Chasing Hillary

Whether you revere or revile her, Hillary Rodham Clinton is a force of nature in America’s intense political climate. The first First Lady to hold a post-graduate degree, she was also the first president’s wife to assume a high-profile role in shaping national policy through an ambitious—and some would say overzealous—healthcare initiative. More than a decade later, as New York’s junior senator, she’s not only one of the most influential politicians in the Northeast, but widely regarded as the front-runner for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. It’s no surprise, then (though she’s technically not a Western New Yorker) that Clinton makes Spree’s list of powerful women.

I still remember when then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton made his 1992 appearance on Sixty Minutes. Not yet sure about the silver-haired Southerner, I remember being intrigued by the woman with the Junior League hairdo and enormous blue eyes sitting next to him. Unlike a lot of politicians’ wives, she spoke bluntly, looking directly at the interviewer. There was nothing coy about her—which was refreshing. I could even forgive her clumsy comment about Tammy Wynette’s song; it seemed pretty clear that like her husband, this woman was destined for a long engagement with the American electorate.

She was born Hillary Diane Rodham on October 26, 1947. The daughter of a conservative businessman and a traditional homemaker, she grew up in a Chicago suburb and attended public school. Clinton first became politically active at age sixteen, when she supported presidential hopeful Barry Goldwater. A star student at Wellesley, she presided over its chapter of the College Republicans. By 1968, she had moved toward the liberal end of the political spectrum, and on May 31, 1969, became the first student ever to deliver the school’s commencement address. With the Vietnam War protests as her historical backdrop, it was a speech that proved to be as prescient as it was controversial.

The first time I saw Clinton live, albeit from a great distance, was during her initial bid for the senate. Introduced at a rally by comedian/activist Bill Cosby, she was, at first, barely audible over the loud cheers. Within minutes, her exhortations equaled, both in volume and passion, the cheers of her young supporters. It was as surreal as any rock concert. The year was 2000—I had no idea that my next, brief encounter with the Yale Law School graduate would be up close and personal.

Just this past summer, Senator Clinton kicked off Biotech Partnership Day at the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. Through some delicate negotiations, thanks in large part to a friend with political connections, I had gained prior knowledge of Clinton’s July 31 visit. During the weeks leading up to that day, I prepared a set of interview questions—in between reading Living History, her 2003 memoir; It Takes a Village, her 1996 bestseller; and anything else I could get my hands on.

When the day for the interview opportunity finally came, I was surprisingly calm. Spree photographer Jim Bush and I drove to the Center of Excellence for Bioinformatics. Within a few minutes, we were greeted by Press Secretary Jennifer Hanley. The Secret Service agents were milling about, as were Clinton’s stalwart staffers, all dressed in smart navy blue pantsuits. In my white jeans and tank top, I felt a little underdressed. But at least I was keeping cool on what promised to be a sweltering day.

Clinton addressed the invitation-only crowd at the conference, cosponsored by Pfizer and New Jobs for New York, Inc. During her opening remarks, she promoted a plan to preserve Western New York’s “intellectual capital” while creating manufacturing jobs in the biotech industry. Immediately after her talk, reporters were directed to a small room, where Clinton took to the podium. After introducing Mayor Brown and others, she fielded questions on everything from biotechnology to Hezbollah.

The next stop was the Robinson Farms in Lockport, where Clinton unveiled her policy on upstate New York’s rural economy. Standing in front of a John Deere tractor in an enormous barn packed with local residents and the media, she still looked remarkably fresh in her beige pantsuit. (The rest of us were drenched.) As she talked about bringing broadband technology to the countryside and the importance of being competitive with countries like China, a nine-year-old boy named Todd worked his way through the crowd and began handing out cherries.

After her speech, the press, local residents, and anyone else who had survived the heat surrounded the charismatic woman. All were eager for a handshake or a photo op. Young Todd suddenly reappeared and burst into a solo rendition of “America the Beautiful.” Mrs. Clinton led the rousing ovation. Glancing at my watch, I started to have my doubts about getting in any of my own questions.

Just as I felt hope slipping away, I found myself six inches from the former First Lady and being formally introduced by Press Secretary Hanley. Flipping the record button on my tiny machine, I commented on the Magical Mystery Tour-like morning and asked Clinton how she could talk so easily on complex matters. She flashed her trademark smile. “It takes time to study up on everything, and my good staff keeps me informed about things that are going on. It’s part of my job.”

A car waiting to go to the airport had already pulled up outside the barn. I asked Clinton about her role during the 1970 student protests at Yale University. “Although your heart was with the so-called radicals, you maintained your father’s pragmatism. You were singled out as the voice of reason…”

Before I could continue, she interjected calmly, “Well, we’re goin’ through it again, aren’t we? The challenge is to try to figure out how to bring people together to seek some common ground because we have so many big problems. And that’s kind of how I see my role: to try to keep being a bridge. It’s not easy, because lots of times people want you on one side or the other.” By then, she’d already handed me back my copy of It Takes a Village, specially autographed for my daughter.

My own makeup having melted away hours ago, it seemed only natural to look her in the eye and chuckle, “How can you not sweat on a day like today?!” She simply smiled.

And then she was off—the lady from Park Ridge who married the man from Hope. Will she become the first woman leader of the Free World someday?

Only time will tell.

Originally published in the September/October 2006 issue of Buffalo Spree as part of a series on powerful Western New York women.

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