Op-Ed

For Hillary Clinton, it’s time to get personal

Hillary Clinton with her mother Dorothy Rodham and daughter Chelsea Clinton in 2008.
Hillary Clinton with her mother Dorothy Rodham and daughter Chelsea Clinton in 2008. Getty Images

As the race for president intensifies, candidate positions on immigration, income inequality, racial and gender justice, and links to Wall Street will be critical.

But in the end, the central issue is who can we trust, what values do the candidates believe in, what convictions drive Hillary and Donald?

In short, what in their personal lives shapes who they are and what they care about?

For some reason, Hillary Clinton has failed to step up to the plate on these personal issues. Controversy surrounds her close connections to Wall Street titans. She is vulnerable to attack on her support for free trade versus greater efforts to protect American jobs. Perhaps most critical, her insistence on having a private email server for her State Department correspondence has opened her to the charge that she placed national security at risk for the sake of protecting her personal privacy.

Poll data suggest that, as a result, large numbers of Americans do not trust Clinton or her character.

The best way for Clinton to respond to all this is to talk candidly, and emotionally, about the values she learned as a child and a young woman. Doing so would clarify, dramatically, the foundational beliefs that have guided virtually all of her political activities.

Hillary’s mother, Dorothy, played a crucial role in shaping those foundational beliefs. Born to a 15-year-old mother and 17-year-old father, Dorothy had a terrible early life. Her parents put her and her little brother on a train when she was 8 to live with her grandparents across the country. They, in turn, were cruel.

Finally, she went to work for Hugh Rodham, a manufacturer of theater curtains who subsequently married her. Although Hugh was often cruel to Dorothy, she devoted herself to her three children, insisting that the family was the most important part of her life and making sure Hillary always stood up for herself when friends challenged her.

Above all, she introduced Hillary to the Methodist church, where she became an active member of her Methodist Youth Fellowship. There, she met Don Jones, her youth minister who was a passionate believer in the social gospel. The role of the church, he insisted, was to translate the values of Jesus into social policy.

At a time when the civil rights movement, the war on poverty and anti-Vietnam war protests dominated national headlines, his message was direct and on target. Jones took Hillary and her suburban youth group to the poorest neighborhoods of Chicago and to hear Martin Luther King Jr. preach at a Chicago church.

Hillary became a complete convert. Although she called herself a Goldwater girl and was chosen president of the Wellesley College Young Republicans, she worked with black children in the ghetto areas of Boston, campaigned for Eugene McCarthy in New Hampshire’s 1968 presidential primary and came to personify the values of a social reformer who believed profoundly in the social gospel. Don Jones remained a close personal friend until his death.

The values Hillary learned from her mother and her youth minister have informed her stance on the three issues that have most defined her subsequent career: advancement of women’s rights; improvement in the health and education of all children, especially those raised in poverty; and dedication to racial equality.

For whatever reason, Hillary has failed to focus on how her experience growing up with a dedicated mother and a passionate young minister have defined the core of her character. Most Americans would resonate with Hillary’s personal experiences growing up. While many might not carry the social gospel as far as Hillary might wish, most would deeply respect the pivotal role that the Methodist Youth Fellowship played in shaping her values.

Instead of seeing Hillary primarily as a Wall Street insider dedicated to lining her pockets with money and accruing power, voters might become more aware of how a dedicated mother and a passionate minister shaped the fundamental character of the Democratic presidential candidate.

If Hillary wants to earn the trust and respect of the American electorate, it is time for her to talk a lot more about who she really is, and how her character was shaped.

William H. Chafe, a professor of history emeritus at Duke University, is the author of “Hillary and Bill: The Clintons and the Politics of the Personal.”

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