Hillary Clinton's Secret Weapon

On a recent trip to Burma—where human rights have been crushed for half a century—Hillary Clinton shook hands with a young waitress who later sobbed to writer Lisa DePaulo, “She is our only hope.” What gives Clinton the power to connect so strongly with women in need? DePaulo wondered. In an inspiring and intimate conversation, Hillary reveals the answer

By Lisa DePaulo
hillary clinton in burma image
“This one Buddha looks like a woman,” Clinton observed during the traditional statue-anointing. After 11 pours, she asked, “Can I make 11 wishes?”
Photograph: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

That evening, as a balmy breeze floats under the thatched roof at the Thingaha, the secretary joins us for off-the-record cocktails. This is very Hil­lary. She loves mixing it up with reporters, and why not? The press is not her enemy anymore. Gone are the days of the over-the-top scrutiny she faced as first lady. Or as a candidate for senator in New York, when she was tagged as a carpetbagger during her first campaign (but not the second). Or when she ran for president and, as the first serious woman candidate, was—let’s face it—raked over the coals for all the wrong reasons (and some of the right ones). In any event, things are different now.

She’s in comfortable pants and sweater, a ponytail, no makeup. She orders tea, much to the disappointment of the traveling-press regulars, who prefer it when Clinton knocks back a few drinks with them, as she is known to do.

“Sorry, guys, I can’t. I’d love to, but I can’t,” she says when wine is offered. She’s already losing her voice and needs some tea with honey. It’s a big day tomorrow. She has a president to size up, a heroine rebel to embrace, a country to help save. And a few million women to fight for. She’ll pass on the Chardonnay.

FOUR WEEKS EARLIER, Clinton was about to leave for a visit to London and Istanbul when she got word that her 92-year-old mother, Dorothy Rodham, had taken ill. The trip was canceled—an extremely rare event during the secretary’s tenure.

Mrs. Rodham would pass away a few hours later, but not before her ­daughter reached her bedside. In the days to come, as the obituaries rolled out, even the keenest Hillary observers were flabbergasted at just how extraordinary Clinton’s mother had been. Throughout her early life, Dorothy Howell Rodham suffered abuse and abandonment. In Chicago, when Dorothy was just eight, her mother, newly divorced, put her on a train to California, alone with her three-year-old sister, to live with their father’s parents, who neglected and mistreated them. (Dorothy was once confined to her room for a year because she had gone trick-or-treating without permission.)

At 14, Dorothy had the gumption to run away and get a job. She became a nanny and housekeeper for a well-to-do family that insisted she go to high school. She did—and excelled. Upon graduation, she heard from her mother for the first time in 10 years, asking her to go back to Chicago. She had met a new man, and they were going to send Dorothy to college. Elated, she rushed home, only to discover that the college promise had been a ruse; her mother wanted her daughter to be her maid. That Dorothy Howell would go on to raise even a functional child, let alone one of the most accomplished people in the world, is staggering.

In Burma, as the secretary reached out to so many women, I kept thinking of her mother, for whom she was still grieving. There’s been so much speculation about what really drives Clinton to do the things she does, and much of it has been less than generous—namely, that she is motivated by a cold ambition for power. I would venture to say it is much purer than that. It is Dorothy.

ONE MORNING about a month after the trip, I enter the secretary’s beautifully ornate outer office at the State Department. “Please sit down,” she says, gesturing to the Chippendale couch and silk-upholstered chairs. “Ah, goodness, coffee sounds like a great idea.” We start the interview by reminiscing about Scranton, Pennsylvania, my hometown and a place Clinton holds dear. Her father, Hugh Rodham, the owner of a drapery-fabric plant, hailed from there. Hillary grew up in suburban Illinois but spent summers outside Scranton at Lake Winola, in a cottage her grandfather had built.

Originally published in the April 2012 issue

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