Hillary Clinton: A commander-in-chief in waiting
With less than three weeks left until the nation elects a new president, Democratic nominee Hillary Rodham Clinton remains a controversial figure. She is revered by some as a powerful female role model and reviled by others as a champion of corporate capitalism. Voters in the middle admire her ability to get things done, yet complain that her public persona is aloof and guarded. Those who personally know Clinton tell a very different story, however. Friends and close colleagues describe her as warm, compassionate and very caring.
So who is the real Clinton? Even she acknowledges that her reputation has been tarnished by a general misunderstanding, or mischaracterization, of who she truly is. In 2007, Clinton joked about this very problem during an interview with NBC:
"Well, as someone close to me once said, 'I'm probably the most famous person you don't really know.’"
Clinton was born on October 26, 1947 in Chicago and raised in the suburban town of Park Ridge, Illinois. Her father owned a small textile business and was born to a coal mining family in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Throughout her first campaign against President Barack Obama in 2008 and her recent run against Donald Trump, Clinton has often invoked her father and his ties to coal country. It’s a way to connect with conservative voters in Appalachia and beyond. Despite her $30 billion pledge to revive coal country by creating new economic opportunities - featuring broadband, new roads and tax incentives - many voters in those areas do not trust Clinton. They reject her promise to put people back to work by creating new jobs and new industries. These miners want to “legalize coal” and many feel Trump is the man for that particular job.
This divide highlights Clinton’s ongoing struggles throughout her campaign. She is a capable woman with a proven record of accomplishing great things, but many people simply don’t like her. That’s not news to Clinton, who has broken glass ceilings throughout her entire life. In 1961, when she was about 13 years old, Clinton sent a letter to NASA asking how to become an astronaut. The space agency allegedly responded by thanking her for the letter, but reminding the young girl that women could not become astronauts.
“It was the first time I had hit an obstacle I couldn’t overcome with hard work and determination, and I was outraged,” Clinton wrote in her 2003 memoir, “Living History.”
NASA’s alleged rejection might have served as an early example of how to persevere despite the odds. She never did pursue a career in science or engineering, but she did forge ahead in establishing herself as a political animal during high school. Influenced her by Republican father, Clinton considered herself a conservative during her formative years and even signed on as a Goldwater Girl in support of Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, who ran for president in 1964 against President Lyndon B. Johnson.
“I liked Senator Goldwater because he was a rugged individualist who swam against the political tide,” Clinton wrote in “Living History.”
She credits her high school history teacher and her Methodist youth minister for encouraging conservative values. During high school, the budding politician campaigned for President Richard Nixon, volunteered to check voter registration lists for fraud, served as the vice president of student council, wrote for the school newspaper and was selected to the National Honor Society. She briefly met civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. at a 1962 speech in Chicago.
As a senior in high school, Clinton ran for student body president against two boys. When she lost, one of them reportedly wrote a note saying, “You are really stupid if you think a girl can be elected president.” She was voted most likely to succeed that same year.
Clinton went on to attend Wellesley College in Massachusetts. She continued to champion the Republican party during the course of her freshman and sophomore years, but gradually her views on the Vietnam war and Civil Rights Movement began to change and she started to identify more and more as a liberal. When King was assassinated in 1968, Clinton organized a two-day strike on campus and worked closely with black classmates to recruit more African American students and faculty. She interned in Washington, D.C., during the summer of her junior year and went on to become the college’s first commencement speaker in 1969. Her first public speech was later published in LIFE magazine. In it, she famously said:
“What does it mean to hear that 13.3 percent of the people in this country are below the poverty line? That's a percentage. We're not interested in social reconstruction; it's human reconstruction. How can we talk about percentages and trends? The complexities are not lost in our analyses, but perhaps they're just put into what we consider a more human and eventually a more progressive perspective."
Clinton attended Yale Law School, where she met her husband, future President Bill Clinton, and got her first taste of life inside the Beltway through various internships and grants. She was assigned to Sen. Walter Mondale’s Subcommittee on Migratory Labor to research workers’ issues in education, health, sanitation and housing. By this time, the Illinois native already had experience fighting for workers’ rights, first as a volunteer in Chicago, ala Obama, and then during her summer in between college and law school when she spent several months sliming fish in Alaska. In fact, Clinton was instrumental in shutting down that processing plant after complaining about unhealthy work conditions.
Eventually, the Clintons relocated from Connecticut to Arkansas, where the young couple began their collective trajectory towards the White House. In August of 1974, the future secretary of state became one of only two women faculty members at the University of Arkansas School of Law. Her early years in the south were largely spent championing children’s rights and practicing law. During this time, she defended a man accused of raping a 12-year-old girl. They struck a bargain, and the man pleaded to a lesser charge. Trump has repeatedly mentioned this particular case in recent weeks, accusing Clinton of allowing a rapist back onto the streets. For her part, Clinton called the ordeal a “terrible case” and went on to found a women’s crisis center in Arkansas.
Her work with children continued through her husband’s rise to governor. Her early law papers have been described by some legal scholars as belonging to “one of the more important scholar-activists” at the time. But like so many first ladies before and after, Clinton put aside her own political ambition to support her husband’s ascendancy. She would later say of this time in her life that she “chose to follow [her] heart instead of [her] head."
Clinton has rarely been accused to being overly emotional or even emotive. During this campaign season and especially in the three presidential debates, the former first lady remained cool and collected while Trump flailed and fumbled on stage. This ability to stay calm gave her the reputation as a formidable senator to New York from 2001 to 2009 and later U.S. secretary of state from 2009 to 2013. Yet her political acumen has also cost her some trust with voters. In 2012, when a coordinated attack in Benghazi, Libya, resulted in the deaths of several American diplomats, Clinton came under congressional fire for refusing to send additional security to the consulate. She took complete responsibility for what became known as the Battle of Benghazi, but the misstep has haunted her reputation and campaign. Clinton forged ahead yet scandal was never far behind.
In 2015, Clinton was plagued by “Servergate” after the state department revealed that she had used a personal email account maintained by a private server instead of using the federal email system. Political opponents accused Clinton of violating law, but she maintained that none of those emails contained state secrets. An FBI probe founds that thousands of emails were, in fact, classified. The federal agency concluded that it was "possible that hostile actors gained access to Secretary Clinton's personal email account,” but no criminal charges were filed against the former secretary of state.
Years of congressional hearings and her husband’s impeachment in 1998 have sullied Clinton’s reputation to some extent, yet her perseverance despite the odds might be the truest test of her character. Simply stated, she has never given up. She has never retreated. In the third presidential debate, Clinton seemed to muster all her patience just to share a stage with Trump. She smiled and even held her breath on multiple occasions while he wielded insults and disparaging remarks.
“On the day when I was in the situation room monitoring the raid that brought Osama bin Laden to justice, he was hosting ‘The Celebrity Apprentice.’” Clinton coolly remarked.
Clinton concluded the night by throwing punch after punch, and asserting her readiness to become the nation’s first woman president.