She brings up the outdoor movie theater, where films were projected on a sheet. “Did you ever go there?” she asks, with much excitement. I did. It was a great date night. “It was,” she agrees. Then there was the pinochle with her father’s pals. “I can remember being a little girl just waiting until I was old enough to sit at the table and play with my father and my uncles and the guy from down the road with a wooden leg called Old Pete, who used to get furious and throw the cards when he wasn’t winning!”
Did she beat them?
“By the time I was in high school, I could win.” She laughs. “It was great, you know? Because my father was a very old-fashioned man. He was a chief petty officer in the Navy, but he never really treated me any differently [from my two younger brothers] because I was a girl.” A pause. “Which was a great gift.”
And your mother: I hadn’t realized, I tell her, how amazing she was.
“Yeah,” she says, sadly. “She really was.” Another pause. “It says a lot about the resilience of the human spirit. And that’s why you can never give up on a child. My mother told me one time that even though she’d been neglected by her own parents, there were adults in her life that recognized her needs. Or desires. Like, she would go to school and she would have no money for milk, so a teacher would always buy two cartons of milk and say, ‘I’ve done it again—I bought too much milk. Dorothy, would you like my other milk?’ ”
Clinton says that when she and her brothers were young, their mother gave no indication of what she had been through. She remembers a traditional Midwestern childhood—one that included trick-or-treating (she once dressed as Mickey Mantle, who was her idol, as were the Beatles and Fabian)—and had a very traditional mom, “a ’50s homemaker” who loved to sew and read. For her mother, “there just wasn’t a lot of time sitting around thinking, Oh, poor me. That was just not part of it.
“I began to piece [her story] together probably in high school,” Clinton continues. “But in college and law school, I started to talk to her about it more and got a fuller picture of how hard it was.” What she learned about her mother had a profound impact on her own path. “It certainly drove me to focus on abused and neglected and mistreated kids, so that when I was in law school, I did this special program between the law school and the child-study center.” She says she wanted to understand “the source of that resilience . . . Where did it start? Where did it come from?”
She’s still learning. Clinton cites some “wonderful studies” that looked at children from the same family or socioeconomic background. “Well, why did one graduate from college and one end up in prison? Why did one give in to despair and the other kept trying to overcome it? And very often it came down to what my mother’s experience was. Which is, somewhere there was an adult who believed in that child.
“There is also a genetic basis for resilience that scientists are finding out now,” she adds. “As to how well you respond to stress . . . it has to do with the length of your telomeres, which is more than you want to know!” She laughs again. “But it’s fascinating to me, because if you come into the world less vulnerable to stress and with greater stamina, more endurance . . .” She anticipates my next question. “And thankfully I have that.”
She also learned from her resilient mother not to dwell on what cannot be changed—specifically, the past. “I want to look forward,” Dorothy Rodham would tell her daughter. “I want to think about the future.”