Returning to Yale, Hillary found that the paroxysms of her first year were a thing of the past. A weird calm had fallen over the place—with Kent State, the sixties had ended. And so Hillary turned herself to her new cause with energy and determination. She audited classes at the medical school dealing with children’s health. She spent time at the Yale Child Study Center, observing clinical sessions. She worked as a researcher for the authors of the landmark book Beyond the Best Interests of the Child. Soon she published papers of her own on the legal rights of children—papers that would later earn her derision on the right, which accused her, laughably, of contending that “12-year-olds should have the right to sue their parents.” (Thank you, Pat Buchanan.) Indeed, surveying this and her later work in the field, the historian Garry Wills would deem her “one of the more important scholar-activists of the last two decades.”
Hillary’s immersion in child advocacy consumed much of the rest of her time at Yale. Not that she stopped going to, or preparing for, class. “Her hand was always in the air, and her answers were usually cogent, thoughtful, and direct,” Reich remembers. “Bill, on the other hand, didn’t attend most classes, and when he did, he’d rarely read the cases. And Clarence Thomas sat in the back of the class with a skullcap on and didn’t say a word.”
Bill, of course, was Bill Clinton, whom Hillary started dating in the spring of 1971. “They were funny together, very lively,” one of Clinton’s roommates told the author David Maraniss. “Hillary would not take any of Bill’s soft stories, his southern-boy stuff.” Others could never quite figure out what Hillary saw in him. “The bottom line is, she’s much nicer than he is,” says one friend from that time. “He had no real idea of how to engage people in conversation. He would just tell them stories and try to entertain them. He was always looking for applause. But she was, and is, more grounded.”
Yet Hillary believed Bill had depths that escaped the notice of others. She also found attractive his political ambition, which was unabashed and apparently unlimited. “He talked to anyone who would listen about his plans to run for office, and there was a certain amount of humor in that,” according to Medved. “You really only had to know the guy for a very brief amount of time before the conversation turned to his political future.”
“I thought,” says Tribe, “his talents are such that there’s no ceiling to what he could achieve, and that included becoming president.”
No one ever doubted that Hillary was a match for Bill intellectually. What was surprising, however, was that she quickly demonstrated an aptitude for the political game that rivaled his. When they spent the summer of 1972 in Texas on the McGovern campaign, Hillary’s electoral savvy was apparent. “She got to the point,” one organizer, Sara Ehrman, recalled years later. “ ‘Where’s the Anglo vote? Where’s the Hispanic vote? Where’s the liberal vote?’ She was no novice in any respect.”
What Bill had that Hillary did not was a raw, all-consuming hunger for the validation that comes from elective politics. Hillary’s classmates had long assumed that she had political aspirations of her own. But, perceptive as she was, she could hardly have missed that he was a natural, while she was … not. (In high school she had been nicknamed Sister Frigidaire.) She decided to extend her studies at Yale an extra year in order to stay close to Bill, who had started at Yale a year after she had. But when he asked her to marry him after they graduated in the spring of 1973, she said no. “I never doubted my love for him, but I knew he was going to build his life in Arkansas,” she later said. “I couldn’t envision what my life would be like in a place where I had no family or friends.”
That summer, Hillary moved up to Cambridge to work for Edelman at the newly founded CDF. Bill, who admitted that marriage to him would be “a high-wire operation,” kept begging her to come to Arkansas, yet Hillary continued to resist—though her sense of loneliness was growing. At the end of the year, she was offered a chance to work on the House Judiciary Committee’s impeachment investigation of Nixon. She snapped it up.
When Nixon resigned in August 1974, Hillary faced a choice: return to the CDF or finally accede to Bill’s blandishments. It was not an easy call. With the guidance of Edelman, she was on a beeline to a career in activism. On the other hand, there was Bill, who by then had announced that he was running for Congress.
Among many of Clinton’s friends and classmates, the decision she made seemed a sign of early onset dementia. “Are you out of your mind?” exclaimed Ehrman. “Why on earth would you want to throw away your future?” To others, it seemed a kind of betrayal. “It’s hard to think of a sadder example of a person who couldn’t quite give up the old ideas,” Carl Bernstein, in his recent Hillary biography, quotes a Wellesley alumna as remarking. “Her way of moving towards electoral politics was to marry someone who was going to run … It just seems wildly tragic that we know she could have been president if she had just not even married him.”
The motivations behind Hillary’s choice would be the source of endless speculation. The idea that she made a pact with the devil, abjuring her own dreams and aspirations, for a man whom she somehow knew would wind up in the White House is absurd. But that doesn’t mean she hadn’t been seduced—both by Bill and by the promise, however uncertain, of political power. “It was clear that she wasn’t just going to be a governor’s wife,” one law-school friend says. “They were going to be a partnership, a team, and a powerful one.”