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Hillary Clinton’s call to public service came early

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And now: from a conservative Goldwater girl, to the presumptive Democratic nominee for president.

    Tonight, we begin our series exploring Hillary Clinton's life, starting with her entrance into politics.

    HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D), Presidential Candidate: It may be hard to see tonight, but we are all standing under a glass ceiling right now.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Almost half-a-century before Hillary Clinton became the first American woman to head up a major party's presidential ticket, Hillary Rodham was making history as the first ever student to deliver a commencement address at Wellesley College in 1969.

  • HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON:

    We feel that, for too long, our leaders have viewed politics as the art of the possible. And the challenge now is to practice politics as the art of making what appears to be impossible possible.

    REBECCA TRAISTER, Author, "All The Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation": Buried in it is the blueprint for so much of what would come in the future for Hillary Clinton that I think still resonates today, when she's on the verge of perhaps becoming the first woman president.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Author Rebecca Traister describes Clinton's college years as a political transformation, from her roots in this conservative Chicago suburb.

  • HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON:

    My father put everything he had into a small fabric printing shop in Chicago. My mother was out on her own working as a house maid at the age of 14. So, I grew up respecting the dignity of hard work.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Growing up, Rodham's politics mirrored those of her father, a staunch Republican. As a college freshman, she served as president of the Young Republicans Club, but she graduated as a liberal Democrat, who would eventually work on George McGovern's 1972 presidential campaign.

  • REBECCA TRAISTER:

    She became a young adult in this era in which the great social movements of the 20th century were totally reshaping the nation, the civil rights movement, the women's movement, the gay rights movement. All of that was fomenting as she was coming to political consciousness.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    After college came Yale Law School and work with the Children's Defense Fund, where she knocked on doors, collecting data about poor children. It was the start of a long string of public service work, work that political reporter Indira Lakshmanan says motivates Clinton to this day.

  • INDIRA LAKSHMANAN, Journalist:

    She is driven by certain things that are important to her, the welfare of women and children, health care for all Americans, income inequality.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    As Hillary was forming her ideas about public service, a fellow law student named Bill entered the picture.

  • REBECCA TRAISTER:

    He was from Arkansas, and he wanted to go back and start his political career. And so, in the early '70s, Hillary Rodham had this choice: Does she embark on her own career, or does she go to Arkansas, where she doesn't know anybody except for her boyfriend, and begin a career on her own as a lawyer, but really as a secondary figure to this man who is going to embark on what she thinks is destined to be a very serious and successful career in politics?

    And, of course, we know she chooses to do the latter.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    In October, 1975, Hillary Rodham married Bill Clinton at their home in Fayetteville, Arkansas. While Bill followed his political ambitions, getting elected Arkansas' attorney general, Hillary supported the family by joining a Little Rock law firm, where she became their first female partner.

  • REBECCA TRAISTER:

    There was no clear-cut path for a woman to just walk into politics on her own coming out of law school. And part of what Hillary Clinton now says about that is, it just didn't really occur to her or seem like something that made sense, that she wanted to participate in making policy, not as a headliner and not as a candidate herself, but as an advocate and kind of as a policy wonk.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    When Bill was elected governor in 1979, Hillary took on an unofficial, but active role, says former White House aide David Gergen.

  • DAVID GERGEN, Former White House Aide:

    For a long, long time, even before she got to the White House, when the Clintons were in Arkansas and she was asked by her husband to take the lead on some various initiatives there, and she bravely went out and did that.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Indeed, Clinton appointed his wife to head up the Arkansas Education Standards Committee, where she worked to reform the state's public schools, at a time when Arkansas was one of the lowest-performing states in the country.

  • HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON:

    Because we're going to give them every chance we can to develop their minds, so that they can play a role in this state, this country to make it the kind of place it needs to be!

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    By the end of his time as governor, Bill Clinton was praised for his education reforms, many of which came out of that committee, and public school performance had improved markedly.

  • INDIRA LAKSHMANAN:

    The Clintons' argument has always been, even if unspoken, this sort of idea that you get a two-for-one deal with them. You get two people who are incredibly smart and well-educated and, again, whether you agree with their policies or not, are committed to certain policies and have been trying to work on those all their lives.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    It was a theme Bill Clinton carried over to his run for the White House.

  • HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON:

    If we want a president that brings out the best in us, then I think the choice is clear. It's the next president of the United States Bill Clinton.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But that working relationship, says Gergen, would take a toll on their marriage.

  • DAVID GERGEN:

    My sense was, they'd been so deeply involved in their public lives, that they — and there was so much going on, they really never settled what the rules of the road were when they came the White House. And it was volatile. It was a volatile relationship.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    How volatile wasn't visible to the outside world.

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