How Hillary Clinton Became a Political Powerhouse

May 9th 2015

Dante Atkins

The senators and governors who dominate the conversations of presidential politics may be household names to the people who follow politics for a living, however, regular voters probably have little context for what chain of events propelled the candidate to be a serious contender for presidency.

Among Millennial voters, Hillary Clinton doesn’t have this problem. The former Secretary of State, Senator from New York, and First Lady has been a figure in public life for as long as some voters have been alive, and only the oldest members of the millennial generation would have any memory of politics without her as a prominent national figure.

But those who only know Clinton from her 2008 run for the presidency or her tenure as Secretary of State—or perhaps from the famous “texts from Hillary” meme—might need an introduction to how Hillary Rodham Clinton came to be.

1. High school Republican: 1960-1964

No, that’s not a joke. If you ever need proof that our political views are heavily shaped by family and authority figures, look no further than the woman who seems likely to win the 2016 Democratic nomination.

Clinton grew up in a Republican suburb of Chicago. She described her father as being a proud conservative Republican, and when encouraged by an equally conservative high school teacher, she became an avid supporter of arch-conservative Senator Barry Goldwater’s doomed campaign against President Lyndon Johnson in 1964. And although Clinton gradually peeled away from conservatism in high school, she also interned for future Republican president Gerald Ford and worked to try to secure the Republican presidential nomination for Nelson Rockefeller in 1968.

2. Hillary Rodham: 1965-1975

Sure, Hillary Clinton is a well-known political spouse. But if you think she only got to a position of prominence because she married someone who ended up being president, you should meet the former Hillary Rodham.

As a college activist at Wellesley, Clinton had earned enough of a reputation that she was invited to give a speech at commencement. Her speech—much of it an extemporaneous response to the Republican Senator who spoke before her—dismissed calls for political civility and defended the vociferous protest movements that was a hallmark of youth activism at the time. The speech created such a stir that an excerpt from it was published in LIFE magazine. A quick re-read suggests it hasn’t lost its relevance.

Clinton continued her upward rise at Yale Law School (1969-1973). Upon graduation, she went to work on the committee that was drafting impeachment articles against Richard Nixon. By all accounts, she was headed for a very bright future. While at Yale, she had met Bill Clinton, a man whom she believed could end up being president. She ended up leaving the capital for Texas to join him and combine their lives and political futures.

3. An advocate for children

A constant throughout Ms. Clinton’s career has been her advocacy on behalf of children. While at Yale, Ms. Clinton worked at the Yale Child Study Center and assisted with child abuse cases at the local hospital. After graduating from law school, she stayed in Yale an extra year to be with Bill, but she wasn’t idle: she spent the time doing a year of postgraduate study at the Yale Child Study Center, and published an article in the Harvard Educational Review that called for evaluating the legal rights of children on a case-by-case basis—which was a novel theory at the time. During that year, she was also a staff attorney for the Children’s Defense Fund and a consultant for the Carnegie Council on Children.

In 1977, just a few years after both Bill and Hillary Clinton moved to Arkansas, she went to work at the prestigious Rose Law Firm, and worked pro bono on child advocacy cases. She continued to produce scholarship on children’s rights during this time, publishing two articles that were considered by her peers to be highly influential in the field and drawing ire from more conservative thinkers. Toward the end of her years as the First Lady of Arkansas, she was a Board member of Arkansas Children’s Hospital Legal Services, as well as the Children’s Defense Fund.

4. A new kind of first lady

Clinton was not willing to conform to the mold of a traditional political wife. Even after her marriage, Hillary Clinton was intending on staying Hillary Rodham and not changing her name (however, that didn’t play very well in culturally conservative Arkansas, and may have even contributed to her husband not winning re-election as governor of Arkansas in 1980.) She wrote that she only relented because Bill’s chances of winning back the governor’s mansion were more important than whether or not she changed her last name. Clinton also continued to work at a prominent law office while her husband was governor

According to her own memoirs as well as outside sources, she played a key role in her husband’s campaigns for governor of Arkansas, and also factored into key policy decisions within the administration. She took the same approach when Bill Clinton ran for the White House and won in 1992. Hillary Clinton’s political savvy, independent spirit and involvement in the campaign became controversial in a way it might not be today—and it even forced Bill Clinton to reassure the nation that his wife would not be a “co-president.”

She wasn’t co-president, but she was certainly entrusted with important tasks. Shortly after taking office, President Clinton appointed the First Lady to head up his administrations task force on health insurance reform—a top priority of his administration. The effort, which came to be known as “HillaryCare,” failed in Congress because of overwhelming opposition from Republicans and the health insurance industry. But it still established her role as a policymaker who would exceed the roles traditionally assigned to First Ladies before her.

5. Scandals in the White House

When Bill Clinton was president, he was investigated repeatedly for a land deal that came to be known as Whitewater. It turns out that the Clintons were likely more the victims of shady business partners than anything else, and did nothing illegal—but the independent counsel originally appointed to investigate Whitewater ultimately turned into a catch-all for every allegation of impropriety their political opponents could muster—including the scandal surrounding Monica Lewinsky, for which President Clinton was later impeached.

6. The Beijing speech: a champion of women’s rights: 1995

Hillary Clinton isn’t a women’s rights icon in the United States simply because she has such a good shot at becoming the first woman to hold the presidency. She has earned that status through her actions and attitudes.

Her strong support for women’s rights hit the world stage at the 1995 World Conference on Women in Beijing. During a time of tenuous relations between the United States and China, Ms. Clinton delivered a tour de force speech of remarkable content. Toward the conclusion of her speech, she proceed to make a list of the most prominent abuses of women’s rights in China, followed by the now-famous line: “If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights once and for all.” The New York Times reported that Ms. Clinton spoke more forcefully than any American dignitary had on Chinese soil, and cataloged “a devastating litany of abuse.” 20 years later, that speech is still considered a watershed moment in women’s rights, and one of Ms. Clinton’s best moments in the public eye.

6. Iraq: the mistake that may have cost her the presidency: 2002

After her husband left the White House, Hillary Clinton won election as a US Senator from New York in 2000. While in her first senate term she made a mistake that may have cost her the presidency: in 2002, she voted for the Authorization to Use Military Force in Iraq. This authorization gave George W. Bush the congressional cover he needed to use his doctrine of pre-emption against Saddam Hussein’s regime.

She views it as a grievous mistake now. This vote wasn’t the only reason that Ms. Clinton lost the 2008 Democratic Primary to her former Senate colleague from Illinois—but it certainly didn’t help. Barack Obama only arrived in the Senate in 2004, and by that time, opposition to the war within the Democratic Party—led in no small part by the presidential campaign of Howard Dean—had become mainstream. The anti-war left viewed the vote on the Iraq resolution as a primary point of contrast between Clinton and Obama, and punished her for it constantly. And should she win the primary, it likely won’t be a point of contrast between her and the Republican nominee.

7. Benghazi: 2012

On September 11, 2012, a group of militants from the Islamist terror organization Ansar al-Sharia attacked the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya. The attack killed four Americans, including US Ambassador Christopher Stevens. Hillary Clinton happened to be Secretary of State at the time.

Despite various accusations and conspiracy theories perpetrated by Republican House members in a transparent effort to bring down the next likely Democratic presidential candidate, repeated Republican-led investigations into the issue have found no wrongdoing. But just like the Whitewater investigation, the investigation into Benghazi has dug up material for subsequent investigations—in this case, a probe into the fact that while Secretary of State, Ms. Clinton used a private email server. This also isn’t illegal, and was done by previous Secretaries of State as well. However, it has made people question Clinton’s transparency as a leader.

So what does it all mean?

It doesn’t matter whether you love her or hate her. Whether you think she’s too far left, or not left enough. Hillary Rodham Clinton is a towering figure in American politics—and she got there by earning it, not by riding anyone’s coattails. We’ll see if the voters deem her worthy of shattering the ultimate glass ceiling 18 months from now.

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