Hillary’s Biggest Decision

By Jon WienerOctober 28, 2016

    Hillary’s Biggest Decision

    Living History by Hillary Clinton. Simon & Schuster. 566 pages.

    AMONG HILLARY CLINTON’S many historic achievements, one tends to be forgotten: in 2000 she got the highest advance for a book in the history of American publishing. That came at the end of the Clintons’ eight years in the White House, when Simon & Schuster agreed to pay $8 million for a memoir that included a chapter on Bill and Monica. Only one person in the world had ever gotten a bigger advance: the Pope.

    The memoir, titled Living History, was published in 2003. It has plenty of boring chapters — lots of state dinners and world travels. The one about what she calls “the Lewinsky imbroglio” contained nothing really new. But the story of her early years is still fascinating, and still raises one very big question. The key chapter in the book is the one about the biggest decision in her life, in 1974, when she moved from Washington, DC to Little Rock to be with Bill. She quotes friends who begged her not to do it — they said she could have a stellar career in politics without Bill, and that Arkansas was the backwoods compared to her world in Washington, where she had worked on the House committee impeaching Nixon. Moving to Arkansas meant she spent the next 26 years as a political wife, abandoning the promising start she had made on a political career of her own. At a time when the women’s movement was rising, Hillary would devote her remarkable energy and talents to advancing her husband in the world, instead of herself — taking on the traditional role of the wife. The question is simple: why?

    Hillary Rodham had become a famous voice of her generation in 1969, when Life magazine featured her for her antiwar commencement speech at Wellesley. To get the full story of the future she decided against, you have to go to Carl Bernstein’s 2007 biography, A Woman in Charge. At Yale Law School, “she was a recognizable star,” Bernstein writes, “much discussed among the law school’s students, known as politically ambitious, practical, and highly principled.” She also met Bill, who soon was pursuing her. In 1972, when antiwar senator George McGovern won the Democratic nomination to challenge Nixon, Bill and Hillary went to Texas to help run the McGovern campaign there. “To the women working in McGovern’s Texas campaign,” Bernstein wrote, “Hillary seemed to be on her way to an exceptional career in politics.”

    She made a best friend in Texas: Betsey Wright, a native Texan who told Bernstein that she was “less interested in Bill’s political future than Hillary’s. I was obsessed with how far Hillary might go, with her mixture of brilliance, ambition, and self-assuredness.” That was a huge year for women in Texas politics: “Sissy” Farenthold was running for governor, after being the only woman elected to the Texas House, where she had co-sponsored an Equal Rights Amendment to the Texas Constitution.

    Hillary’s other new best friend in the Texas McGovern campaign was Sarah Ehrman, a Brooklyn housewife and liberal activist 15 years older than Hillary. She nicknamed Hillary “Fearless” for her work canvassing in rough neighborhoods. She considered Hillary a “‘brilliant and dazzling’ embodiment of the women’s movement and all its promise.”

    After McGovern’s defeat, and their graduation from law school, Bill moved back to Arkansas to launch his own political career with a run for Congress. He wanted Hillary to come with him — and marry him — but she had a huge opportunity in Washington: the Nixon impeachment investigation was starting, and the chief counsel for the House Judiciary Committee, John Doar, offered Hillary a job on the impeachment committee staff. She took it. She also persuaded Betsey Wright to move to Washington to organize the National Women’s Political Caucus. Betsey, Bernstein writes, “believed she could help Hillary eventually become America’s first woman president.” That was in 1974, 42 years ago.

    It was a heady time for the women’s movement: the Equal Rights Amendment had passed Congress in 1971–’72, and gone to the states for ratification. When Hillary was working on the Nixon impeachment, 32 states had ratified it pretty quickly, and it looked like it was on its way to getting the 38 it needed to become part of the Constitution. In 1973, the women in Congress included Margaret Chase Smith in the Senate. A courageous Republican who had spoken out against Joe McCarthy, she had won election to succeed her husband whose heart attack had made impossible for him to run for reelection. That was the old way women got elected to office — let’s call it “The Margaret Chase Smith path.” The 13 women in the House in 1973 included several who had demonstrated the new way women got elected — in their own right. They included including the feminist firebrand Bella Abzug and the civil rights hero Shirley Chisolm. It wasn’t hard to see Hillary Rodham among their ranks.

    Hillary did have a plan that included Bill: he would win that seat in the House and start his term in Washington in January 1975, just as Nixon’s impeachment would be ending. She would be 27, and, as one of three women on the impeachment committee staff, she would be a prominent and promising political figure with a husband in Congress.

    Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974. But instead of seeing what her new prestige could get her in Washington, that day Hillary accepted an offer to teach at the University of Arkansas Law School in Fayetteville. She would marry Bill and spend the next decades in Arkansas as his wife.

    Her friends were appalled. Sara Ehrman, Hillary wrote in Living History, said, “Are you out of your mind? Why on earth would you throw away your future?” On the road from Washington to Arkansas — Ehrman drove with her in her VW — Hillary recalled that “every few miles, she asked me if I knew what I was doing.” She also recalled her answer: “No, but I’m going anyway.”

    The move seemed “wildly tragic,” one of her classmates at Wellesley told Bernstein. She added that “[t]he political world was ready for truly independent women […] we know she could have been president if she had just not even married him.” And her friend Betsey Wright had moved from Texas to Washington in 1973 “with the specific idea of advancing the electoral career of Hillary Rodham.” Wright told Bernstein that she “had no doubt that Hillary could have reached the Senate or perhaps the presidency on her own.”

    “I was driving toward a place where I’d never lived and had no friends or family,” Hillary wrote in Living History. “I chose to follow my heart instead of my head.”

    In that first post-Watergate election, 75 Democratic freshman were elected to Congress — but not Bill Clinton. He lost by six thousand votes. Now Hillary was really in trouble. “I wasn’t sure what to do with my life,” she writes in Living History. But he bought them a house in Fayetteville without telling her beforehand, and she went ahead with the wedding plans.

    People these days still want to know, she says, whether she thinks she made the right decision by becoming a wife in Arkansas instead of pursuing a political career in Washington. “All I know is that no one understands me better and no one can make me laugh the way Bill does,” she writes. “He is still the most interesting, energizing, and fully alive person I have ever met.” That marks the end of the first part of her memoir.

    And payback time came — eventually. When Bill was elected president, 20 years after Hillary moved to Arkansas, he “handed over huge chunks of responsibility to his wife on policy and appointments not only because he thought she was brilliant, but because he felt he owed her — for giving up the career she could have had,” and moving to “a place she didn’t want to go (Arkansas).” That’s not in Living History — it’s from Maureen Dowd.

    So the official story is that she gave up a promising political career for love. But you have to wonder if that’s the whole story. Perhaps she was more cautious that her feminist friends had suspected, more uneasy and uncertain about becoming an elected leader? Whatever her hidden doubts and anxieties, the result was clear: when she finally did run for president, 41 years after that move to Arkansas, she did so as the older kind of female candidate, following the Margaret Chase Smith path — your husband gets elected first, and then you run for the office he had occupied.

    Of course we don’t know what might have happened if she had followed the other path, the Bella Abzug path. Maybe her friends were wrong about her potential. Maybe she knew she was not a political natural like Bill. Maybe even if she had run for something, she wouldn’t have been successful. Or maybe she would have been elected to the House, from Illinois or Massachusetts, and that would have been it — nothing higher. Or maybe she really did do it for love.


    Jon Wiener is on the board of Los Angeles Review of Books and is at work on a book about Los Angeles in the 1960s with Mike Davis.

    LARB Contributor

    Jon Wiener is a professor of history emeritus at UC Irvine. His most recent books are Set the Night on Fire: L. A. in the Sixties, co-authored with Mike Davis, and  Historians in Trouble: Plagiarism, Fraud, and Politics in the Ivory Tower.  He is a contributing editor to and on the board of directors of Los Angeles Review of Books,  a contributing editor to The Nation, and host of a weekly afternoon drive-time interview show on KPFK 90.7 FM in Los Angeles.


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