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A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton

Chapter One: Formation

I adored [my father] when I was a little girl. I would eagerly
watch for him from a window and run down the street to meet him on
his way home after work. With his encouragement and coaching, I
played baseball, football and basketball. I tried to bring home
good grades to win his approval.

–Living History

Hillary Rodham’s childhood was not the suburban idyll
suggested by the shaded front porch and gently sloping lawn of what
was once the family home at 235 Wisner Street in Park Ridge,
Illinois. In this leafy environment of postwar promise and
prosperity, the Rodhams were distinctly a family of odd ducks,
isolated from their neighbors by the difficult character of her
father, Hugh Rodham, a sour, unfulfilled man whose children
suffered his relentless, demeaning sarcasm and misanthropic
inclination, endured his embarrassing parsimony, and silently
accepted his humiliation and verbal abuse of their mother.

Yet as harsh, provocative, and abusive as Rodham was, he and his
wife, the former Dorothy Howell, imparted to their children a
pervasive sense of family and love for one another that in
Hillary’s case is of singular importance. When Bill Clinton
and Hillary honeymooned in Acapulco in 1975, her parents and her
two brothers, Hughie (Hugh Jr.) and Tony, stayed in the same hotel
as the bride and groom.

Dorothy and Hugh Rodham, despite the debilitating pathology and
undertow of tension in their marriage (discerned readily by
visitors to their home), were assertive parents who, at
mid-century, intended to convey to their children an inheritance
secured by old-fashioned values and verities. They believed (and
preached, in their different traditions) that with discipline, hard
work, encouragement (often delivered in an unconventional manner),
and enough education at home, school, and church, a child could
pursue almost any dream. In the case of their only daughter,
Hillary Diane, born October 26, 1947, this would pay enormous
dividends, sending her into the world beyond Park Ridge with a
steadiness and sense of purpose that eluded her two younger
brothers. But it came at a price: Hugh imposed a patriarchal
unpleasantness and ritual authoritarianism on his household,
mitigated only by the distinctly modern notion that Hillary would
not be limited in opportunity or skills by the fact that she was a

Hugh Rodham, the son of Welsh immigrants, was sullen, tight-fisted,
contrarian, and given to exaggeration about his own
accomplishments. Appearances of a sort were important to him: he
always drove a new Lincoln or Cadillac. But he wouldn’t
hesitate to spit tobacco juice through an open window. He chewed
his cud habitually, voted a straight Republican ticket, and was
infuriatingly slow to praise his children. “He was rougher
than a corncob and gruff as could be,” an acquaintance once
said. Nurturance and praise were left largely to his wife, whose
intelligence and abilities he mocked and whose gentler nature he
often trampled. “Don’t let the doorknob hit you in the
ass on your way out,” he frequently said at the dinner table
when she’d get angry and threaten to leave. She never left,
but some friends and relatives were perplexed at Dorothy’s
decision to stay married when her husband’s abuse seemed so

“She would never say, That’s it. I’ve had
it,” said Betsy Ebeling,* Hillary’s closest childhood
friend, who witnessed many contentious scenes at the Rodham dinner
table. Sometimes the doorknob remark would break the tension and
everybody would laugh. But not always. By the time Hillary had
reached her teens, her father seemed defined by his mean
edges–he had almost no recognizable enthusiasms or pretense
to lightness as he descended into continuous bullying, ill-humor,
complaint, and dejection.

In fact, depression seemed to haunt the Rodham men. Hugh’s
younger brother, Russell, a physician, was the “golden
boy” of the three children of Hannah and Hugh Rodham Sr. of
Scranton, Pennsylvania. When Russell sank into depression in 1948,
his parents asked Hugh to return to Scranton to help. Only hours
after his arrival, Russell tried to hang himself in the attic, and
Hugh had to cut him down. Afterward, Russell went to Chicago to
stay with Hugh, Dorothy, and their baby daughter in their already
overcrowded one-bedroom apartment. For months, Russell received
psychiatric treatment at the local Veterans Administration
hospital. Eventually he moved to a dilapidated walk-up in downtown
Chicago, worked as a bartender, and declined into alcoholism and
deeper depression until he died, in 1962, in a fire that was caused
by a lit cigarette. Hillary deeply felt her father’s pain
over the tragedy, she wrote.

Hugh’s older brother, Willard, regarded as the most
gregarious and fun-loving of the three, never left home or married,
and was employed in a patronage job for the Scranton public works
department. He resolved after his mother’s death to take care
of his father. He dedicated himself completely to the task for the
next thirteen years, and when his father died at age eighty-six in
1965, Willard was overwhelmed by despair. He died five weeks later
of a coronary thrombosis, according to the coroner’s report,
though Hillary’s brother Tony said, “He died of
loneliness. When my grandfather died, Uncle Willard was

Hugh Rodham, himself broken of spirit, his brothers and parents
dead, soon thereafter shut his business and retired. Not yet
fifty-five, he continued to withdraw. Later, both of
Hillary’s brothers, to varying degrees, seemed to push
through adulthood in a fog of melancholia.

In 1993, after Hillary’s law partner, close friend, and
deputy White House counsel Vince Foster committed suicide, she
approached William Styron, who had chronicled his own struggles
with depression in his acclaimed book Darkness Visible. The
conversation was not only about Foster’s suicide, but also
touched on the depression that seemed to afflict members of
Hillary’s family.

Hillary’s mother, a resilient woman whose early childhood was
a horror of abandonment and cruelty, was able to overcome
adversity, as would her daughter. Dorothy persevered through five
years of dating Hugh Rodham–during which time she worked as
his secretary and suspected he was continuing a relationship with
another woman–before she agreed to marry him, according to
family members. She and Hugh waited another five years to have
their first child. (Chelsea Clinton, too, was born in the fifth
year of her parents’ marriage.)

As intellectually broad-minded as her husband was incurious and
uninterested, as inclined to reflection as he was to outburst, she
fulfilled her lifelong goal of attending college in her late
sixties (majoring in psychology), after she and her husband moved
to Little Rock in 1987 to be near their daughter and grandchild.
Constantly evolving and changing (like her daughter), she managed
almost invariably to find a focus for her energy and satisfaction
despite the dissonance of a difficult life at home. As her husband
descended, she even became something of a free spirit, at turns
sentimental, analytical, spiritual, and adventurous. (Her favorite
movies were not those of her childhood, but The Adventures of
Priscilla, Queen of the Desert–
an Australian drag queen
romp–and the bloody classic Pulp Fiction.) Dorothy
taught classes at Sunday school (as would her daughter); Hugh
didn’t go to church on Sundays, saying he’d rather pray
at home.

Life in the Rodham household resembled a kind of boot camp,
presided over by a belittling, impossible-to-satisfy drill
instructor. During World War II, as a chief petty officer in the
Navy, Rodham had trained young recruits in the U.S.
military’s Gene Tunney Program, a rigorous phys-ed regime
based on the champion boxer’s training and self-defense
techniques, and on the traditional skills of a drill sergeant.
After the war, in which Hugh had been spared overseas duty and was
assigned to the Great Lakes Naval Station because of a bad knee, he
replicated the barracks experience in his own home, commanding
loudly from his living room lounge chair (from which he rarely
rose, except for dinner), barking orders, denigrating, minimizing
achievements, ignoring accomplishments, raising the bar constantly
for his frustrated children–“character building,”
he called it.

His control over the household was meant to be absolute; confronted
with resistance, he turned fierce. If Hillary or one of her
brothers had left the cap off a toothpaste tube, he threw it out
the bathroom window and told the offending child to fetch it from
the front yard evergreens, even in snow. Regardless of how windy
and cold the Chicago winter night, he insisted when the family went
to bed that the heat be turned off until morning. At dinner, he
growled his opinions, indulged few challenges to his provocations,
and rarely acknowledged the possibility of being proved wrong.
Still, Hillary would argue back if the subject was substantive and
she thought she was right. If Dorothy attempted to bring a
conflicting set of facts into the discussion, she was typically
ridiculed by her husband: “How would you know?”
“Where did you ever come up with such a stupid idea?”
“Miss Smarty Pants.”

“My father was confrontational, completely and utterly
so,” Hugh Jr. said. Decades later, Hillary and her brothers
suggested this was part of a grander scheme to ensure that his
children were “competitive, scrappy fighters,” to
“empower” them, to foster “pragmatic
competitiveness” without putting them down, to induce
elements of “realism” into the privileged lifestyle of
Park Ridge. Her father would tepidly acknowledge her good work, but
tell her she could do better, Hillary said. But there is little to
suggest that she or her brothers interpreted such encouragement so
benignly at the time. When Hillary came home with all As except for
one B on her report card, her father suggested that perhaps her
school was too easy, and wondered half-seriously why she
hadn’t gotten straight As. Hillary tried mightily to extract
some unequivocal declaration of approval from her father, but he
had tremendous difficulty in expressing pride or affection.

At the dinner table, Betsy Ebeling recalled, “Hillary’s
mom would have cooked something good, and her dad would throw out a
conversation topic, almost like a glove on the table, and he would
always say something the opposite of what I thought he really
believed–because it was so completely provocative and
outrageous. It was just his way. He was opinionated, and he could
be loud, and what better place to [be that way] than in his own

Unleashed, his rage was frightening, and the household sometimes
seemed on the verge of imploding. Betsy and the few other
girlfriends whom Hillary brought home could see that life with Hugh
Rodham was painfully demeaning for her mother, and that Hillary
winced at her father’s distemper and chafed under his
miserliness. Money was always a contentious issue, ultimately the
way in which he could exercise undisputed control, especially in
response to Hillary’s and Dorothy’s instinctive
rebelliousness and the wicked sense of humor they shared.

Sometimes his tirades would begin in the kitchen and continue into
her parents’ bedroom. Hillary would put her hands over her
ears. But the experience of standing up to her father also prepared
her for the intellectual rough-and-tumble that honed Hillary and
Bill Clinton’s marital partnership, and helped inure her in
the arena of political combat.

“I could go home to two parents who adored everything I
did,” said Betsy. “Hillary had a different kind of
love; you had to earn it.”

A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton
by by Carl Bernstein

  • Genres: Biography, Nonfiction
  • hardcover: 640 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf
  • ISBN-10: 0375407669
  • ISBN-13: 9780375407666