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Clinton talks of scars while keeping guard up

After years of public battles, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton must prove to voters that she is not too hardened to inspire confidence.
/ Source: The New York Times

In July 2000, Hillary Clinton stood on a stage at the University of Arkansas and struggled to keep her composure. Her voice was unusually soft that day, her words seemingly unfiltered.

“Diane, you were the awesomest,” Mrs. Clinton said, referring to Diane Blair, a political science professor whose eulogy she was giving. “You were the best person that one could have as a friend.”

Mrs. Blair, who died at 61, was described as the sister Mrs. Clinton had always wanted. She practically moved into the White House in 1993 to ease Mrs. Clinton’s transition to Washington, and returned at the end, during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. She sent Mrs. Clinton recipes (though the first lady did not cook), bird-watching manuals (though she cared little for birds), vitamins ( with a note signed “Nurse Diane Fuzzy Wuzzy”) and cards.

“Whenever you have trouble coping, just think of Snow White,” one note said. “She had to live with seven men.”

The crowd laughed when Mrs. Clinton read that at the memorial service, and she smiled along. Her eyes stayed dry, another triumph of her self-possession. Still, her face was puffy and her jaw slightly clenched, as if any breach of emotion could start a deluge.

That was a glimpse of a “softer” Hillary Clinton, billed as the “real Hillary” by legions of loyalists, the person so often encased in armor.

Mrs. Clinton’s surrogates lament that the engaging, generous and vulnerable woman on the stage would seem alien to many Americans.

Perhaps more than any other candidate, Mrs. Clinton faces an unusual challenge in her quest for the presidency. After a political lifetime of public battles, suspicions and humiliations, she must prove she is not too hardened to inspire, or too wary to truly lead.

The scar tissue she has accumulated over the years is central to Mrs. Clinton’s political identity. She catalogs her wounds with an air of pride and defiance. Invoking a mantra attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, Mrs. Clinton likes to say that women in politics “need to develop skin as tough as a rhinoceros hide.”

“I joke that I have the scars to show from my experiences,” she said in an interview.

“But you know, our scars are part of us, and they are a reminder of the experiences we’ve gone through, and our history. I am constantly making sure that the rhinoceros skin still breathes. And that’s a challenge that all of us face. But again, not all of us have to live it out in public.”

Critics say that Mrs. Clinton’s repeated invocations of her “battles” and “scars” unfairly suggest victimhood, obscuring her own history of picking fights, jettisoning friends and vilifying adversaries. She was recently criticized for the relish with which she vowed to confront her main rival for the Democratic nomination, Senator Barack Obama.

“Well, now the fun part starts,” Mrs. Clinton said.

Others cast her as someone whose ambitions have led her to become a completely political construct. Her campaign, for example, has been lauded as deft and disciplined, but also derided, in the words of the columnist Al Hunt, as “joyless, humorless and lacking in heart and soul.” A popular YouTube parody this year portrayed Mrs. Clinton and her supporters as mechanized drones.

Aides often describe her as “the most famous person nobody knows,” a conceit that both condemns those who have mischaracterized Mrs. Clinton and acknowledges how inscrutable she can be.

Indeed, Mrs. Clinton is guarded by nature, friends say, a fundamentally “private person” despite her hyper-public profile. She has always been easier for many people to follow than to know, and people around her tend to speak of her in tones of distant awe, suggesting that they are more acolytes than friends.

People who have known her well acknowledge her protective shell. “Hillary is a person who feels herself very vulnerable, and her response is to make herself bulletproof,” said Nancy Pietrafesa, a classmate of Mrs. Clinton’s at Wellesley College.

Friends and others say that Mrs. Clinton’s wariness has been buttressed by the years of scrutiny and ego-mangling she has endured. She has seemingly spent much of her waking life weathering public storms, each known by shorthand: Gennifer, Paula, Monica, Cookies and Teas, Travelgate, Filegate, Pardongate, Troopergate, Whitewater, Cattle Futures, Impeachment. Among other things, she has also been accused of having a grating voice and bad taste in clothes.

“She’s been attacked every day for the last 15 years,” said Jim Blair, Diane Blair’s husband. “What else are they going to say or find about her?”

Ann Henry, a friend from Arkansas, recalled that in the early 1980s, when Mrs. Clinton was being assailed over her efforts to overhaul the state’s education system, she took Mrs. Henry to a store in Little Rock to buy bath salts.

“At the end of every day, Hillary said she liked to give Chelsea a bath and wash off all of that day’s dirt and let it flow down the drain,” Mrs. Henry said. “That’s essentially her approach. Get dirty, then wash it all off and move on.”

Mrs. Clinton said it is a constant challenge to protect herself emotionally and still connect with the people she yearns to serve. “It’s not easy, and I don’t think it’s ever been easy,” she said. “You go out into public, and no one, whether you’re running for office, or going to work for a newspaper, or running a subway car, you never are open with every nerve ending.”

The Rev. Ed Matthews, a Methodist pastor in Little Rock, who ministered to Mrs. Clinton in Arkansas and in the White House and attended Mrs. Blair’s memorial service, has seen Mrs. Clinton at vulnerable moments. But Mr. Matthews acknowledges that her public bearing can at times “cause people to wonder how open she would be to my needs and feelings.”

“I think there has been a natural steeling process that has gone on,” he said. “I don’t think she has intended to be a harder person. ‘Cautious’ might be a better word.”

Learning self-sufficiency
Growing up in the Chicago suburb of Park Ridge, Ill., Mrs. Clinton learned early the virtue of a sturdy spine and stiff upper lip. Her father, Hugh Rodham, who owned a small drapery-making business, was spare in his praise, if not his spankings. He was “a tough and gruff man,” as Bill Clinton described him in his eulogy. When his only daughter brought home stellar grades, Mr. Rodham suggested that she “must go to an easy school.”

Dorothy Rodham, who had survived a harsh childhood, pushed her own three children to stand up for themselves. In one oft-told story, Mrs. Rodham encouraged Hillary — then 4 — to “hit back” against a bullying neighbor.

“She later told me she watched from behind the curtain as I squared my shoulders and marched across the street,” Mrs. Clinton wrote in her memoir, “Living History.” “I returned a few minutes later, glowing with victory.”

Now 88, Mrs. Rodham lives in Washington with Mrs. Clinton, who describes her mother as her hero and role model, if not a confidante. Mrs. Rodham told the author Gail Sheehy in 1998: “We don’t sit down and have those mother-daughter discussions about how she relates to her husband, her daughter, or anything else as far as her personal life is concerned. We don’t talk about deeply personal things.”

In high school and then college, Hillary Rodham worked with and was friendly with many, but had few intimates, a pattern that has continued throughout her life. People remember her as fun, focused on politics and student government and not given to confidences.

“Whatever Hillary may have been going through, and I don’t imagine it was too major, she seemed more comfortable being in the role of counselor,” said Hardye Moel, a friend from Park Ridge.

In a letter to a high school friend, John Peavoy, when she was at Wellesley, Mrs. Clinton expressed a preference for “worrying about other people and the state of the world” rather then facing the “opaque reality” of her own self.

Mrs. Clinton had a difficult adjustment after following her eventual husband Bill Clinton to Arkansas, partly because it marked a transition into being a public figure. “Bill genuinely likes being with people; Hillary does not,” said Ms. Pietrafesa, who was a close friend of Mrs. Clinton when they were in their 20s but has not spoken to her in many years.

She was a reluctant campaigner, recalled Rudy Moore, a former campaign manager and chief of staff to Mr. Clinton when he was governor. “I didn’t sense that getting out and pressing the flesh was something that she liked at all,” he said. Mrs. Clinton was thin-skinned and took criticism hard. Her response was often to buckle down and lash out.

Her defensiveness was partly due to her direct manner and doubting nature. In Arkansas, Mrs. Clinton was perceived as the cold realist to Bill’s more sanguine softy. “She was much more inclined to see people’s dark sides,” Mr. Moore said. “She had a more practical view of what people’s motives could be.”

She also discovered what life in the political fishbowl could be like. Stories about her husband’s extramarital dalliances were widely circulated in Arkansas political circles, from their earliest days in the state. (“It’s nothing she didn’t know when they were dating,” Mr. Blair said.)

A difficult adjustment
Mrs. Clinton said that Washington was much more of a shock than Arkansas, though. Diane Blair spent weeks at the White House to ease her transition in early 1993. The two women had met two decades earlier, kindred spirits who had moved reluctantly to Arkansas (Mrs. Blair, who attended Cornell, grew up in Washington). Mrs. Clinton, pregnant with Chelsea, stood as “best person” to Diane at her wedding to Jim Blair in 1979; Bill Clinton, then the governor, presided (in top hat and tails).

In Washington, the two friends would don baseball caps and take long walks to escape the prison sanctuary of the White House. The travails of Mr. Clinton’s first term — the political blundering, controversies over the Clintons’ financial dealings and rampant criticism in the news media — had already begun. Jim Blair played a part in another dust-up when it was revealed that he had helped Mrs. Clinton make nearly $100,000 in profits from trading in commodities futures.

“It was during that time when they were already kind of under siege that Hillary and I grew closer,” Mrs. Blair said in an oral history at the University of Arkansas archives. (In addition to her teaching position, Mrs. Blair served as chairwoman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in the Clinton administration.)

To the outside word, Mrs. Clinton seemed variously combative or stoic. But friends said she suffered in private, crying and blaming herself. Mr. Matthews, the Methodist pastor, visited Mrs. Clinton at the White House in 1994 and recalls her sitting at her desk, saying plaintively how difficult a time she was having.

Worse, friends said, was a sense of betrayal. She felt deeply wounded by Webb Hubbell, who resigned as associate attorney general after it was disclosed that he had padded billing records at the Rose Law Firm in Little Rock, where Mrs. Clinton had worked. The 1993 suicide of Vince Foster, a close friend and former law partner who was working as deputy White House counsel, shattered her. And she seethed for months after publication of “The Agenda,” Bob Woodward’s inside account of the administration based on a torrent of leaks.

Mr. Clinton’s relationship with Monica Lewinsky was the ultimate betrayal.

It was “the most devastating, shocking and hurtful experience of my life,” Mrs. Clinton wrote in her memoir. She worried that the ordeal would turn her into “the brittle caricature some critics accused me of being.”

Mr. Matthews recalled sitting with Mrs. Clinton at a White House prayer breakfast shortly after Mr. Clinton confessed to the affair. “I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she whispered to him as he knelt before her.

She turned to Mrs. Blair, who traveled frequently to Washington to comfort Mrs. Clinton and confront the president, calling him an “idiot,” among other things. (“I think Diane was angrier than Hillary was,” Jim Blair said.)

From others, Mrs. Clinton mostly resisted overtures of support, saying she did not want to get people in trouble in case they were contacted by the news media or issued subpoenas. Longtime friends received most un-Hillarylike form letters in response to their “hang in there” notes.

After Mrs. Clinton helped thwart Republican efforts to oust Mr. Clinton from office, friends say she found solace by initiating her own run for elective office. She was not shy about invoking her embattled past during her Senate campaign in New York.

“My policy for the last eight years has largely been to absorb whatever insult, whatever charge, whatever accusation anybody said and not respond because they are so outrageous and so unfair,” she said in a news conference. “I’ve been accused of everything from complicity in murder to, you know, you name it.”

Market-tested warmth
As a presidential candidate, other than frequent reminders of her “scars,” Mrs. Clinton’s tone has, until recently, been different. Her campaign has strived to create a cozier, more welcoming feel (more girlfriend than warrior princess, campaign events billed as “conversations”). Mrs. Clinton has remained strenuously on message, perpetually on guard.

Her discipline has been viewed as an asset by political strategists but with some frustration by admirers who have found her straitjacketed by the data-driven and market-tested sensibilities of her pollsters. Surveys show that Mrs. Clinton is the candidate seen as most likely to say what she thinks voters want to hear rather than what she truly believes.

“I understand where they’re coming from,” Mr. Matthews said of those who find her overly staged. “I would just say to them, ‘I wish you knew the Hillary I think I know.’”

Few have seen that more-open Hillary Clinton in public in recent years, which is what made her eulogy for Diane Blair so remarkable.

During her tribute, Mrs. Clinton donned a pair of Mrs. Blair’s giant round glasses. She talked of Mrs. Blair’s love of moose (yes, the animal), needlepoint and dressing up as Richard Nixon for Halloween. She recalled how the two friends once played tennis with very bouncy balls, made in Korea. “We made up words that we assumed were Korean and screamed them at one another,” Mrs. Clinton said.

It was left to Bill Clinton to bring the service to its emotional peak. He talked of Jim Blair’s devotion to his wife at the end of her life, how he had never seen such a “more beautiful expression of love.”

When he spoke of Mrs. Blair, Mr. Clinton wept. “I felt about her as I have rarely felt about anyone,” he said. His wife, Diane Blair’s best friend, held steady in the front row.