Voice
In Turmoil of '68, Clinton Found a New Voice
By MARK LEIBOVICH
WASHINGTON, Sept. 4 In September 1968, Hillary Diane Rodham, role
model and student government president, was addressing Wellesley
College freshmen girls back when they were still called "girls"
about methods of protest. It was a hot topic in that overheated year
of what she termed "confrontation politics from Chicago to
"Dynamism is a function of change," Ms. Rodham said in her speech. "On
some campuses, change is effected through nonviolent or even violent
means. Although we too have had our demonstrations, change here is
usually a product of discussion in the decision-making process."
Her handwritten remarks on file in the Wellesley archives abound
with abbreviations, crossed-out sentences and scrawled reinsertions,
as if composed in a hurry. Yet Ms. Rodham's words are neatly contained
between tight margins. She took care to stay within the lines, even
when they were moving so far and fast in 1968. While student leaders
at some campuses went to the barricades, Ms. Rodham was attending
teach-ins, leading panel discussions and joining steering committees.
She preferred her "confrontation politics" cooler.
"She was not an antiwar radical trying to create a mass movement,"
said Ellen DuBois, who, with Ms. Rodham, was an organizer of a student
strike that April. "She was very much committed to working within the
political system. From a student activist perspective, there was a
As the nation boiled over Vietnam, civil rights and the slayings of
two charismatic leaders, Ms. Rodham was completing a sweeping
intellectual, political and stylistic shift. She came to Wellesley as
an 18-year-old Republican, a copy of Barry Goldwater's right-wing
treatise, "The Conscience of a Conservative," on the shelf of her
freshman dorm room. She would leave as an antiwar Democrat whose
public rebuke of a Republican senator in a graduation speech won her
notice in Life magazine as a voice for her generation.
Hillary Rodham Clinton's course was set, in large part, during the
supercharged year of 1968. "There was a sense of tremendous change,
internationally and here at home which impacted greatly how I thought
about things," Mrs. Clinton said in a telephone interview about that
period, which encompassed the second half of her junior and first half
of her senior years.
It was a time at once disorienting and clarifying, a period that would
reinforce the future senator and presidential candidate's suspicion of
"emotional politics" while stoking her frustration with what she
considered the passivity of her classmates.
Her political itinerary that year resembles a frenzied travelogue of
youthful contradiction. She might have been the only 20-year-old in
America who worked on the antiwar presidential campaign of Senator
Eugene McCarthy in New Hampshire that winter and for the hawkish
Republican congressman Melvin Laird in Washington that summer.
She attended both the Republican National Convention in Miami (bunking
at the Fontainebleu Hotel, ordering room service for the first time
cereal and a daintily wrapped peach) and the Democratic donnybrook in
Chicago (smelling tear gas at Grant Park, watching a toilet fly out
the window of the Hilton hotel).
The day after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was slain, she
joined a demonstration in Post Office Square in Boston, returning to
campus wearing a black armband.
"People become experiences," Ms. Rodham wrote about all the ferment in
a Feb. 23 letter to John Peavoy, a friend from high school. She added
later, "The whole society is brittle."
Looking back, it is easy to see that ambitious political science major
in the first lady, United States senator and, now, presidential
candidate she would become. She campaigned meticulously in student
elections, going door to door and dorm to dorm. She wrote thank-you
notes to professors who helped her.
In the bustle of her excursions, she showed the zeal of an emerging
political junkie. And, while outspoken and often blunt, Ms. Rodham was
hardly a bomb-thrower. She was, then as now, dedicated to cerebral
policy debates, government process and carefully calibrated positions.
"Her opinions are mature and responsible, rather than emotional and
one-sided," Alan Schechter, a political science professor at
Wellesley, wrote in a law school recommendation that year for Ms. Rodham.
A Goldwater Girl
Ms. Rodham had arrived at Wellesley in the fall of 1965, a decorated
Girl Scout and teacher's pet from a Republican household in the
Chicago suburb of Park Ridge, Ill. She had distributed leaflets for
Mr. Goldwater's presidential campaign the previous fall and was
determined to rise quickly through the moribund ranks of Wellesley's
Young Republicans chapter.
As a go-getter freshman, Ms. Rodham was elected president of the
group, dutifully recruiting students to help Massachusetts candidates
including Edward Brooke, the future United States senator whom she
would chastise in a 1969 commencement speech as being out of touch
with the concerns of the new graduates.
In 1966, her public words were less audacious. "The girl who doesn't
want to go out and shake hands can type letters or do general office
work," Ms. Rodham told The Wellesley News in an appeal for Republican
volunteers. Soon, though, Ms. Rodham's views began veering leftward.
She became opposed to the Vietnam War, putting her increasingly in
conflict with her conservative father, Hugh Rodham.
"My opinions on most human conditions are being liberalized," Ms.
Rodham wrote in 1965 to Don Jones, a progressive Methodist minister
from back home who had influenced her thinking.
"The combination of bleeding heart liberal and mental conservative is
the inevitable conclusion one arrives at after following and pondering
political events," she wrote.
Around campus, Ms. Rodham wore industrial-thick glasses and a uniform
of the times clunky boots, ratty jeans, a Navy blue pea coat and a
succession of turtlenecks, sweater vests and work shirts. ("I look
like hell and I could care less" she wrote to Mr. Peavoy.) She was
prone to capricious fashion choices. A suitemate, Connie Hoenk
Shapiro, recalled asking why she had bought a particularly dreadful
pair of muddy-colored shoes (with clunky 2-inch heels and a square
toe) and Ms. Rodham explaining, "I felt sorry for them and wanted to
give them a home."
Friends say she had a playful streak, was game for road trips to
Vermont and Cape Cod, and liked to call people by goofy nicknames.
"She would sometimes refer to herself in the third person as "the
Hill," or "the Hill woman," said her Wellesley classmate Nancy
Pietrafesa, whose childhood moniker, Peach, sometimes became Peacharoo
or Peacharooni in Hill-speak.
Unlike many of her peers, she never experimented with illegal drugs,
Mrs. Clinton said. She embraced collegiate social rituals, attending
mixers, showing up to Harvard football games (often with a book, a
friend recalls) and planning a strawberries-and-cream bridal shower
atop the Wellesley Bell Tower for a roommate, Johanna Branson.
Still, she was something of a sponge for all the angst and argument
engulfing her generation. Ms. Shapiro recalled going to do errands one
afternoon when Ms. Rodham handed her an unopened bottle of perfume she
had bought and asked her to return it to the store.
"I asked why," Ms. Shapiro recalled. "Her answer was that it was an
extravagance she felt guilty about indulging in when there was so much
poverty around us. We were increasingly sensitive to issues of what we
now call white privilege. "
When Dr. King was killed on the balcony of a Memphis motel on April 4,
1968, Ms. Rodham was devastated. "I can't take it anymore," she
screamed after learning the news, her friends recalled. Crying, Ms.
Rodham stormed into her dormitory room and hurled her book bag against
the wall. Later, she made a telephone call to a close friend, Karen
Williamson, the head of the black student organization on campus, to
Ms. Rodham, who met Dr. King after a speech in Chicago in 1962, had
admired his methodical approach to social change, favoring it over
what she considered the excessively combative methods of groups like
the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, or S.N.C.C.,
"Just because a person cannot approve of snicks' attitude toward civil
disobedience does not mean he wishes to maintain the racial status
quo," Ms. Rodham wrote as a freshman to Mr. Jones, the Methodist minister.
After Dr. King's assassination provoked riots in cities and unrest on
campuses, Ms. Rodham worried that protesters would shut down Wellesley
(not constructive). She helped organize a two-day strike (more
pragmatic) and worked closely with Wellesley's few black students
(only 6 in her class of 401) in reaching moderate, achievable change
such as recruiting more black students and hiring black professors
(there had been none). Eschewing megaphones and sit-ins, she organized
meetings, lectures and seminars, designed to be educational.
"I was rooted in a political approach that understood that you can't
just take to the streets and make change in America," Mrs. Clinton
said in an interview. "You can't just give a speech and expect people
to fall down and agree with you."
Even so, the killing of Dr. King created "a sense of disorder that was
both unsettling and catalyzing" to Ms. Rodham, recalled Mr. Schechter,
the political science professor and a mentor to her. Friends observed
that she was less restrained and less deferential after Dr. King's death.
At a panel discussion for a group of Wellesley alumni in mid-April,
Mrs. Clinton bemoaned the "large gray mass" of uninvolved students. At
another meeting, she argued with an economics professor who suggested
that the strike take place on a weekend.
"I'll give up my date Saturday night, Mr. Goldman, but I don't think
that's the point," Ms. Rodham told the professor, Marshall Goldman,
according to the April 25, 1968, Wellesley News. "Individual
consciences are fine but individual consciences have to be made
manifest. Why do these attitudes have to be limited to two days?"
Ms. Rodham had traveled to New Hampshire several times that winter to
volunteer for Mr. McCarthy, the Minnesota Democrat challenging
President Lyndon B. Johnson for the Democratic nomination. Mr.
McCarthy's message that the antiwar movement should operate within
the system, not on the streets appealed to Ms. Rodham. The candidate
urged his supporters to be respectful, prompting the young activists
to cut their hair, shave their beards and be "Clean for Gene." That
summer, Ms. Rodham took to the streets herself, albeit as a safe
observer. While home in Park Ridge, she and a friend, Betsy Johnson,
kept hearing about all the commotion downtown at the Democratic
Convention. They drove Ms. Johnson's parents' station wagon into
Chicago to view the spectacle.
"We thought we had seen all there was to see in our sheltered
neighborhood," recalled Betsy Johnson Eberling, another former
Goldwater Girl. "It was a radicalizing experience for us, to some extent."
Mrs. Clinton has said repeatedly how "shocked" she was at the
brutality she witnessed protesters throwing rocks, police officers
beating protesters but describes the bedlam with almost scholarly
detachment. In her memoir, "Living History," she recalls spending
hours that summer arguing with a friend over the "meaning of
revolution and whether our country would face one." Even if there was
a revolution, the two friends concluded, "we would never participate."
Keeping a Toe in the G.O.P.
For all her leftward movement, Ms. Rodham still kept a toe in the
Republican Party, working as an intern in Washington that summer. Mr.
Schechter, who supervised the Wellesley internship program, sent her
to work for the House Republican Conference, then headed by Mr. Laird,
the Wisconsin congressman who would later become President Richard
Nixon's defense secretary. "My adviser said, `I'm still going to
assign you to the Republicans because I want you to understand
completely what your own transformation represents," Mrs. Clinton
recalled of Mr. Schechter.
"I remember her being very bright, very aggressive and not very
Republican," said Ed Feulner, who managed the summer interns in the
office and now heads the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research
Ever diligent, Ms. Rodham did "a fine job," said Mr. Laird, citing a
"very thorough and well-researched" speech she wrote on the financing
of the Vietnam War. At the end of the internship, Ms. Rodham proudly
posed for a photo with House Republican leaders, including
Representative Gerald R. Ford of Michigan. The photo hung in her
father's bedroom when he died in 1993.
Along with other interns, Ms. Rodham was invited by Representative
Charles Goodell, a moderate New York Republican, to help Gov. Nelson
Rockefeller's last-ditch campaign to defeat Mr. Nixon for the
Republican nomination. At the party's convention in Miami, she met
Frank Sinatra, shared an elevator with John Wayne and decided to leave
the Republican Party for good. "She was particularly furious at how
she felt Rockefeller had been trashed by the Nixon people," Mr.
"I'm done with this, absolutely," Mrs. Clinton recalled thinking upon
hearing Mr. Nixon's acceptance speech. She characterized the
Republicanism of her youth as one of fiscal conservatism and social
moderation, and at odds with what she viewed as the intolerance of Miami.
"All of a sudden you get all these veiled messages, frankly, that were
racist," Mrs. Clinton said of the convention. "I may not have been
able to explain it, but I could feel it."
Back at Wellesley that fall, Ms. Rodham immersed herself in campus
matters. She reveled in her role as student government president,
which offered both the visibility and social validation she craved.
("I think I enjoy winning elections as a tangible proof of respect and
liking," she wrote to Mr. Peavoy.)
She won the post in the spring, after campaigning for two weeks
"spouting the usual platitudes," as she said in her letter. When she
learned of her victory, she was stunned and thrilled. "Can you believe
this?" she said over and over, recalled a professor, Steve London, who
received a thank-you note from Ms. Rodham soon after her election. "I
think it was a form letter that went out to all the faculty," Mr.
As the year was ending , Ms. Rodham was working on a 92-page honors
dissertation on Saul Alinsky, the antipoverty crusader and community
activist, whom she described (quoting from The Economist) as "that
rare specimen, the successful radical."
Power and Activism
Beyond Mr. Alinsky, the treatise yields insights about its author.
Gaining power, Ms. Rodham asserted, was at the core of effective
activism. It "is the very essence of life, the dynamo of life," she
wrote, quoting Mr. Alinsky.
Ms. Rodham endorsed Mr. Alinsky's central critique of government
antipoverty programs that they tended to be too top-down and removed
from the wishes of individuals.
But the student leader split with Mr. Alinsky over a central point. He
vowed to "rub raw the sores of discontent" and compel action through
agitation. This, she believed, ran counter to the notion of change
within the system.
Typically, the paper, which received an A, was neatly typed,
exhaustively footnoted and even included a page of acknowledgments.
"Although I have no "loving wife" to thank for keeping the children
away while I wrote," Ms. Rodham said, "I do have many friends and
teachers who have contributed to the process."
In a listing of primary sources, Ms. Rodham reported that she met
three times with Mr. Alinsky and that he offered her a job. "After a
year trying to make sense of his inconsistency," she wrote, explaining
her demurral, "I need three years of legal rigor."