If Hillary Clinton is indeed elected as our next president, that leaves a critical question: Which Hillary will reign?
America’s 20th century political leaders have often been full of contradictions. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, for instance, tried to reach out to everyone and make them his ally; on the other hand, he refused to tell even his closest aides how he planned to deal with Josef Stalin in the post-World War II world.
Lyndon Baines Johnson was equally complicated. Bold in his embrace of civil rights and the war on poverty, he was muddled and contradictory in sending 500,000 troops to Vietnam, thereby eviscerating the budget resources needed to make America a more equal society.
As in the cases of FDR and LBJ, there have been two Hillaries. The first — and most basic — is the young girl who grew up in her Methodist Youth Fellowship group in suburban Illinois. Hillary’s mother Dorothy was a model of courage and grace. Abandoned by her own parents when she was 8, and abused by her grandparents, she nevertheless taught Hillary that nothing was more important in life than holding your family together. (Witness Hillary’s handling of Bill Clinton’s multiple indiscretions.)
Her mother also insisted that Hillary go to her church youth group where she became a convert to the Social Gospel. She went with her youth minister — who she kept in touch with until his death in 2004 — to Chicago’s ghettos. From that point forward she dedicated herself to working for women’s liberation, children’s rights and racial equality.
Although she was a young Republican, following her father, when she went to Wellesley College, Hillary began working in the poor black areas of Roxbury, became a champion for gender justice and campaigned against the Vietnam War. That first Hillary – shaped by the Social Gospel and a dedication to human rights – has never changed. Those values still serve as the anchor of her life.
Yet as Bill’s political partner, she became more defensive. And each time she “saved” him, she gained power. So by the time she entered the White House as First Lady, she started to become territorial and demonize those she saw as opposing her. She was suspicious of anyone gaining access to her secret and personal life.
This led to the first, and worst, mistake of her political career. When Bill Clinton’s personal aide David Gergen negotiated a deal with the Washington Post to turn over the Whitewater papers in return for the Post’s promise to render an impartial verdict on whether any crime had been committed, everyone in the White House agreed to go along — except for Hillary. Why? Because the papers contained personal information about her law practice that might involve a violation of legal ethics. So the papers were never turned over, Bill Clinton was forced to appoint a special prosecutor, and when that prosecutor became Kenneth Starr, the impeachment process got under way.
At that point, Hillary appeared to have learned a lesson. When she ran for the U.S. Senate, she returned to the first Hillary. She went on listening tours, learned what her constituents cared about, reached out for consensus reforms. She was well-liked by Republicans and Democrats alike.
Then when she became Secretary of State, the second Hillary returned. Reluctant to lose control over her personal life and reputation, she insisted on a private email server. Just as 15 years earlier, she refused to open her files for other people to peruse, insisting instead on protecting the secrecy of her personal life. Another terrible mistake that her opponents have seized on.
So the real question before us is, which Hillary will rule?
First, it is important to recognize that Hillary, the believer in the Social Gospel, and women’s and children’s rights, is still the person whose core values have never changed.
Second, she hopefully has learned how wrong it is to be so protective of her personal privacy.
She has never been found guilty of any wrongdoing or breaking any laws. But if she does indeed become our next president, it is time for her to move beyond the second Hillary and return to her basic self.
William Chafe, the former president of the Organization of American Historians, teaches at Duke University. He is the author of 13 books, the latest of which is “Hillary and Bill: the Clintons and the Politics of the Personal.”