Saturday, April 21, 2018
Opinion

Column: Here's the young Hillary I knew

On a late winter's day in 1972, a Yale law student named Hillary Rodham came to meet me at the New Haven Legal Assistance office where I was a new lawyer representing poor people. She appeared in the doorway in high-'60s style: purple bell-bottoms and Afghan sheepskin coat — wool on the inside, embroidery on the outside, also purple (as was the car she came in).

We talked about children and the law, a topic about which she was already passionate and surprisingly well-informed. It was only years later that I learned how personal it was for her because of her mother's terrible early years.

We agreed to work together, starting with a case I had recently tried involving a foster child removed from the woman who was in every meaningful respect her mother since birth, for placement with a suburban couple the state saw as appropriate adoptive parents. The traumatic impact on a 2-year-old of being torn away from the woman who had been her entire world since birth counted for little in the state's equation. The clinical experts on both sides said she should go back to her foster mother, but the judge said no. Could we find a way to turn it around? In time we knew we couldn't. It still stings.

Hillary has written and spoken about how much she learned from that case. True to her way, when she was a in a position to do so as first lady, as a senator and as secretary of state, she worked tirelessly to bring attention to the needs of foster children and to develop and promote measures to make things better for them. It didn't change anything for the little girl in our case, but it's a classic example of Hillary's determination to wring something good for children out of a situation that couldn't be made perfect.

Because I've seen that side of her up close from the beginning, I find it distressing when people say she's at best the lesser of two evils. Given the overwhelming disparity between Hillary and Donald Trump in everything I believe is relevant to being a good president — views on the issues, knowledge, experience, career choices, know-how, demeanor, personal values, skills and, yes, honesty (based not only on my experience but according to the nonpartisan organizations that rate such things) — that depiction really misses the mark for me.

Like every other job, running for president has a job description. Like most jobs, not all of it is fun.

Enormous sums of money must be raised for a nationwide general election, which of course involves going where the money is and engaging those who have boatloads of it. In office, connections must be made with people, not all of them admirable, with different interests and even values in order to find the common ground necessary to reach agreements that will solve problems and make something better. Objectives have to be scaled to the realistically attainable.

Anyone who wants to be president has to do these things, or pretty close. And in truth, these are no different than what must be done in any number of jobs typically seen as purer than politics — running a university, a museum or a human rights organization, say — where the courting of the very wealthy for no reason other than that they are rich, is a major part of the job.

Because presidential candidates are so visible, they often try to have it both ways. They do what's needed to win, but because it's so widely seen as unsavory, they also whine about it to reassure those who regard politics as irredeemably grubby that they aren't one of those politicians.

Throughout her political career, Hillary has uncomplainingly accepted that job description, and I think that much of generalized dislike to which she has been subjected for so long can be traced back to that very thing: accepting what has to be done to succeed politically and not complaining about it.

I suppose one of the reasons Hillary doesn't whine is because she's a serious Methodist who has freely chosen to practice politics, a process that really is humankind's best way of resolving conflicting interests nonviolently and building the common ground to move forward and make life better.

College-educated suburban white women and men who don't typically vote for a Democrat should take a careful look. They might discover that same smart and determined woman I met all those years ago.

She's a grown-up now (surely a good quality in a president) and she's serious, experienced and amazingly knowledgeable. In other words, she's got what it takes to guide the ship of state wisely and well through the perilous waters of our times.

Penn Rhodeen is the author of "Peacerunner," the true story of an unsung American hero of the peace process that ended centuries of warfare in Ireland. Liam Neeson called it a "must-read." Rhodeen wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

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