WASHINGTON — To hear Hillary Clinton talk, she's spent her entire career putting her Yale Law School degree to work for the common good.
She routinely tells voters that she's "been working to bring positive change to people's lives for 35 years." She told a voter in New Hampshire: "I've spent so much of my life in the nonprofit sector." Speaking in South Carolina, Bill Clinton said his wife "could have taken a job with a firm ... Instead she went to work with Marian Wright Edelman at the Children's Defense Fund."
The overall portrait is of a lifelong, selfless do-gooder. The whole story is more complicated — and less flattering.
Clinton worked at the Children's Defense Fund for less than a year, and that's the only full-time job in the nonprofit sector she's ever had. She also worked briefly as a law professor.
Clinton spent the bulk of her career — 15 of those 35 years — at one of Arkansas' most prestigious corporate law firms, where she represented big companies and served on corporate boards.
Neither she nor her surrogates, however, ever mention that on the campaign trail. Her campaign Web site biography devotes six paragraphs to her pro bono legal work for the poor but sums up the bulk of her experience in one sentence: "She also continued her legal career as a partner in a law firm."
The full truth doesn't fit into the carefully crafted narrative the campaign has developed about Clinton, said Sally Bedell Smith, the author of "For Love of Politics," a study of the Clintons' partnership.
"She wants to be seen as someone who has devoted her life to public service," Smith said. "I suppose if you say it enough, maybe you can get people to believe it."
Spokesman Phil Singer said the campaign highlights Clinton's side work because it discovered early on that voters didn't know about it.
Clinton did a great deal of public service work during her time at the Rose Law Firm in Little Rock. She served on the board of the Legal Services Corp. during the Carter administration and for a time was its chair. She helped found a child advocacy system in Arkansas and took on several tasks as the state's first lady, such as revisions of the state's education system and rural health care delivery. She also served on the board of directors of the Children's Defense Fund, and on the board of a children's hospital.
"It's important for voters to know that she worked to improve rural health care, to improve education," Singer said. "Yes, she worked at a law firm. Are voters interested in hearing about some accounting case she worked on, or things people care about in the real world? ... That's the point, that's the rationale. It's nothing more complicated than that."
Clinton did receive a smaller salary than most other Rose partners, topping out at about $200,000, in part because of her outside activities, according to several biographies.
But "these were all activities on the margins of her professional life, working as a corporate lawyer, representing corporations," biographer Smith said.
In her autobiography, "Living History," Clinton mentions two cases. In one, she represented a canning company against a man who found part of a dead rat in his pork and beans. In another, she represented a logging company accused of wrongdoing after an accident injured several workers. While Clinton used both anecdotes for comic effect, in both cases she was working for corporate interests.
She also served on corporate boards, including that of retail giant Wal-Mart from 1986-1992, frozen yogurt purveyor TCBY from 1985-1992 and cement manufacturer LaFarge from 1990-1992. She earned tens of thousands of dollars in fees from each.
Clinton's firm represented Wal-Mart and TCBY while she sat on their boards, a cozy practice that corporate governance experts frown upon because of the potential for conflicts of interest.
Politicians naturally want to stick to their chosen narratives, but other aspects of Clinton's relationship with the Rose Law Firm could remind voters of the more controversial side of the Clinton legacy.
There was her work on behalf of Madison Guaranty, a failed savings and loan at the heart of the Whitewater investigation — the billing records of which were mysteriously found in a White House storage room years after investigators first asked for them. And there's Webster Hubbell, a Rose partner, Clinton pal and high-ranking Justice Department official who was convicted of fraud charges related to his work at the firm.
Clinton isn't the only candidate downplaying less high-minded work. Rival Barack Obama cultivates a squeaky-clean image and referred to his work as a "civil rights attorney" at Thursday's Los Angeles debate. He didn't mention other work he did during his decade at Davis Miner Barnhill & Galland, a small Chicago law firm, helping craft housing deals involving millions of dollars in public subsidies.
Among those involved in some of the deals: Obama patron Tony Rezko. He donated thousands to Obama's campaigns, raised thousands more and was even involved in the purchase of the Obama family home in Chicago.
These days, Rezko is awaiting trial in federal court on fraud charges.