By Michael E. Miller
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Then she went off to Wellesley College and ran smack into the Sixties.
In many ways the radicalization of Hillary Rodham - and her brothers -traces the arc of her generation. "When Hillary went off to school, she realized there was a different way of thinking about things, a more compassionate way," Tony says. In 1968 she supported anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy, and in 1972 campaigned for George McGovern. Along the way she met Bill Clinton, a classmate at Yale Law School and a budding politico. When Clinton decided to run for congress in his native Arkansas, Hillary, fresh from a stint on the Nixon impeachment inquiry staff, joined him, and helped lure two more volunteers.
"Me and Hugh jumped in a car, I was all of seventeen, and headed down to help Bill," recalls Tony who like his brother lives in Coral Gables. "We had no idea where Arkansas was. We just drove south until we hit a sign that said, `Welcome to ArkansasģMDNMĮ.' We must have been Bill Clinton's first campaign workers. And Hillary hit Arkansas like a hurricane. She totally got that campaign in order." Though Clinton lost the election to an entrenched incumbent, he returned to politics in 1976 - this time with Hillary as his wife - and won the state gubernatorial race.
Along with Hillary, the Rodhams have worked on all the Clinton campaigns, traveling to Arkansas every four years. In South Florida, they helped anchor Clinton's convincing win, working phone banks, candidate forums, and speaking to local Democratic groups. "Most of the surrogate speakers are just that - surrogates," Hugh notes. "I think people tend to listen to Tony and I a little closer because we talk about the Bill Clinton we've known for twenty years."
The brothers Rodham have proved so effective, in fact, that Clinton campaign officials asked them to work their old stomping grounds around Chicago heading into this week's Illinois primary. A long way, some would say, from the days of nailing up Clinton signs in the rural hinterlands outside Little Rock.
And in some ways, not so long. On the morning of the Florida primary, for instance, Tony found himself camped on a median along U.S. 1 holding a Clinton sign, sucking down lukewarm coffee and rush-hour fumes. The youngest Rodham, five years Hillary's junior, Tony came to Miami in 1983 at his brother's bidding and eventually started his own business as a private investigator specializing in criminal defense work.
He still vividly recalls Hillary bringing home Bill Clinton from Yale to meet the family. "My first thought as a teen-ager was, `What does this guy want with my sister?' It took me about a day to drop my guard," Tony says. Since then he has been a devout Clintonite. Between honks of endorsement and the occasional jeering of Bush supporters, he recites Clinton's progressive policy statements and lauds his compassionate deeds as governor. His is an endorsement that plainly extends beyond familial responsibility.
Tony even finds an opportunity to toot the Clinton horn after witnessing a smashup between two passing cars. "See that, the foreign car got bent up and there's not a mark on the American car," he says, pointing to the accordian-shaped front end of a Toyota. "That's why Bill Clinton says to buy American."
As the Rodham children grew up, they all abandoned the conservative politics of their father, the owner of a textile company raised during the Depression. "But somehow," Hugh Rodham says, "Hillary realized early on that it was counterproductive to fight him." That battle befell him. After graduating from Penn State, he turned down a job teaching at his old high school and enlisted in the Peace Corps. Speaking not a whit of Spanish, Hugh moved to Colombia to teach physical education. "I ate beans and eggs for a month, because I didn't know how to say anything else," he says. "My father was furious."
Following his return to the States, he enrolled at the University of Arkansas, where both Hillary and Bill Clinton were law professors. Much to dad's chagrin he stayed seven years, earning a masters in education and later a law degree. Then he applied to the public defender's office in Miami. The logic was simple: "Miami had more crime than any other city." In a dozen years with the office, Hugh has worked everywhere, from juvenile court to felonies, most recently aiding in the formation of a new drug court. The three-year-old experimental court has earned approbation by routing more than 5000 drug offenders into rehab programs.
Both Rodhams pursued criminal defense work because of a devotion to helping the accused, a sentiment that flares when the allegations of infidelity dogging Bill Clinton come up. "There's not even a scintilla of evidence to support what's been said," argues Hugh, sounding every bit the lawyer. "In 1980 George Bush was accused of having a mistress, and he denied it and that was the end of it. All I had to do was look into Bill's eyes to see that the allegations are hogwash."
Though Clinton's anticipated nomination will likely bring a crush of reporters sniffing around Miami for personal details - Vanity Fair was in town two weeks ago - Hugh and Tony are determined to work behind the scenes. "We're not the stars of this thing," Hugh observes. "Bill is the candidate. He should be getting the spotlight." Still, given Hillary's reputation as the smarter and more aggressive of the two Clintons, both brothers know she is fair game in the media sharkfeed.