Hillary Clinton: Grandmother in Chief

The presidential candidate insists that she is both a trailblazer and a traditionalist, a case her new role as a grandmother helps her make more convincingly.

Jim Young/Reuters

On Monday, when Hillary Clinton issued a pro-vaccination tweet with the hashtag #GrandmothersKnowBest,” journalists quickly spotted a potential theme for her presidential run. For Hillary’s sake, I hope they’re right. Because in 2016, grandmotherhood may help her convey the quality that she so disastrously failed to convey for much of 2007 and 2008: authenticity.

It’s easy to mock Hillary’s constant talk about the obligations of grandmotherhood, but it comes with an intriguing backstory: She had lousy grandmothers herself. In her memoir Living History, Hillary’s descriptions of her own grandmothers are harsh. On page two, she says that her maternal grandmother, Della Murray, “essentially abandoned my mother [Dorothy Howell Rodham] when she was only three or four, leaving her alone all day for days on end.” At age eight, Della sent Dorothy to live with relatives. They reunited ten years later, but when Dorothy realized that Della “wanted her only as a housekeeper and that she would get no financial help for college,” they parted ways again.

Hillary’s own memories of Della are also strikingly negative. She remembers her maternal grandmother “as a weak and self-indulgent woman, wrapped up in television soap operas and disengaged from reality.” Hillary recounts an incident that took place when she was ten, and Della was babysitting, “I was hit in the eye by a chain-link gate … I ran home three blocks, crying and holding my head as blood streamed down my face. When Della saw me, she fainted ... when Della revived, she complained that I had scared her and that she could have gotten hurt when she fell over.”

Hillary is critical of her paternal grandmother too. She calls Hannah Jones Rodham—father of Hillary’s father, Hugh Rodham Sr.—“a determined woman whose energies and intelligence had little outlet, which led to her meddling in everyone else’s business.” And she remarks that, “I believe my father knew that he had to make a break from Hannah if he was ever to live his own life.”

It’s clear from Hillary’s memoir that she feels sadness, even anger, about the absence of more caring, competent grandmothers from her own life. Her current paeans to their importance, therefore, may be a bit like Barack Obama’s lectures on the necessity of fathers—behind the political positioning lies a conviction born of personal pain.

Emphasizing grandmotherhood may be authentic for Hillary in another way too. In the popular imagination, grandmothers are both caring and conservative. They dote on their grandchildren while also tut-tutting about a culture gone awry. They are pro-family in both the liberal and conservative senses of the world.

That’s a good persona for Hillary because it reflects what she actually believes. Even Hillary’s critics acknowledge that her devotion to the welfare of children runs very deep. At Yale Law School, she made children’s rights the focus of her studies, and in her first job in Washington, working for what would become the Children’s Defense Fund, Hillary investigated the appalling conditions endured by the children of migrant workers. In Carl Bernstein’s biography, A Woman in Charge, Hillary’s friend Nancy Bekavic says, “I remember being struck by this aggressive, ambitious, bright woman who studied child development and cared about children. It was unusual in some ways. Every young woman was running away from, you know, childhood and family issues. Jesus Christ, the last thing you wanted to do was family law … It was very unusual.”

When Hillary burst onto the national scene in the 1990s, her work on children gained national attention. But because of the blowback she provoked as the first non-homemaker First Lady, the nature of that work was frequently distorted. The right portrayed her as a cultural radical who wanted children to be able to sue their parents.

In 2016, however, Hillary may be more effective in conveying her real attitudes toward children and families, which are anything but radical. In part, that’s because high-profile working women are somewhat less threatening than they were twenty years ago. But it’s also because running as a grandmother may help voters see the cultural conservatism that has been part of Hillary’s worldview all along.

In his biography, Bernstein quotes a former Clinton administration aide calling Hillary “a very judgmental Methodist from the Midwest.” And it’s true. Hillary’s most important mentor growing up was a local youth minister. Despite attending college and law school in the late 1960s, she never touched drugs. And while working on George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign, according to Bernstein, she carried a heavily marked-up Bible around everywhere.

In 1994, according to Sally Bedell Smith’s book, For Love of Politics, Hillary said she was “not comfortable” with distributing condoms in schools. Hillary promoted abstinence from pre-marital sex in her 1996 book, It Takes a Village, and surprised many reporters by declaring in a 2005 speech to family planning activists that “research shows that the primary reason that teenage girls abstain is because of their religious and moral values. We should embrace this—and support programs that reinforce the idea that abstinence at a young age is not just the smart thing to do, it is the right thing to do.” In It Takes a Village, Hillary is also critical of adults for being too quick to divorce, arguing that “children without fathers, or whose parents float in and out of their lives after divorce, are precarious little boats in the most turbulent seas.”

Part of Hillary’s challenge in 2016 is mobilizing progressives excited by the prospect of a woman president without mobilizing conservatives who see her as a threat to traditional morality, as she did in the 1990s. Changing times make that easier: Ambitious women are a little less scary now. But so does her new role as grandmother. For decades now, Hillary has been insisting that she’s a trailblazer and a traditionalist all at the same time. Now, by running as a grandmother, she may finally make Americans believe her.