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Hillary Clinton: the early years

In an interview with “Today” host Katie Couric, the New York Senator talks about her early political influences.
/ Source: TODAY

Former First Lady and now New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s long-anticipated memoir called “Living History” went on sale Monday. Katie Couric sat down with the senator this past weekend, and, among many other things, asked Mrs. Clinton about her trailblazing role when she was a student at Wellesley College.

Couric: “You graduated from Wellesley in 1969. You were the first student commencement speaker.”

Clinton: “Right.”

Couric: “And that was quite controversial as was some of the content of your speech. Was that your first experience being at the center of a storm, being a so-called lightning rod — a term that would haunt you really for the rest of your life?”

Clinton: “You know, it probably was. You know- — we had never had a student speaker. And my fellow students came to me and said, ‘You know, we really want somebody to speak about the experience we’ve had.’ We went to college at such a momentous time of change in America for women’s lives, for civil rights, for the Vietnam War and the opposition to it. We experienced so much. We were not the same girls that we had been when our parents dropped us off at college four years earlier. And it was a little controversial because — I tried to explain that — protesting against authority and raising question about what your government does is in the tradition of American patriotism. I think, that’s true today as it was all those years ago. ”

Couric: “When you went to Yale law school, you met Bill Clinton. ”

Clinton: “I did. ”

Couric: “It’s hard to believe, given the person he is today, that you found him quite shy. ”

Clinton: “I did, that’s really true. I write about it in the book. You know, he had a very long beard and very long hair. I’d say he looked like a Viking from Arkansas. I knew that underneath that was a very handsome — young man. And we started talking and found we had so much in common, even though our experiences growing up were quite different. But we shared this abiding commitment — to, you know, trying to make the world a better place. That sounds so — oh I guess…”

Couric: “Corny. ”

Clinton: “…hopeful and optimistic. And yes absolutely corny. But that is what we believed then. It’s what I still believe now. ”

Couric: “You write about his hands. You say one of the first things I noticed about Bill Clinton was the shape of his hands. His wrists are narrow and elegant and his long fingers deft, like those of a pianist or a surgeon. When we first met in law school I loved just watching him turn the pages of a book. ”

Clinton: “That’s what I can put into the book. You know, I had an immediate attraction to him. He’s like a force of nature. There isn’t anyone I’ve ever met — like him. And we started a conversation all those years ago that, you know, continues up until today.

Couric: “In 1974, seeing how the country was reeling under the pressures of Watergate and the Nixon administration, you got a job on the House Judiciary Committee researching the legal grounds for Presidential impeachment, something, which perhaps, eerily foreshadowed what your husband might face 30 — would face 30 years later. What did you learn, primarily from that experience? ”

Clinton: “It was such a careful, thoughtful, professional undertaking. It was non-partisan. It became bi-partisan when the evidence was presented — - to the House committee — high standards as to what should be done when undertaking such a serious constitutional matter as considering the impeachment of a President.

It really helped me evaluate what went on all those many years later and the stark contrast between the kind of partisan and rather reckless preceding that happened in 1998. ”

Couric: “After your work in Washington was over, you moved to Arkansas, eventually got married to Bill Clinton. How hard was it for a Chicago raised, Wellesley, Yale Law educated, I am woman hear me roar person to go to Arkansas and, kind of, make your career secondary to his? Did you resent that at all?”

Clinton: “No, I — you know, I had to make a decision whether I was going to follow my heart or not. Because Bill was so committed to living and working in Arkansas. I had the belief that I could have productive and engaged life anywhere. ”

Couric: “He became the Attorney General of Arkansas and then briefly considered running for the presidency in 1988. In 1991, he decided to jump in the ring. You write that you were, quote, ‘Unprepared for the hard ball politics and relentless scrutiny that comes with a run for the presidency.’ But this wasn’t your first foray into politics. Why was it so different on a national level?”

Clinton: “You know, in Arkansas, although Bill had fought campaigns and although I had, you know, worked on behalf of other Presidential candidates — Democratic nominees in ’72 and ’80 — ’76 and ’80 and ’84 and ’88, I — nothing prepares you for that red hot spotlight that comes when your husband decides he’s going to run for president. And all of a sudden, there you are in the national spotlight.

And, unfortunately, we were entering into a period where, you know, the politics of personal destruction became — one of the means for trying to win elections. So, it was difficult. It was a very challenging time. But I wanted my husband to run. I thought he would do a good job for our country.”

Couric: “On the campaign trail, he joked, ‘Buy one, get one free.’ ”

Clinton: “I know, that didn’t go over so well. ”

Couric: “No, it didn’t. Can you see though, why people might be bugged by that, Senator Clinton? ”

Clinton: “Absolutely. ”

Couric: “I mean, they really weren’t interested, some of them, in ordering the combo platter, frankly.

Clinton: “I and I don’t blame them. You know, but we had worked so closely together. And in Arkansas, he’d asked me to head up his committee to try to revamp the standards for public education. And I’d headed up a committee on rural health care. ... I’d always thought it would be wonderful experience to be able to help. So, I really didn’t understand the buzz saw that I was running into.

Couric: “In January of 1992, there was, what a staffer of your husband called, a quote, “Bimbo eruption.” He told you the rumors of the 12 year affair with Jennifer Flowers weren’t true. And campaign advisers wanted the two of you to go on 60 Minutes together. ”

Clinton: “Right — you know, it was hard. But I have always believed and I believe everything I’ve been through that public officials should be judged on their public actions and that’s how a voter should make a decision. ”

Couric: “Then why go on 60 Minutes and talk about it? ”

Clinton: “Well, in part, because we were just getting acquainted with the American public. People didn’t really know us. They didn’t know a lot about the good things he’d done or the program he had for the country. And so, we decided we would do that. And it was — obviously, a very difficult experience.

Couric: “Do you regret saying, “you know, I’m not sitting here, some little woman standing by man like Tammy Wynette.”

Clinton: “Well, I apologized to Tammy Wynette. And I really didn’t, in any way, mean it to reflect on her but on her song, obviously. And she and I had some good laughs about that. ”

Couric: “Then there was the famous comment that you made, when you talked about instead of working that you, quote...

[Clinton (on tape)]: I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession which I entered before my husband was in public life.”]

Couric: “That again created a huge brouhaha. Can you understand, Senator Clinton, now, how women staying at home, raising a family, leading very full lives would feel dissed by that comment?”

Clinton: “Well, that’s why I write about it in the book and put it into context. Because I was just horrorstricken when even some of my friends — who only saw the television reports — called and said, “What was that about?” And I had to explain that — you know, I felt that — I was trying to demonstrate that women make different choices in our lives. And — and we’re so lucky to be living in this country at this time, being able to do that. And what I’ve tried to do is to — as you know — balance those responsibilities. And it’s not easy. And... ”

Couric: “But back then it sounded…”

Clinton: “Yeah. ”

Couric: “… kind of, haughty and obnoxious. ”

Clinton: “Well, it — you know … ”

Couric: “Do you — I mean, would you…”

Clinton: “… it’s still certainly…”

Couric: “…concede that choice of words.”

Clinton: “Oh, well, certainly the way it was portrayed was 180 degrees from what I meant, what I was trying to say. But I learned some very tough lessons — to be much more careful in how I express myself and, you know, to be much more aware of the implications of my words. Again, that was something that I had to learn the hard way. ”

Couric: “This book obviously starts from when you were quite a little girl…”

Clinton: “Right.”

Couric: “…growing up in Chicago. And you write that you grew up, ‘Between the push and tug of my parents’ values and my own political beliefs…’ You also talk about two people outside the family, that had a powerful influence on your thinking, the Reverend Don Jones and your 9th grade history teacher Paul Carlson. ”

Clinton: “Right. ”

Couric: “Can you tell me briefly what you gained from all those people and how they helped shape who you are today politically?

Clinton: “Well, you know, Katie, when I was writing this, I had the chance to think back to the kind of childhood I had which was secure and safe and in a neighborhood where families looked out for each other’s children and where we went to great schools and had wonderful parks. And I really did grow up between my parents’ different views of the world. My father was a very conservative, rock-ribbed Republican, a small businessman. But he believed in self-reliance. He taught me to just be as — everything I could be. And my mother who had a much more difficult childhood — really deprived and neglected — just poured her love and attention into me and my brothers. And she was a closet Democrat in a very Republican community.

My youth minister really opened my eyes to the rest of the world.

Here we were in a very sheltered, suburban upbringing. He took us into the inner city to meet with young African-American and Hispanic kids in church basements. And then my 9th grade social studies teacher was a real conservative. And he helped me understand the values of people that he revered like — Douglas McArthur for example. So, I had wonderful exposure to a full range of experiences and political beliefs and values that I don’t know I would have gotten if I hadn’t had the parents I had, the teachers, the ministers that I had — when I was growing up. ”

Couric: “Well, you were a Goldwater girl…”

Clinton: “That’s right. ”

Couric: “…all the way down to the cowgirl outfit. ”

Clinton: “That’s right. I was a Goldwater girl. ”

Couric: “And you were elected president of the Young Republicans. But then found yourself leaning in another direction. I guess, as a result of your participation in the mock election debate. ”

Clinton: “That’s right. Well, in the 1964 election, I, certainly, was a Goldwater girl. That was, you know, my father’s candidate. That’s what I believed. And I had a very smart senior high school government teacher who took me aside and said, ‘I want you to play the role of Lyndon Johnson in the mock election debate.’ And he went to about the only girl who considered herself a Democrat in our school and said, ‘And I want you to play the role of Senator Goldwater.’

I was really upset at first because I was such a Goldwater fan. But it forced to me to have to look at and rethink that which would not have otherwise come my way. So, that by the time I got to college I really had to start thinking about what I believed, you know, not my father’s or my mother’s or my teacher’s or anyone else’s beliefs. And as a result, I concluded that I was more independent than I had originally thought I was. And I began to look more closely at political ideas and evolved my own convictions and values.