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When They Were Young

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Becoming Hillary  

The Yale that greeted Hillary, in her bell-bottoms and sandals and clunky square-framed glasses, was awash in the tumult of the era. Every fad and faction of anti-Establishmentarianism was in full flower: hippies and Yippies, New Left and old, antiwar protesters and black-power agitators, silent-springers and draft dodgers. The main quadrangle, which had been declared a “liberated zone,” was blanketed with the sounds of Jimi Hendrix and the scent of Humboldt County. At the federal courthouse in downtown New Haven, the Black Panther chairman Bobby Seale and seven of his cohorts were set to go on trial the following spring for the murder of a fellow Panther. A massive student “uprising” was planned for May Day to demand that the charges against the Panthers be dropped because of the inherent unfairness of the “white man’s justice system.”

Hillary thrust herself squarely into the hurly-burly. She made fast friends with Medved and other antiwar activists in their class. Rather than joining the mainstream Yale Law Journal, she became an editor of a new alternative publication, The Yale Review of Law and Social Action, which was sympathetic to the Panthers. (To accompany pieces about the trial, it ran artwork depicting policemen as rifle-toting pigs, with thought bubbles over their heads that read “Niggers, niggers, niggers.”) She was among the student-observers who attended the trial to monitor it for civil-rights abuses and report back to the ACLU. There she met the radical lawyer Robert Treuhaft, for whom she would spend a summer working in Northern California. Hillary wanted “to work for a left-wing movement law firm,” Treuhaft later explained. “Anyone who went to college or law school would have known our law firm was a communist law firm.”

Many years after, conservatives would seize on all this as proof that Hillary was a pedal-to-the-metal radical at Yale. And Clinton’s lack of forthrightness about this slice of her history has only lent credence to the caricature. In her autobiography, Living History, she mentions the Panther trial only en passant and has maintained total silence about it elsewhere. Meanwhile, her description of Treuhaft’s militant outfit is comically innocuous: “a small law firm in Oakland.”

The truth is that Clinton, who had grown up the daughter of rock-ribbed Republicans in suburban Chicago, had moved steadily leftward during her time at Wellesley. The former Goldwater Girl who worked one summer for the conservative congressman (and future Nixon defense secretary) Melvin Laird had, by 1968, become a canvasser for Eugene McCarthy and a booster of John Lindsay. She had written her senior thesis on the rabble-rousing organizer Saul Alinsky and considered taking a job with him, and even 30 years later still spoke warmly of the writings of the Marxist theoretician and Students for a Democratic Society head Carl Oglesby.

But if Clinton’s moral sympathies were with the radicals, she adamantly eschewed their tactics. A bone-deep pragmatist, she would often say, in the midst of heated political debates, “You can’t accomplish anything in government unless you win!” She believed in the system; she “advocated engagement, not disruption or ‘revolution,’ ” as she later put it. When she’d told Alinsky that she was heading to law school, he huffed, “Well, that’s no way to change anything.” With great self-assurance, she told him that he was just plain wrong.

The utopian woolymindedness of the far left drove her fairly batty, too. As an editor on the Review, she read a draft of an article arguing that members of the counterculture, rather than taking up arms, should migrate in large numbers to a single state and take it over, allowing them to experiment with new lifestyles, marital rules, and modes of democracy. “This is mental masturbation,” she snapped at one of its authors. “Get down to earth.”

Being a stout Methodist, she also quailed at the moral relativism she encountered frequently in her law-school courses. She would later recount an example that today has particular resonance. “A hypothetical was being discussed about terrorists,” she told journalist Michael Kelly in 1993. “I remember sitting there listening to the conversation as so many people tried to explain away or rationalize their behavior. And I remember saying, ‘You know, there is another alternative. And the other alternative is that they are evil. I mean, you know? There are evil people in the world.’ ”

Thus did Hillary find herself stuck awkwardly in the middle at Yale, not so much between warring cadres as between her own inclinations. The tension she felt was hardly unique. “Few, if any, Yale law students thought of themselves as true revolutionaries or even modest rebels,” said Robert Reich, the former secretary of Labor and a law-school friend of the Clintons. “But we didn’t want to think of ourselves as part of the Establishment, either. Yet here we were at Yale, studying to be, well, lawyers. There was a certain amount of cognitive dissonance in play.”

Clinton dealt with that dissonance by embracing the center, throwing herself into the midst of the conflicts that arose, assuming the role of mediator. In the last week of April 1970, an arsonist set fire to the International Law Library. Hillary, horrified, rushed to join the bucket brigade that put out the blaze. A few days later, with the May Day student strike close at hand, a fractious assembly took place in the law school’s biggest lecture hall. The place was packed with protesters, professors, and administrators. Perched on a table in the front of the room, swinging one leg back and forth, Clinton took control of the meeting and calmed the angry crowd.

“It was almost like [she was] being a translator,” her classmate Kristine Olson recalled. “Somebody would say something in the typical rhetoric of the time. She would say, ‘I hear you saying this.’ Or, ‘If you could be in a room with Professor So-and-so, is this what you would say?’ Hillary did what nowadays would be called international summitry—flying back and forth between both sides … She’s always been one who sees the need for balance.”

Clinton’s own sense of balance was fragile, however. Before heading to Yale, she had written a letter to her youth-group minister back home in Illinois, asking plaintively, “Can one be a mind conservative and a heart liberal?” At the end of her 1-L year at Yale, the answer still eluded her. But in the next months, Hillary’s life would be would changed forever by two people—a man and a woman who would help her achieve, in her own mind, at least, the synthesis that she’d been so fervently seeking.


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