Politics & Government

Clinton's years at Yale Law key to her development

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — All that Hillary Rodham Clinton would become — all that inspires her allies and her enemies alike — emerged during her years roaming the Gothic buildings of Yale Law School.

She helped edit a journal that included cartoon police-pigs and that published a self-aggrandizing essay by a Black Panther who'd been convicted of murder. Yet she also helped calm a politically inflamed campus.

She nurtured an interest in using the law to aid the needy — especially children — that remains integral to her politics, but which opponents use to pummel her values.

She projected an intelligence that impressed many, but that could be cool and intimidating.

And she met fellow student Bill Clinton and developed the first stirrings of a unique partnership that's already made American history — and that she hopes will make more.

On the campaign trail, Clinton highlights her childhood in middle-class Park Ridge, Ill. She never mentions her education at one of America's most prestigious law schools, which was at least as important in developing the worldview that animates her campaign, an experience in which time and place combined to influence the paths and policies she'd pursue.

"Much of what I believe, and much of what I have worked for . . . is directly related to my time at the law school," Clinton told a Yale audience in 1992.

Yale was no typical elite law school stamping out high-dollar associates for white-shoe firms. Small, with a class of about 200 — perhaps 25 of them women — the school emphasized using the law for social change. It attracted students "interested in a public service career," said Douglas Eakeley, one of Bill Clinton's roommates.

Its lessons reverberate through Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign: In a recent speech, she declared that overhauling the American health-care system was "a moral question" because it's "unequal and unfair."


Hillary Rodham arrived at Yale in 1969 a minor celebrity, thanks to her commencement speech at equally elite Wellesley College outside Boston, where she rebuked a senator who was sitting nearby.

"You knew she was impressive, although you might not know why," classmate Paul Helmke said. "She held herself as someone that was going to be good at whatever she wanted to do. There was sort of an aura about her. Even then."

With that came a no-nonsense demeanor.

"You certainly wouldn't want to fall into her bad graces," Eakeley said. "I don't think she suffered fools gladly."

Rodham gained more prominence the second semester of her first year at Yale Law, when it seemed "the whole place was falling apart . . . the most intense year in the history of Yale Law School," said Laura Kalman, who wrote "Yale Law School and the Sixties: Revolt and Reverberations."

Several Black Panthers were on trial for murder in New Haven. The campus, opened to New Left demonstrators associated with the trial, became a circus. Downtown business owners, fearing violence, boarded up their windows. A law library was set afire. The shooting deaths of four student demonstrators at Kent State University in Ohio by National Guardsmen further enraged campuses nationwide.

Rodham — sympathetic to the angry left but insistent that its grievances could be resolved within the system — moderated a tense campus meeting at which violence seemed to percolate under the surface, as students debated how to respond to Kent State and issues specific to Yale.

Quoting an unnamed student, Kalman wrote: "Hillary did what nowadays would be international summitry — flying back and forth between sides," maintaining credibility with all, impressing faculty and fellow students, helping to keep New Haven peaceful.

Yale also introduced Rodham to children's issues, through work for the Children's Defense Fund and New Haven legal-aid lawyer Penn Rhodeen. Children would be a passion throughout Rodham's career: serving on the board of the Children's Defense Fund, writing "It Takes a Village" as first lady, working on children's health issues in Arkansas and Washington.

Rhodeen remembers Rodham as "a vision in purple. She had on this sheepskin coat . . . driving a purple Gremlin, and she had long Gloria Steinem hair and Gloria Steinem glasses"; a typical early '70s look, "only more so." They worked on a child custody case that sparked a deep interest in children's rights.

"She had a connection with this issue which was kind of astonishing to me," Rhodeen said. "Remember, she was just out of college. When you're that young, the last thing you want to do is think about children . . . . That struck me right away. Why is she so into this?"

Years later, Rhodeen learned that Rodham's mother had been abandoned by her parents and, at age 8, put in charge of her 3-year-old sister on a cross-country train to live a Dickensian existence with relatives.

"Hillary talks about being very moved by that," Rhodeen said. "That would be enough, honestly, that would loom . . . . I'm fully prepared to think that's formative in Hillary's family story."


Much later, those emerging passions provided fodder for Hillary-haters to portray her as an anti-family radical.

In the summer of 1971, Rodham worked at an Oakland, Calif., law firm at which at least two partners had been members of the Communist Party; one, Robert Treuhaft, had been a leading lawyer for the party. The firm previously had defended Black Panthers.

At a hearing of the Democratic National Committee in Boston, she urged that the party's 1972 platform "respond to a growing movement to extend civil and political rights to children," The New York Times reported. In 1973, she published an article in the Harvard Educational Review that asserted a broad view of children's rights.

Then there's her work as associate editor of the Yale Review of Law and Social Action, whose incendiary content included an issue featuring four forbidding soldiers on its cover, wearing gas masks and armed with rifles with fixed bayonets.

Many anti-Clinton books, articles and Web sites mine the Yale years; the late conservative writer Barbara Olson wrote that the Harvard article "reveals a leftist ideologue, dedicated to centrally directed social engineering, dismissive of the traditional role of the family, and interested in children primarily as levers with which to obtain political power."

Viewed through the context of time and place, there's less there than Clinton's opponents would like.

Beyond its overheated coverage of the Black Panther trial, much of the review's work focused on the law as social equalizer, including issues such as tenants' rights, with a heavy period dose of privileged young white guilt.

Mal Burnstein, the partner for whom Rodham did the most work during her summer in Oakland, said "the work she did with us was law. It was not politics."

Burnstein said that Clinton might have done research on a case challenging whether government doctors should be required to take loyalty oaths. Much of her work was legal research for the firm, which specialized in civil rights and civil liberties for Oakland's poorest, including tenant-landlord disputes and domestic and personal injury cases.

Her Harvard article was more about emerging legal theory than a public policy proposal, Rhodeen said.

"You're giving voice to a whole area of the law that really wasn't thought about," Rhodeen said. "She no more wants to pit children against their parents than the man on the moon. The thing is, when the child's just not getting the essentials of being able to grow up as a reasonably whole and secure human being, you gotta pay attention. And then what is the apparatus that will ensure attention is paid appropriately? So how you conceive that and what structures have to be in there and how those structures could play out, worst-case scenario, you have to think about that kind of stuff."


Rodham's time at Yale also was important for personal reasons: She met Bill Clinton in the cavernous law library in the spring of 1971. Their first date was at an art museum, and they eventually lived together on the first floor of a rickety two-story wood-frame house near the campus.

Clinton was a year behind Rodham. She remained a year after she could have graduated, taking courses in child development.

While the pair's relationship has been dissected endlessly, Rhodeen thinks it came down to something elemental: "She was gaga over him."

They also shared something else: Yale provided the forum for the first display of their professional partnership. The two were teammates for the Barrister's Union Prize Trial in the spring of 1972.

In presenting their case together, they honed the diversity of skills and division of labor that they'd later deploy to land Bill Clinton in the Oval Office.

"Even then, you could tell the difference in style," Eakeley said. "Both keenly intelligent. But Bill Clinton with a much more ingratiating and folksy approach to both the jury and the witnesses. Hillary much more direct, more analytical. Both effective in their own way. They performed beautifully as a team. They complemented each other."

They lost. But in loss came opportunity.

The next year, Watergate prosecutor John Doar came to New Haven to judge the trial, of which Rodham was now a leader. He hired several Yalies, including Rodham, to work on the Nixon impeachment inquiry.

Well-networked, ready to use the law to pursue her passions, Rodham left Yale far more prepared for a powerful, activist future than the average young woman from middle-class Park Ridge.

"It was a completely different sort of world then," classmate Joan Tumpson said. "I don't think the women in my class had the training to think strategically about their careers. I'm not sure I'd say that about Hillary. She always seemed to be two or three steps ahead."


Hillary Clinton's official campaign site