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Hillary Clinton, Wellesley Girl

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Flopped out in the Rio Grande Valley, nursing a cold, I've been reading Carl Bernstein's new Hillary biography, trying to get a better sense of a woman I might well vote for come November 2008. Right off let me say that Bernstein provides a good read--not just a page-turner but a nuanced portrait. The Clintons' unhappiness with the book shows more than anything how the space inhabited by the famous and powerful over time comes to be shut off from the rest of the world, like a little terrarium under a glass bell. For the Clintons should be pleased. Bernstein's Hillary is passionate, conflicted, idealistic and pragmatic in equal measure. Yes, she has faults, she makes mistakes--but who doesn't? If Bernstein had meant his biography to flatter, the book wouldn't be worth beach time because any reader with a grain of sense would know it wasn't true.

One small section of the Hillary book--her undergraduate years at Wellesley--I feel competent to judge, because I was not so far away at Vassar, '64-'68, and because two of my sisters were at Wellesley the same time as Hillary. For the most part, Carl Bernstein gets it right. Only a few of the supporting details are wrong, and I suppose we shouldn't expect a twenty-something research assistant to know that (1) Robert Reich, recalling his meeting Hillary in 1965, mis-remembers that she was wearing bell bottoms, which weren't worn by hippies until the late 60's and taken up by other women in the early 70's; (2) the birth control pill was not "easily available" for Hillary and her new boyfriend David Rupert in the summer of 1968 (appointment with ob/gyn off-campus required, and then, given the patriarchy of the profession, convincing sometimes needed); (3) pass/fail grading and inter-disciplinary majors were rising as dress codes and parietals were falling everywhere in the Ivy League, so it is misleading to suggest, as Bernstein does, that Hillary Rodham single-handedly brought these changes to pass at Wellesley.

But this is nitpicking. One of the best things about A Woman in Charge is that Bernstein lays out a strong case for Hillary's Methodist faith. Beginning in high school, and certainly at Wellesley, Hillary's Methodism was a social gospel engaged in civil rights and the anti-war movement. Not surprisingly, for young people often forsake the stricter tenets of their religion only to return to them later in life (certainly that was my path), Hillary Rodham's college (and law school) religious practice did not include chastity. Hillary had two serious college boyfriends with whom she lived for short periods of time; once she met Bill Clinton, she lived on and off with him for several years, before finally deciding to marry him. At the time, such choices at such schools were the rule, not the exception. I suspect that Hillary, just as I, did not give much thought to the disjunction between her faith and her sexual life. It was the Age of Aquarius, the Advent of Free Love, and many of us twenty-somethings of the 60's and 70's were swept up.

At the same time, other Wellesley women (my sister was one) lived their Christian faith differently. My sister (the older of my two sisters who went to Wellesley) and her friends sought the meaning of the personal rather than the social gospel. Although, like Hillary, they did their share of Good Works in poor neighborhoods, they expressed their faith primarily in prayer, Bible study, and attempts at evangelism (the kind of naive outreach that my sister laughs about today). Of course, nobody--certainly not reporters, who were covering Woodstock and the San Francisco scene rather than Campus Crusade--realized that Inter-varsity Christian Fellowships, like the one at Wellesley, were equally significant, that one day they would grow into the American political force the media calls "the Religious Right."

It's always easier to spot an injustice in the distance than the wrong close-to-home. At Wellesley, Hillary was concerned, genuinely, admirably, with the plight of blacks in the South. However, committed Christian though she was, Hillary seems never to have used her prominence in student government to speak out against the cruel ways in which other Wellesley girls taunted my sister and her friends, who were known as "The God Squad." Focussed on bringing poor black girls to her school (I assume that Wellesley, like Vassar, already included well-to-do black students), Hillary didn't notice the scholarship students already there. My sisters were two such. At that time, young women on scholarship at Wellesley were required to do small jobs around campus. Poorer girls were further stigmatized by the jumble bin of used clothing put aside for them. I recall my family's feelings of humiliation about these ways in which my sisters were set apart. Here was an injustice right on campus that a would-be reformer such as Hillary Rodham could have tackled. But as far as the poor were concerned, Hillary had her sights set farther away.

The difference between the ways Hillary and my sister lived the Gospel at Wellesley was a small harbinger of the coming divide in our country on matters of faith. Calling herself an agnostic intellectual liberal while engaged in a serious correspondence on doctrinal matters of faith and grace with her Methodist youth minister back home, Wellesley Hillary was searching, like any college student. But here in her complicated and sophisticated system of belief, in her youth, was a part of her that would someday inspire uneasiness in more conventionally-oriented fellow Christians and give her such a polarizing persona.

A rapprochement is on the horizon, and Barack Obama is not the only Christian trying to bring it on. Just as conservative Christians (so-called--obviously, I don't like any of the media's nametags) have taken on environmental responsibility, just as some Christians whose faith is traditionally Bible-centered are calling for a new war on poverty and reviving the activist faith of a half-century before, so Hillary Rodham Clinton herself has evolved. In the series of interviews with the Democratic presidential candidates on the subject of faith and politics, which appeared on CNN June 12 (see for a streaming video), Hillary talked about her faith. "I come from a tradition that is perhaps a little too suspicious of people who wear their faith on their sleeves," she said. Despite a mention of the Pharisees, she came close to suggesting that she may have been wrong.

[Note: A version of this post first appeared on my other blog From now on, that blog will be all Middle East and this blog will be American politics.]

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