What series of events took Mrs. Clinton through these, and other, political categories? Historians Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta write that “Hillary was a spirited and deeply conservative Republican.”
It is worth noting that words like ‘liberal, conservative, Democrat, Republican, moderate, left, right, progresive’ are ambiguous, and their meanings change significantly from context to context. What was Hillary Clinton’s context?
In 1960, her favorite teacher, much of her local community, and “her father supported Vice President Richard M. Nixon for the presidency.” As a young person, Hillary was formed by her environment, by the people around her, “And, of course, Hillary also wanted Nixon to win.”
What did she find attractive about Nixon? After eight years in office, he functioned largely as an extension of Eisenhower’s policies: he was working for what would become the twenty-sixth amendment, lowering the voting age from 21 to 18. Nixon also embraced Ike’s view that the United States should not enter, or commit militarily to, the war in Vietnam.
Not only Hillary, but much of her generation liked what Nixon meant for young voters.
Nixon’s loss in the 1960 election was heartbreaking for the young Hillary Clinton. “The day after the election, Hillary’s social studies teacher showed his students the bruises” which
he had received when he challenged the Democratic Party’s poll watchers at his voting precinct on Election Day. Hillary and her friend Betsy Johnson were infuriated. To Hillary, her teacher’s ordeal dramatically supported her father’s contention that Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley’s “creative vote counting had won the election for President-Elect Kennedy.” Hillary and Betsy were so upset about what had happened to Mr. Kenvin that they took a moment during their lunch period to use a pay phone outside the school cafeteria to call Mayor Daley’s office to complain.
It was a disillusioning moment for the young Hillary. Her youthful understanding of freely-elected representation was shattered by the realization that the system was corrupted.
Her father, although disappointed, was more realistic, and accepting of the fact that system was as good as it could be, given the imperfect nature both of the world and of people. Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta continue:
On the Saturday morning after the election, the determined young women decided to help a Republican group check voter lists against addresses in an attempt to find voter fraud. Both girls participated without getting permission from their parents. Hillary was driven to a poor neighborhood on the South Side, where she went knocking on doors, an act that was “fearless and stupid,” she recalled. “I woke up a lot of people who stumbled to the door or yelled at me to go away. And I walked into a bar where men were drinking to ask if certain people on my list actually lived there.” Hillary found clear evidence of voter fraud - a vacant lot that was listed as the address for a dozen alleged voters. She was thrilled with her detective work and could not wait to tell her father that she had discovered that Daley had indeed stolen the election for Kennedy. “Of course, when I returned home and told my father where I had been, he went nuts. It was bad enough to go downtown without an adult, but to go to the South Side alone sent him into a yelling fit,” she recalled. “And besides, he said, Kennedy was going to be President whether we liked it or not.”
Idealism did not die quickly for Hillary Clinton, however. In 1964, dismayed by LBJ’s foreseeable escalation and debacle in Vietnam, she supported Barry Goldwater. She liked Goldwater for many of the same reason she, and others of her generation, liked Nixon in 1960.
Gradually, however, her attachment to a system of representative democracy eased. Seeing Chicago’s mayor Daley orchestrate a flood of falsified ballots, election after election, she began to drift toward the notion that an elite corps of experts, installed at the helm of government, was a better mechanism than any type of voting.
Of course this view, a type of progressivism, was also not realistic, and would require compromises with reality. She understood that elections would continue to occur. But her participation in them, as a voter or as a candidate, would no longer be idealistic, but rather opportunistic.
After Goldwater’s 1964 loss, Hillary’s engagement with the system became more pragmatic - or more cynical, depending upon one’s interpretation. Her experiences at Wellesley College nudged her in this direction. At Wellesley, she was a supporter of Nelson Rockefeller’s bid to gain the Republican nomination for the presidency. This marked her move to the left wing of the Republican Party.
Toward the end of her time at Wellesley, she served as an intern for a group of congressmen, including Gerald Ford. She would recall, many years later, that she was impressed with Ford, and believed that he had truly earned his reputation as an extremely honest individual.
Yet she left the Republican Party soon thereafter, when Rockefeller did not gain the nomination. By 1968, she was no longer supporting Nixon. That year’s Republican National Convention was the last one she would ever attend.
By 1974, she had long since stopped identifying herself as Republican, and was working to get Nixon impeached. Her attachment to the Democrat Party grew not out of her beliefs, but rather out of her perception that she had opportunities for advancement there. She had found LBJ more distasteful than Nixon, but was willing to use Johnson’s party for her own purposes.
While it is impossible to be certain about a historical figure’s inner thought processes, and wise historians do not engage in speculation, it seems that the seeds for Hillary Clinton’s eventual career were sown by Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley.
Although she was disappointed with the outcomes of the elections he manipulated, and outraged at the injustice of his electoral corruption, she eventually came to embrace his methods and his party. Her youthful idealism, once shattered, gave way to a hardened opportunism.