By 2005, Dorothy Rodham didn’t need to walk to the National Zoo alone. After all, her son-in-law had been President and her daughter was then a United States Senator and an aide or companion could easily have been hired. The mother of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who died at age 92 on Tuesday this week, liked her time alone, she once told me, “just to think.” Even though she termed her walking by then “labored,” in one of the letters she wrote me over the years, she’d determined to make her trip a daily goal and kept at it steadily. Her treat in going to the zoo, however, was not in observing the exotic beasts behind bars: “I find myself watching the people more than the animals.”
We first met at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens where I, writing a forecast of what sort of history her daughter might make as a potential First Lady, interviewed her briefly the day before the July 1992 Democratic National Convention. Without pause, she predicted that Hillary would most be like Eleanor Roosevelt, the former First Lady whose global humanitarian work led to her being called “First Lady of the World.” Mrs. Rodham then seemed pained she might be bragging and added humbly, “Of course, I am her mother.”
Despite our multi-generation gap, we hit it off – because we were both Gemini, she said. I once visited her at home in Little Rock, Arkansas (where she lived during the Clinton gubernatorial and White House years), doing research in preparation for Hillary’s upcoming 50th birthday celebration. In her townhouse, she guided me down the cellar stairs, the wall lined with old family pictures, each with a story. I’d called an airport cab but the mother of arguably, by then, one of the world’s most famous women, insisted I stay for cake after which she drove me herself.
Ultimately, she extended an incredible trust of discretion, not naively, but with the best hope it would be honored, and which effected the ensuring of it. Often, she offered astute observations on the feigned persona of political figures she’d met, expressing “disappointment,” yet always balanced with a grounded understanding for their perspective. She saw people as people, regardless of their status. No matter her access to power, Mrs. Rodham lacked presumption or entitlement, and her emotions ranged from strength to sentimentality. While in Chicago to celebrate Hillary’s birthday in 1997, she didn’t trust her emotions to join her children in their first nostalgic visit back through the rooms of the house where they’d grown up. Later in the day, after being hailed to great applause with Hillary on the Oprah Winfrey Show, I asked how it felt to be glorified a bit by the great one. I got a classic Mrs. Rodham response – a big-deal shrug, a smirk of a smile, and a roll of the eyes.
At the White House Millennium New Year’s Party, I introduced my friend Peter McManus, who’d just completed a round-the-world tour, to “Dorothy” and they chatted amiably about foreign countries. When I later referred to her as Mrs. Rodham, he was shocked. “Hillary’s mother? But she’s like everyone’s mom!” In fact, I saw that maternal nature in action that night when a guest spilled some raspberry sauce on their tuxedo and she fretted until getting her hands on a damp napkin to help. She wrote me with congratulations when I permanently quit smoking and never failed to ask about my old dog. She began one letter by apologizing for writing on yellow legal lined paper, “but I haven’t bought any stationery lately.”
We never lived in the same place at the same time. Mrs. Rodham moved to Washington after Hillary was elected to the Senate, the same month I moved to California. She never ceased to sigh, “I’m so jealous,” often adding, “I really wanted them to move to California after the White House.” What makes this interesting as a reflection on her character is the fact that she’d been put on a train as a young girl, guardian to her younger sister, when both were sent away by their ill-equipped parents to live with their unwelcoming paternal grandparents. Much has been written about her grim youth with them in Alhambra, a Los Angeles suburb, yet while she never avoided that aspect of it when asked, her eyes brightened and her smile broadened when she recalled life in southern California. As she wrote me in 2005: “I grew up in California when it was really the wide open spaces, and I loved it. There wasn’t a morning I didn’t look to the mountains. On the walk to school I would cut through an orange grove. When the trees were in blossom it was intoxicating. Even the freshly turned earth had a fresh, acidic smell.” She was downright rhapsodic when she spoke about the extensive and efficient light-rail system that could take her all over Los Angeles, impervious to my complaints that it was destroyed and never rebuilt.
That optimistic core extended to her view of the future of the United States as well, and this older, white, Protestant Midwestern woman felt particular hope after her first wider exposure to people of different backgrounds when she was already well into her 80’s. “After living in Little Rock,” she wrote about her life in the nation’s capital city, “I find the cultural mix and the ethnicity amazing.” She wrote about attending her 1997 grammar and high school reunions: “Anyone who thinks the next generation won’t make it should visit a school like mine. [There are] Twenty-four different languages [and] fifty-four countries [reflected] in the student backgrounds and they have about 60 % going to good colleges, [and] have won more Westinghouse Science awards than anyone. I loved it.”
Herself of Native American, French and German ancestry (“Maybe it’s true about being Italian,” she also speculated), a Democrat married to a Republican, a resident of the Midwest, South, West and Northeast, and once a neighbor to a same-sex couple, Dorothy Rodham had a worldly perspective. She listened with full engagement whenever someone was speaking about something she knew nothing about, be it a remote part of the world or a concept, always excited by knowledge. In later years, she took college courses, a fact which her family spoke of with great pride. One late autumn afternoon as we sat in the kitchen of then-Senator Clinton’s home, I told her I was postponing an intended trip to Japan. With amazing recall of the smallest details, she took me on her visit there a decade earlier. The sun was setting but her eyes were shining bright, as she concluded, “There’s nothing like seeing a place with your own eyes that’s always been stuck in your mind.”
Why write so publicly about a woman who was a private citizen? I can’t help but see the pebble-in-the-lake affect that Mrs. Rodham may have had on millions of people unaware of her. Determining how relatives influence the world view of a political figure and how that official then translates personal values into public policy is perpetually intriguing but ultimately speculative. Parents are often overly credited or blamed for how their children turn out, famous or otherwise. As Hillary Clinton toils on into her fourth year as Secretary of State, perpetually globe-trotting, negotiating treaties, facing down dictators and encountering one new, unrelenting crisis after another, this new “First Lady of the World” retains boundless optimism about the future, stirs with fresh curiosity about unfamiliar cultures, and stands solidly impervious to those hostile to the labels placed on her.
Apart from whatever critique may be made of any foreign policy she has led, Secretary Clinton’s respect for the thousands of individual human beings with whom she engages around the world is unequivocal, regardless of their status. When the full measure of Mrs. Clinton’s humanitarianism is assessed, the touch of Mrs. Rodham’s hand on that of her daughter’s will also be felt.
- Clinton’s mother, Dorothy Rodham, dies at 92 (cnn.com)
- Hillary Clinton’s mom, Dorothy Rodham, dies at 92 (abclocal.go.com)
Categories: First Ladies