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MOTHER'S DAY // A mother's legacy

On this Mother's Day, the mom of America's first lady reflects on how she raised Hillary Rodham Clinton and the example her daughter is setting for mothers around the world.

In an exclusive interview, Dorothy Howell Rodham, 77, relates personal glimpses of Hillary's childhood. She also tells of her satisfaction in seeing her efforts reflected in America's first daughter. Chelsea, 17, has enrolled in Stanford University, where she plans to study pre-med and become a doctor.

"Chelsea is also an academic achiever," Mrs. Rodham says. "I admire her. She is already trying to understand other people's struggles. She wants them to be able to fulfill their potential and wants to help them do that. She is learning this from Hillary."

While Mrs. Rodham expresses pride in Hillary's achievements, she laments the public perception of her daughter, who, in her view, is working to make a positive difference in the world.

She sees in her daughter the personification of the values by which Hillary was raised but says she often does not recognize Hillary in what she hears and reads.

"I wish everyone could know Hillary like I do," she says. "Then people would know the depth of her character and the sweetness of her nature. She has so much to give as a thoughtful, articulate and competent woman who listens to other people's viewpoints and cares about their problems.

"She has a sense of her own uniqueness and has always valued herself. She doesn't live for instant gratification. She cares about her spiritual as well as her physical being, and good health habits are important to her. She is well-trained academically and well-armed with good sense, self-esteem and wit."

Mrs. Rodham says that, unfortunately, Hillary's warmth and keen sense of humor come across better one-on-one or in small-group conversations.

"Some people seem to resent that she has it all," Mrs. Rodham says. "But she is capable of doing many things well, and maybe that brings envy. But her goal has always been to do something worthwhile with her life."

Hillary's main fault, her mother says, is that she expects a lot from others and she is sometimes disappointed because she assumes they have the same high standards and competence that she does.

"She is too tolerant about letting other people encroach on her time," Mrs. Rodham says. "They take her time for their own particular purposes and don't understand that she needs most of her time for the people's business. That leaves less time for personal or family matters. Although she has enormous patience and energy, I worry that even her vitality could be drained."

What other concerns does Mrs. Rodham have about her daughter?

"Well, I never worried about her until recently," she responds. "Why now? Because I am hurt by all the rumors and charges and ridiculous falsehoods spoken and printed about her. The exaggerated distortions about her are painful to me. How do opinionmakers know what she is like? The perception of her today is not reality. Those people who try to degrade her actually degrade themselves."

As one example, Mrs. Rodham cites the first lady's best-selling book, It Takes A Village, which earned her a Grammy Award for its narration.

"Some people have the audacity to say she did not write the book herself," Mrs. Rodham says. "I know differently. I remember walking past her office in the residence (of the White House) often late at night, seeing her work on that book. Through the book she wants others to understand the enormity of the challenge of raising children in today's world."

How has living in the White House changed Hillary?

"Living in the White House hasn't changed her, but it has changed our closeness and I miss that," Mrs. Rodham says. "We see each other less because she is so busy, in a sense, taking on the world."

At a young age, she adds, Hillary learned that life has its pitfalls and setbacks as well as its joys and satisfactions and that she needed to brace herself for the storms that would come along _ and try again and again. Mrs. Rodham says that Hillary has learned to accept disappointments and seldom feels sorry for herself when things go wrong.

In retrospect, would Mrs. Rodham have done anything differently in raising Hillary?

"I would not change anything," she replies. "Hillary was easy to please and a most satisfactory child. I spent much time with her, particularly in her formative years . . . A good portion of her youth was spent in church, Sunday school and social concern activities."

She says she taught Hillary that material things are not important and that she should not be influenced by peer pressure. For instance, she says, she told Hillary that she did not need her own car just because her peers owned one.

"Pretty clothes did not interest her," Mrs. Rodham says. "Looking good to Hillary was not as important to her as doing good. In school, she would focus on the issues of the day. Even as a child, she had interesting ideas and didn't hesitate to express them."

Mrs. Rodham recalls that "togetherness" was fashionable when Hillary was growing up and their happiest times were doing things together as a family _ dining, playing tennis and going to church. "I well remember," she says, "the homemade presents she would make for me on Mother's Day and the sentiments she wrote on cards."

Her mother says that when Hillary was naughty, she would try to reason with her and discipline her on the spot. To Mrs. Rodham, being naughty was when Hillary, now 49, would boss her little brothers (Hugh, 47, and Tony, 43) and spark a sibling squabble.

"Another thing which annoyed me was when Hillary didn't keep her toys in order . . . things like that," Mrs. Rodham recalls with a sheepish smile. "Bossing her brothers and scattering her toys were frustrating, but her most annoying habit was that _ with so many things _ she turned out to be right."

Mrs. Rodham says she raised Hillary with love and respect and tried to be consistent in what she did and said _ to give her a sense of responsibility and stability.

"I wanted her to be herself and not try to change her natural instincts to please me or anyone else," she recalls. "I wanted her to have a sense of integrity and she displayed this trait by her behavior in school and at home."

Every day, Mrs. Rodham would ask her daughter what she was learning in school and about her teachers and, if necessary, she'd help with her homework. She says she spent hours talking over things with Hillary, being straightforward with her, wanting to hear what was on her mind.

"I listened to her responses," Mrs. Rodham recalls. "I listened to her when she was 6 years old so that we could talk easily and openly with one another when she was 16 and even older. I would give her advice only when she asked for it.

"I did not spoil her. But I praised her when she achieved something special. I wanted her to have a good opinion of herself and an optimistic view of life."

Family affection and love in the Rodham household, coupled with the setting of good examples, played a significant part in Hillary's growth to maturity. Her mother believes that if there is love, respect and security in the home while children are growing up, they will, later on, be able to cope with almost anything.

"So the nurturing I gave Hillary as a child just might be one of the key reasons she has made good choices in her personal life and is able to cope so well during some of the more difficult days in the White House."

Her mother also says she tried to give Hillary the confidence to make her own decisions and to be sure those decisions were well-thought-out because she would have to live with the consequences.

When Hillary was ready for college and marriage, she was able to make those critical choices, her mother says. She selected Wellesley College in Massachusetts and Yale Law School. Later, when she was ready for marriage, she didn't need her parents' approval.

"Of course, it was easy because I liked Bill Clinton and thought he would be good for her," Mrs. Rodham remembers. "But I also trusted her and would not have interfered with her choice."

Hillary Rodham Clinton confirms her mother's comments and told me she remembers her mother saying, "Your father and I will always love you no matter what you do, even if we do not always approve of or like what you do. We just hope you will share our values and want to live up to our expectations of you."

Mrs. Clinton adds: "My mother also taught me not to react to what other people say or do to me because I myself need to be the actor in my own life."

Hillary Rodham grew up in Park Ridge, Ill., in a typical family of the '50s _ stay-at-home mother, breadwinner father, who died in 1993. She was not exposed to the public scrutiny that Chelsea has experienced, in Little Rock, Ark., when her father was governor, and in the White House as the daughter of the president.

"Yet," Mrs. Rodham notes, "both my daughter and granddaughter are caring, responsible and remarkable women. My greatest satisfaction today is when people come up to me and say, "I hope my daughter grows up to be like Hillary' or "I hope my granddaughter grows up to be like Chelsea.' "

I asked Mrs. Rodham if Mrs. Clinton has followed her philosophy in bringing up Chelsea.

"Oh, yes," she responds. "Hillary was so aware of what makes a meaningful life. She has raised Chelsea as I raised her, and that is so gratifying to me because I tried to be the kind of mother that I wanted Hillary to be when she became a mother. Just look at the results with her daughter. Chelsea is bright and has good common sense."

Mrs. Rodham adds that, obviously, Chelsea is living in a different world, a different era.

"The problems are more complex, but there is a right way and a wrong way to bring up a child," Mrs. Rodham says. "If you have a solid foundation and are equipped with the essential values, you will make good decisions and be able to withstand negative outside influences."

Mrs. Rodham also says that since Chelsea was a toddler _ and to this day as a teenager _ she has reminded her in many ways of Hillary.

"I am seeing it all over again. I see how the shaping of ideas can be embellished and this is a special kind of legacy _ passing from one generation to the next.

"So my contribution as a mother is being carried on by my daughter with her own daughter. This alone is a wonderful Mother's Day gift. But in Hillary's case, she is surpassing me since her contribution goes beyond our family to the entire world. This makes me very proud.

"What more could a mother want?"

Trude B. Feldman, an internationally syndicated feature writer, has covered the White House for the past 30 years.