Although I have little interest in national politics, I’ve long been attracted to Hillary, because the issues that most move me are those that have most moved her. I even wrote her a fan letter in the early 1990s, when I was a court-appointed special advocate in the Children’s Dependency Court in Los Angeles, working in the field that had been her first calling. To read Carl Bernstein’s A Woman in Charge is to be struck by the depth of this woman’s early commitment to poor children and her willingness to devote herself, body and mind, to their plight. She is not a person who stumbled upon the cause of “social justice,” as the Methodist Church of her childhood would have understood it, as a means of political gain, or as a fashionable response to the social upheaval of the ’60s. She got involved because she was a particularly earnest young person, whose moral sensibility was shaped by a religion that called for its believers to put their faith into action.
Today we are overly familiar with the self-serving, Ivy League–bound youngster’s frantic eagerness to insinuate herself into the lives of poor folk (“Hang in there, La’Shelle—I’m applying Early Action!”) so that she will have something to write on the community-service section of her application. But two generations ago, the sorts of things that Hillary did as a teenager—volunteering to babysit the children of migrant workers, traveling to a Chicago slum to check for voter-registration fraud, trekking to a 1961 sermon by Martin Luther King Jr.—were the purview, not of the résumé-padding smart set, but rather of a small army of very square white kids, from mainline Protestant churches. The Methodism of Hillary’s youth went hand in hand with the civil-rights doctrine of King, and the two are largely responsible for the shape of her early career, which is one of breathtaking accomplishment and purpose.
If you want to have a sense of what Hillary was like when she was interested in policy, rather than electoral politics, take a look at her seminal 1973 essay for the Harvard Educational Review, “Children Under the Law,” in which she argued that children should receive legal representation as a means of guaranteeing that their best interests would truly be the aim of any court case, including those involving abuse or neglect. Unlike her more recent literary efforts, this, far from being a vehicle through which to present the most advantageous image of its author, is the work of a shrewd, lawyerly mind grappling with a thorny problem and nudging a workable—and humane—solution through the thickets and deadwood of constitutional law. True, as I can testify, the solution that Hillary proposed here and that the dependency-court system largely adopted replaced a huge mess with another huge mess: The massive legal system now overseeing the fate of children who have been removed from their parents’ care is a slow-moving beast that channels lawyers and legal briefs—and a panicky, cover-your-ass devotion to documentation and paperwork—into dicey situations that often get dicier the longer they stay in court.
What’s more, her engagement with the issue bears all the markings of Hillary projects as we have come to know them: She saw a great wrong, and she wanted to right it; she was terrific on the details but blind to human weakness; and so the elegance of her reasoning was undone by the mess and squalor of the world as it actually exists.
A combination of strengths and weaknesses like this makes for someone I would consider highly admirable and human; someone, in fact, who once so dazzled me that when I was teaching in Los Angeles, I managed to get the single ticket my school received to a speech that Hillary gave at Scripps College. Though I arrived bonded to Hillary by our passion for children’s welfare, and though the fact that the president of Scripps had been a friend of Hillary’s in law school seemed to promise the sort of woman-to-woman conversation I’m a sucker for, the afternoon was a bust. Hillary did try to be warm and chatty. The subject of panty hose, I seem to recall, was discussed in the banter preceding her formal address. But something freakish in her voice or inflection—you know what I mean—made me want to flee. Hillary can’t talk about panty hose. It’s cringe-inducing to watch her try to talk about any of the subjects that normally would cement a bond between women, because there’s nothing more uncomfortable than witnessing someone straining to be natural. On paper she’s equally off-putting, lapsing into the didactic and the sanctimonious when presenting material meant to be personal, as in Dear Socks, Dear Buddy; It Takes a Village; and Living History. (For some mystifying reason, Hillary is determined, in the face of every ghastly bit of evidence to the contrary, to present her private life as an example for the rest of us. It’s like watching someone get up every day and try to drive a Hummer across a balsa-wood bridge.)
Not long ago, Hillary appeared at a La Raza conference, and once onstage in front of a huge crowd, she told her interviewer that they should talk like “two girlfriends.” This tack seems to be the latest in Hillary’s ongoing effort to humanize herself. In the campaign, she clearly believes that her automatic advantage with the female half of the electorate is best pressed by forging this type of personal connection, commiserating with us in our lots as wives and mothers. This type of intimacy requires a brand of vulnerability, and as a woman who has seen her share of glass ceilings, who has struggled to balance career and family, and who has known the complex humiliations of marital infidelity, Hillary is not without relevant material. But it’s in these matters, the intimate matters most likely to be both fascinating and helpful to other women, that she finds she can’t outrun her past.