The inauguration was a year ago this week. Pundits and the press are saying how far we have come from the positive feelings the country had when Barack Obama became president. Now we are all hanging our heads and falling into despair.
I hate their commentary. You keep saying negative things and quoting poll numbers and people begin to feel negative. Barack Obama has accomplished a lot in his first year in office. He had a shit-load of tough things to handle. He had worked hard, passed important legislation and tried to be bipartisan while doing it. He even offered his biggest opponent to the presidency, Hillary Clinton, an important job, Secretary of State.
I met Hillary Clinton at the Drake Diner in November of 2007. It’s a local eatery in Des Moines, Iowa, and we were both there at five in the morning—she to be interviewed by all the major networks, me to sit in a booth in the background and drink hot coffee. I guess you could say I was window dressing. But I wanted to be there and I did get to meet her.
When there was a break in the interviews, she came to our booth. I leaned over, shook her hand (I had met her once before after a town hall meeting that previous January) and told her I was worried about her. Was she getting enough sleep? How did she do it every day? She knocked the so-called wood of the shiny booth table and said so far she was hanging in there, doing just fine. My husband John told me later he thought he saw a tear in her eye. John is from a large dramatic Irish Catholic family. His mother used to light blessed candles during a thunder storm. Tear in her eye? Hillary? I don’t think so. I was sure he was exaggerating.
Then came the iconic moment in New Hampshire. In Portsmouth, Marianne Pernold Young, a photographer standing behind a table where Hillary was talking with 16 women voters, asked her a similar question. “How do you do it? How do you keep upbeat and so wonderful?” And when Hillary replied about having help with her hair and then just went into the major guts of her life, her face pinked up, her armor crumbled, she got emotional.
“I just don’t want to see us fall backward as a nation. I mean, this is very personal for me. Not just political. I see what’s happening. We have to reverse it. Some people think elections are a game: who’s up or who’s down. It’s about our country. It’s about our kids’ future. It’s about all of us together. Some of us put ourselves out there and do this against some difficult odds.”
My God, yes. Difficult and impossible odds. Talk about having to have thick skin. But that’s what you need to be in politics, especially today when the color of your pantsuit can deflect from the important words you are saying or the actions you are implementing.
I am Hillary’s age. We both graduated from high school in 1965. We graduated from college in 1969. We heard the news about Martin Luther King being shot under the same circumstances—away at school, struggling with course work and social stuff and bam—the world changes in a second. And then in June, 1968, I’m doing final exams and Bobby Kennedy is assassinated. How do you cope? What makes any sense? We both had those same questions. But they took us down different pathways.
I got a job right out of college teaching English in a secondary school. I needed money and had to turn down two scholarships to get a master’s degree, because I wanted to get my life going, I wanted to get married.
I come from a family of English majors, readers, poetry lovers and classical music fanatics. That is the richness that I inherited. It swirled around me from the moment I could breathe. But we did not have money. My father died of a heart attack when I was 3. I have an older and a younger brother. My mother typed in our dining room to pay the bills. She was tough and took good care of us. By seventh grade she was working in downtown Chicago and I was in charge of laundry and cooking. I also looked out for my younger brother. And the widow-factor worked on me big time. “Make sure you can get a job after college, that you can support yourself and a family. Be a teacher. You’ll have the summer off and you’ll be home in time to take care of your kids.”
Make sure. Make sure. So there went the idea of going into advertising or just being a writer. The widow-factor blunted the master’s degree goal. And so did the Catholic-factor. My mother not only raised us to love music and literature, she also raised us in the Catholic Church. Hillary was a Methodist so she didn’t have nuns telling growing bodies that French kissing was evil. She didn’t have an acne-faced priest tell a roomful of girls not to masturbate, that the temptation was always there. How could he be sure about that temptation, someone asked? Because he knew, he said with a soft smile. Yikes.
Senior year we all had to assemble for a sex talk given by a married couple. Four girls asked what 69 meant and the couple kept evading and evading. Hell, maybe they didn’t even know!! Those were different times. While Hillary was attending the Maine East and Maine South co-ed high schools, earning her National Merit scholarship and experiencing the highs and lows of the debate team, I was buried in the library at the Academy of Our Lady, again Catholic, all girls. There I worked to get A’s to earn four scholarships and deal with the widow-factor. I did sing in the Chorus and worked on the small yearbook. Hillary was already becoming politically conscious. I was already dating my future husband and writing in my diary about that. But who could blame me? My mother sang the praises of marriage and family, pined for my father, had no interest in meeting someone else. She worked hard and worked for little pay because she did not have a college degree. My pathway was really chosen for me: and I was a good Catholic girl on top of it. When it was 1969 and the boomer world was exploding, I was not doing drugs or burning my bra. I was planning a wedding as soon as I could afford it.
While I lived on the south side of Chicago, Hillary came from a northwest suburb, Park Ridge. She had a hard-working father who did well in his own business. Her mother was a stay-at-home mom. She has two brothers as I do. Neither one of us was born with a silver spoon in her mouth. I married my high-school sweetheart, worked hard as a teacher, had children, went back to school to become a nurse, worked again. I’m living a good life.
Hillary is living an amazing life. She was more than just moved by the death of Martin Luther King. It shook her to the core. In time it changed her political affiliation from Republican to Democrat and made her certain that she wanted to go on to law school—Yale Law School.
I’m smart. That’s always been my big thing—I am smart. It gives me self-esteem. It’s something to get up for in the morning. I know who I am and what I do well—writing, medical research, parenting—so backing Hillary in her run for president of the United States was logical and true for me. I believe so much in my own abilities, why wouldn’t I believe in another woman’s abilities to run this country.
And if I am smart, Hillary is smarter. That’s one of the reasons I showed up at the Drake Diner. Out of all the candidates, Hillary was the most electable in my mind because of her smarts. She is on it. She gets the entire picture of things that go down. People use their votes for different reasons: he’s from my state, he’s a lawyer, she went to high school with me, he is a born-again Christian. After GWB, the only thing I thought we should be focusing on was to get someone in the oval office with brains. We did that. Barack Obama is extremely bright. I love the guy.
Hillary reminds me of my friend Carole Doris, who is also a lawyer. Carole and I went to Mundelein College, a school that no longer exists. Many all-girls schools collapsed because of economics and because girls wanted a coed situation. Mundelein was subsumed under Loyola University, the next door neighbor on the shore of Lake Michigan, the big school just waiting to take over the small one.
Carole and I both majored in English and minored in education. I would study six hours for our Victorian Lit test. Carole would study two. She’d get an A and I’d get a B. Always. I’m smart. But Carole Doris is Hillary-smart. She is now Chairman of the Metra Board in Chicago—that means she’s a big wig in transportation. But Carole can tear up like Hillary and she cooks like a gourmet. I saw a different side of her when she planned wedding showers the summer we both got married—1970. She was all about making favors and playing party games. I’m sure Hillary has spent time in the kitchen preparing food for a birthday party or a family dinner. She says she’s familiar with the heat of the kitchen. Hillary is a wife and a mother who doesn’t always have a chef with a big white hat working the stove.
Hillary’s school, Wellesley, in Massachusetts, is still going strong, an all-girls school with a population of 2,318 students. The school motto is: “Non Ministrari sed Ministrare” – “Not to be ministered unto, but to minister.” How fortuitous. In New Hampshire, was Hillary thinking of those words when she became emotional and talked about wanting to reverse what has happened in this country?
Or was she worrying about her hair? I can answer that—no.
Hillary Rodham was all about course work and career and using her smarts. Hillary Clinton is still that person. If we had gone to school together, I might have spent some time with her talking about the spiral helix or the true meaning of Faulker’s THE BEAR, but I don’t think we would have been tight close friends. My insecurities dictated some of the friend-moves I made. In college I fought the battle of beauty versus brains. The Mundelein was preparing materials to send out to high schools to lure young women to our programs. Five girls were selected from my dorm for photographs. Coming and going to class in my tattered raincoat or my one special Garland sweater, I saw them posing: on the college steps, sitting on the porch of the old library, reading in the lounge. It made me sick. These were the rich, well coiffed, well heeled girls who wore too much makeup. They didn’t represent Mundelein as far as I was concerned. The ones with the smarts did. Like Carole. Or maybe me. But I was learning what pushes people’s buttons.
Even as a junior in college with my 2.5 out of 3.00 and other activities I was trying to be the best on all fronts. I was kind of obsessed. I tried out for the college board. In the sixties that didn’t mean I was going to be on a quiz show or that I would be honored at my college—it meant that I had a friend take my picture and I filled out a form that I picked up at the department store Caron Pirie Scott in downtown Chicago. Carsons hired 100 female college students to work in the junior clothing departments at the downtown and suburban stores. College board girls wore the same outfit and had their pictures up on the walls at the store. We were featured in an article in the newspaper. What were we really? Salesgirls. But at that time of my life, being on the college board was huge. When I was accepted I not only had a good summer job, but I had glamour and praise for my looks. I hate admitting that.
Hillary certainly did not work on the college board. I imagine that her summer jobs dealt with social justice. I know that after we graduated, in the summer of 1969, I worked for an agency that handled workman’s compensation. I pulled cords on an old switchboard and typed up the information that members of the various unions had written done on their claim forms. Where did the accident occur? Answer: in the bedroom. How did the accident occur? The usual way. These labor people needed to create a different form for women who were applying for aid because they were pregnant!!
While I was slowly learning that women were still on the sidelines in so many ways, Hillary was doing odd jobs as she traversed Alaska. There wasn’t much social justice in washing dishes in the Mount McKinley Nation Park, but there was in the work she did at the processing cannery in Valdez. When she blew the whistle on the awful working conditions, they fired her. But they were shut down overnight also. I don’t think Hillary was thinking about glamour. Her consciousness was definitely raised.