A two-part series of first encounters and initial impressions spanning five decades from Gennifer Flowers, Tom Brokaw, Erica Jong, Vaclav Havel and others.
(Compiled by Dana Cook)
Vernon Jordan, civil rights leader and presidential adviser
…I…met [Bill] Clinton’s wife, Hillary Rodham, in 1969 at a League of Women Voters event at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado. I was still at the Voter Education Project at the time and had come there to give a speech. She came up to me afterward and introduced herself. We liked each other at once. …
from Vernon Can Read!, by Vernon Jordan with Annette Gordon-Reed (Public Affairs/Perseus Books Group, 2001)
Law school den mother
Michael Medved, movie critic and radio broadcaster
…a handful of people I got to know through my first-year [Yale Law School, 1971] classes, with Hillary Rodham standing out as the warmest and most welcoming among them.
Even before she arrived in New Haven, she had earned a reputation as something of a star: as student body president at Wellesley, she’d been selected to deliver a tradition-breaking speech on commencement day expressing the widespread campus opposition to the [Vietnam] war, and Life magazine had featured her photograph and extensive excerpts from the speech.
…Our first-year ranks of 165 students included fewer than 30 females, who could conveniently be divided into “princesses” or “pals,” and Hillary definitely counted as a pal. She assumed this position in no small part because she so obviously eschewed traditional notions of glamour, with her thick glasses, mousy brown hair, heavy-set build, bulky sweatshirts, loose-fitting slacks, and sensible sandals. While she always possessed a winning, dimpled smile and a pleasant, friendly face, no one could describe the first-year law student I knew as a magnet for erotic male attention. Unlike most people, she unmistakably upgraded her appearance between her early twenties and her early fifties, making herself conspicuously thinner and blonder and vastly more fashionable.
In law school, Hillary’s earthy and unprepossessing appearance equipped her perfectly for her primary social role: as unofficial den mother for all the boys in our class. She came across as more compassionate than competitive, demonstrating genuine concern for the well-being of all her friends and even acquaintances. … (New Haven, Conn.)
from Right Turns: Unconventional Lessons from a Controversial Life, by Michael Medved (Crown Forum/Random House, 2004)
Strength and self-possession
Bill Clinton, President and husband of HRC
While [Yale] law school and politics were going well, my personal life was a mess. I had broken up with a young woman who went home to marry her old boyfriend, then had a painful parting with a law student I liked very much but couldn’t commit to. I was just about reconciled to being alone and was determined not to get involved with anyone for a while. Then one day, when I was sitting at the back of Professor [Tom] Emerson’s class in Political and Civil Rights, I spotted a woman I hadn’t seen before. Apparently she attended even less frequently than I did. She had thick dark hair blond hair and wore eyeglasses and no makeup, but she conveyed a sense of strength and self-possession I had rarely seen in anyone, man or woman. After class I followed her out, intending to introduce myself. When I got a couple of feet from her, I reached out my hand to touch her shoulder, then immediately pulled it back. It was almost a physical reaction. Somehow I knew that this wasn’t another tap on the shoulder, that I might be starting something I couldn’t stop.
I saw the girl several times around school over the next few days, but didn’t approach her. Then one night I was standing at one end of the long, narrow Yale Law Library talking to another student, Jeff Gleckel, about joining the Yale Law Journal. Jeff urged me to do it, saying it would assure me a good clerkship with a federal judge or a job with one of the blue-chip law firms. He made a good case, but I just wasn’t interested; I was going home to Arkansas, and in the meantime preferred politics to the law review. After a while I suddenly stopped paying attention to his earnest entreaty because I saw the girl again, standing at the other end of the room. For once, she was staring back at me. After a while she closed her book, walked the length of the library, looked me in the eye, and said, “If you’re going to keep staring at me and I’m going to keep staring back, we ought to at least know each other’s names. Mine’s Hillary Rodham. What’s yours?” (New Haven, Conn., 1972)
from My Life, by Bill Clinton (Alfred A. Knopf, 2004)
Norris Church Mailer, wife of novelist Norman
On [1974 Congressional] election night, he [Bill Clinton, whom she had been dating] invited me to headquarters in Fayetteville [Ark.] to wait for the returns, and I went with several friends. There were, of course, a lot of women there, but there was one I’d never seen before who seemed to be running things, rushing around answering phones, obviously in charge. Her name was Hillary, she wore enormous thick glasses, no makeup, and rather ugly colorless baggy clothing. Someone whispered that she was the girlfriend. I said, “Really?” surprised at first, but as the evening wore on, I could see there was something extraordinary about her. She had an intelligence that none of the prettier girls in the room had. If I ever had a pang of jealousy, it was for that, when I knew he and she must have had a relationship that was fired by intellect. …
from A Ticket to the Circus, by Norris Church Mailer (Random House, 2010)
‘Big, fat butt’
Gennifer Flowers, mistress of Bill Clinton
I went to the [Bill Clinton gubernatorial] fund-raiser with a friend and was having a wonderful time chatting with the other guests and catching Bill’s eye as often as I could. I wandered over to the bar to get a fresh drink and while the bartender was pouring and mixing, I glanced across the room and there stood Hillary less than five meet from me. Someone standing near me confirmed that’s who it was.
I was shocked. She looked like a fat frump with her hair hanging down kind of curly and wavy. She had big, thick glasses; an ugly dress; and a big, fat butt. My first thought was, “What in the hell does he see in her?” I knew Bill was capable of loving a woman for her mind, but I couldn’t understand what I was seeing. Besides looking dumpy, she was behaving oddly—flamboyantly buzzing around with a drink in her hand talking and laughing. She seemed intent on trying to draw attention to herself, and she certainly was doing that. Everyone was staring at her, wondering exactly what she was up to. All I could see was this big fat butt wiggling around. I kept looking at her, and I thought, “What is she doing?” (Little Rock, Ark., late 1970s)
from Passion and Betrayal, by Gennifer Flowers with Jacquelyn Dapper (Emery Dalton Books, 1995)
David Gergen, presidential adviser, journalist and acacemic
Over the New Year’s holiday, [Bill Clinton] and Hillary usually attended Renaissance Weekends in Hilton Head [S.C.], an event that began in the early 1980s as a small gathering of families, mostly from the South. …
Before Renaissance started up, I was giving a talk at the Smithsonian one day when a woman at the back of the room asked a question about [President Ronald] Reagan that pinned me to the wall. I struggled through an answer, and she came back with another zinger that I ducked. “Who in the devil was that?” I asked afterward. “Hillary Clinton,” I was told. At Hilton Head, she and got to know each other better and sometimes had a friendly joust. One argument turned pretty fierce when I praised business leaders for pushing education reform, and she insisted they ought to keep their mitts off the schools. I came to like her but was closer to her husband.
from Eyewitness to Power: The Essence of Leadership, Nixon to Clinton, by David Gergen (Simon & Schuster, 2000)
George Stephanopolous, communications director for President Bill Clinton
…to the [Arkansas] governor’s mansion, when Clinton swung open an aluminum screen door by the kitchen to welcome me in and show me around.
He kept on talking as I followed him to the bedroom, where he started to change out of his jeans for a downtown lunch, then stopped to hand me an article from a pile on one of the night tables. There were two of them—one for him, one for her—both loaded down with novels, magazines, issue papers, and spiritual books. I hadn’t yet met Hillary, but seeing the night tables made me picture the two of them propped up late at night, passing their reading back and forth, arguing, laughing, educating each other, sharing a passion for ideas.
Then she appeared in the bedroom door. Hillary was prettier than the pictures I’d seen, with a dimpled smile that didn’t match her high-powered reputation and a tailored suit that did. Walking over in his briefs, Clinton smacked a sloppy kiss on her cheek and introduced us. “I’ve heard so much about you,” she said, her Midwestern accent slowed just a touch by her years in the South. (Little Rock, 1991)
from All Too Human: A Political Education, by George Stephanopolous (Little, Brown and Company, 1999)
Robert Novak, pundit
I was not an original member of Hillary Clinton’s “vast right-wing conspiracy” determined to destroy her husband. When in late 1991 Clinton’s enemies in Arkansas put out stories of his serial womanizing, I questioned their propriety for a presidential campaign. I was even put in the position of the pro-Clinton host on one Crossfire. That may explain my experience in Chicago on Saturday, November 23, 1991, at the national meeting of Democratic state chairmen. I was chatting with [Chicago Democratic operative and future Secretary of Commerce] Bill Daley at a Friday night reception in the new Comiskey Park when we were joined by an attractive woman who looked vaguely familiar but whom I did not recognize. She came over as friendly to Daley and even friendlier to me, telling me how much she appreciated me in print and on TV. Only after she had moved on as she worked the crowd did I realize it was Hillary Rodham Clinton.
from The Prince of Darkness: 50 Years Reporting in Washington, by Robert D. Novak (Crown/Forum, 2007)
A way about her
James Carville, Democratic political adviser
The [1992 presidential] campaign scuttlebutt was that Hillary Rodham Clinton was somebody to deal with, a tough woman. A factor.
Now, I’m not real likely to take anyone’s word at face value; I like to observe things for myself. You look at somebody’s eyes, you listen to the way they talk, you notice the way somebody’s child acts around them. I decided the first time I met her that I was going to take five minutes and do nothing but watch Hillary.
You didn’t have to be a genius in room dynamics to figure out the drift of her place in the campaign. You got it from her body language, from the deference with which people spoke to her, from the way she was referred to in the conversations that were breaking out around her. She has a way about her.
I should declare myself early: I am a big Hillary fan.
Where most people made their mistake with Hillary was to think that they couldn’t disagree with her for fear of offending her or getting iced out of access to the candidate. That was another straight myth, that whatever Hillary said was law. Hillary didn’t by any stretch of the imagination always get her way with her husband.
from All’s Fair: Love, War, and Running for President, by Mary Matalin and James Carville with Peter Knobler (Random House, 1994)
Smarter than her Husband
Ed Rollins, Republican political adviser
Hillary Clinton, too [like Barbara Bush], is tougher and a lot smarter than her husband. Her intervention in the 1992 campaign helped him get elected. She brought focus and discipline to the campaign, qualities alien to her husband. She cracked heads in the campaign hierarchy, and centralized power in James Carville. And I’m convinced her stoic performance on the famous 60 Minutes interview put the issue of Clinton’s philandering to rest for the remainder of the campaign. Hillary did what she had to do—stonewall the truth. If she’d shown any emotion, any hint of her private hurt and pain, it would have been all over for him. She’s been a political liability for much of his presidency, and if he’s reelected it will be in spite of her. But he never would have won in the first place without her, and he knows it.
from Bare Knuckles and Back Rooms: My Life in American Politics, by Ed Rollins with Tom Defrank (Broadway Books, 1996)
Madeline Albright, ambassador to the UN and Secretary of State
Hillary Clinton was well known long before her husband was elected President. There was the fuss, while he was governor of Arkansas, about her wanting to keep her maiden name, and stories about how smart she was. She came to Washington with some frequency [in the 1980s] to speak at civic and political events. I met her at a benefit for one of my favourite organizations, the Children’s Defense Fund, on whose board she served and at one point chaired. I introduced myself as a fellow graduate of Wellesley and told her I had been impressed with her speech. She responded warmly and the seeds of friendship were sown.
I saw her a few times during the 1992 campaign and again at a retreat for the cabinet held at Camp David [Md.] after the inauguration. This was a bizarre event, with barely acquainted people crowded into cabins and force-fed a dose of New Age relationship building. In the closed atmosphere, the First Lady was pure oxygen. Excited by the promise of what lay ahead, she was on top of all the issues and a persuasive participant in discussions. In the following months I learned how informed she was and how interested in foreign policy.
from Madam Secretary, by Madeleine Albright with Bill Woodward (Miramax Books, 2003)
Tom Brokaw, broadcast journalist and author
During the Clintons’ first term [1992-1996], my wife, Meredith, and I were honored by an organization promoting day care for children in the workplace. The organizers invited Hillary to speak.
She arrived without an entourage and spoke eloquently without notes on the difficult choices working mothers have to make because of the absence of a strong day care commitment in the corporate world. Republicans as well as Democrats left the evening remarking on her impressive performance.
Not for the first time, I was struck by the difference in her image in small gatherings—warm and engaging—and her image in a big hall or on television where she came off as hard-charging and formidable…
from Boom! Voices of the Sixties: Personal Reflections on the ‘60s and Today, by Tom Brokaw (Random House, 2007)
[Dana Cook’s collections of literary, show biz and political encounters have appeared in a wide range of newspapers, magazines and journals. Contact: cooks.encounters(at)gmail.com]