News & Politics

Carl Bernstein: Hillary’s Politics from 1968 to 2008

A conversation with Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein on Hillary Clinton's journey from Republican to radical to White House hopeful.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter on Watergate has recently published "A Woman in Charge," a biography of Hillary Clinton, for which he interviewed almost 100 of her friends and enemies. Carl Bernstein spoke recently with Truthdig's Jon Wiener about the first former first lady to make a bid for the presidency.

Jon Wiener: When Hillary arrived at Wellesley as a freshman in 1965, she was a Goldwater Republican. What happened then?

Carl Bernstein: Like many rather sheltered Midwestern kids who came of age in the '60s, 1968 was especially significant for her: that was the year of the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, and the escalation of the war. Hillary moved from being a Goldwater Republican to becoming an antiwar Democrat.

Wiener: She went to New Hampshire in 1968 to work in the Eugene McCarthy primary challenge to LBJ.

Bernstein: She also went to the Republican convention that year--to work for Nelson Rockefeller. But by that time she was really a closet Democrat, and was hoping to see McCarthy elected.

Wiener: What did young Hillary think of Nixon at this point?

Bernstein: She always really despised Nixon. She made no bones about it.

Wiener: This was an era when antiwar students were seizing administration buildings and confronting the police. Was this Hillary's world?

Bernstein: This was not. Hillary's way, especially at Wellesley, was to be a student leader with one foot firmly planted in the establishment camp, with good relations with the administration of the school. She was eager to find ways of protest that did not anger the administration, like teach-ins. She did not join many street demonstrations elsewhere in New England, except occasionally. It was a very cautious course.

Wiener: Yet her senior thesis at Wellesley dealt with radicalism.

Bernstein: She's always been fascinated by radicalism. She wrote her senior thesis on a great radical organizer of poor people, Saul Alinsky of Chicago. Though when she was offered a job by Alinsky, after she wrote about him, and she turned him down--because she didn't think he was effective enough. She said to her boyfriend at that time, to be in politics you have to win. And it didn't look to her like Alinsky was winning enough of his battles. She came to question his methodology and concluded in her thesis that larger government programs and funding were needed, not just community action at the grass roots.

Wiener: How were you able to see her senior thesis? I thought Wellesley had it locked up ever since she became first lady.

Bernstein: I finally got it. She did have it locked up, obviously because she feared it would paint her not only as someone fascinated by radicalism, but perhaps worse--as someone who had called for large government funding programs. This was during that first campaign of 1992, when she and Bill Clinton were being criticized for being "tax-and-spend liberals."

Wiener: Her college years ended with an article about her in Life magazine.

Bernstein: She was the commencement speaker at Wellesley in 1969, chosen by her fellow students--there had never been a student commencement speaker there before. The scheduled speaker was Sen. Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, who Hillary had campaigned for, a Republican, the first black to be a member of the U.S. Senate in a hundred years. In his remarks he was patronizing, Hillary thought. He seemed to defend the Nixon administration's conduct of the war, and didn't mention the wrenching events of 68. When he finished, Hillary got up and extemporaneously excoriated him. As a result of that speech, she was featured in Life magazine as exemplary of this new generation of student leaders. They ran a picture of her in pedal pushers and her Coke-bottle glasses. That article made her well known in the student movement in the U.S.

Wiener: Then she went to Yale Law School in 1969. Would you say her connection to radical politics deepened at Yale?

Bernstein: She chose Yale because, unlike Harvard, where she had also been accepted, it was an activist school that very much believed in the use of the law as an instrument for social change--in the mold of Thurgood Marshall. When she arrived, her reputation preceded her. It was perhaps greater than her real accomplishments. She was becoming a generational spokesperson, anointed by others. That's when she met Bill; at that point she was much more famous that he was. This was the year of the Black Panther trial in New Haven. She monitored the trial to see if there were any abuses of the rights of the Panthers on trial, and helped schedule the monitors. Her reports were turned over to the ACLU.

Wiener: And then there was her summer job in California.

Bernstein: That summer she went to work at the most important radical law firm in America at that point: Truehaft, Walker and Bernstein in Oakland. They defended the Panthers. Two of their partners were members of the Communist Party--including Bob Truehaft, who was married to Jessica Mitford. I talked to Bob Truehaft not long before he died, and he said he was certain that Hillary came there because she subscribed to some of the kind of law they practiced and the kind of clients they defended. In her so-called autobiography, "Living History," she put in a couple of sentences about living in Berkeley with Bill that summer and working at that law firm, but she makes it sound like their work focused on postal rate increases. There's not a word about radicals.

Wiener: After Yale she got a job on the staff of the House Watergate impeachment committee. The big question in Hillary's life is why, after that, she gave up her own career as a rising young star in Washington, and moved to Arkansas to marry Bill and become a political wife in a poor Southern state. When she arrived in Fayetteville in 1974, you report, a football rally was going on at which thousands of fans were wearing pig masks and chanting "oink, oink." Bill was running for Congress, and when she got to his campaign headquarters, she learned he was having an affair with a student volunteer. A lot of her friends at the time considered that move a disaster for her. Why did she do it?

Bernstein: Because she was in love with him. That choice was difficult for her. She was on the fast track, a lot of people were already talking about her as someone who would run for office some day. At the same time there is very little evidence that Hillary was ever interested in elective office. She didn't much like the process of rubbing elbows out there on the campaign trail.

Wiener: And there was another factor in her move.

Bernstein: There was one other huge factor: She failed the D.C. bar exam in 1973. She never told anybody about it for the next 30 years. She finally put a line about it in her so-called autobiography about three years ago. She had been offered all these fancy jobs by Washington law firms after the impeachment committee, but in fact she couldn't have gone to work there except as a paralegal or a telephone operator, unless she took the bar again. But she passed the Arkansas bar, which Bill had urged her to take. So after Nixon resigned, she moved to Arkansas, took a job teaching at the university law school, and worked in Bill's campaign.

Wiener: The plan was that Bill would win in 1974 [in a race for the U.S. House], and the two of them would go back to Washington together. But Bill lost.

Bernstein: Then for the next year and a half she wrestled with the question of whether to stay in Arkansas and marry Bill, or go back north and try another route. She was very conflicted.

Wiener: The key fact about Hillary today for many of us is her Senate vote in 2002 in favor of the authorization for President Bush to use force against Saddam Hussein. Now she says that was a vote for continuing diplomacy. Do you think that's true?

Bernstein: I think it's a stretch. One of the real problems Hillary has had is a difficult relationship to the truth. Sometimes. It's true she might see her vote that way in hindsight, but she often sees things in hindsight in a way others did not see at the time. There's no question she believed in that vote--she believes that presidents ought to have leverage and authority, especially in matters of going to war. She'd been in the White House for eight years while Bill Clinton had to deal with Saddam Hussein. I don't doubt that she would have liked to have seen Bush go back to the U.N. But was she naïve enough to believe that Bush would do that? I have serious doubts about it, and so do a lot of people in the Senate of the United States who voted with her at the time.

Wiener: Finally: If Hillary got to be president, do you think her youthful progressive instincts would prevail, or would she remain in the Clintonian realm of triangulating between Republicans and Democrats?

Bernstein: I don't think triangulation is necessarily between Republicans and Democrats. One of the things she's been most truthful about is that she's not easy to compartmentalize in terms of ideology. Religion and family are the pillars of her belief. She describes herself in college as a "progressive Christian." I think that's not a bad description in many ways. She has certain steady principles that hew towards traditional liberal Democratic orthodoxy, but then she also has others that don't. She believed in welfare reform, though she didn't much like the formula for it. She did come to believe in the death penalty when Bill was running for Arkansas attorney general, perhaps out of political expediency, but she has been rather consistent about that. I think she's not an ideologue.
Jon Wiener is a history professor at the University of California, Irvine. His most recent book is Historians in Trouble: Plagiarism, Fraud and Politics in the Ivory Tower (New Press).
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