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On the day before her husband was anointed, once and for all, as the democratic frontrunner for president, Hillary Rodham Clinton was at a synagogue in North Miami Beach, knocking 300 old Jews on their collective tush. Rapping at a podium conspicuously free of cue cards, the comely Clinton invoked the rhetorical ferocity that has made her one of the nation's top litigators, nailing key issues rat-a-tat-tat, deftly quoting from the Book of Isaiah, and, as she gained momentum, reproaching the President's awkward stabs at what he so goofily refers to as "the vision thing."
For the locals, who had arrived clucking absently about the nice lady lawyer sent to wow them, the speech lent new meaning to the term "burning Bush" - and dazzling new possibilities to the decaying role of first lady. Even the brigade of reporters on hand appeared smitten with Clinton, unable to resist rising with the crowd as she waved farewell.
At the back of the room, practically invisible behind broad, I-told-you-so grins, stood Hillary Clinton's two most loyal fans, brothers Tony and Hugh Rodham. Both men, transplanted Miamians who quietly helped Bill Clinton secure his vital win in last Tuesday's Florida primary, were hoping for a quick hello amid their big sister's blitzkrieg schedule. And quick it was.
An hour after her speech, Clinton, 44, was still pressing the flesh backstage and patiently delivering the stock answer to what has become a stock question. "No," she told at least three doting seniors, "I don't plan to run for president. But remember, a vote for Bill is a vote for me." By the time she caught sight of her brothers, in the glaring sunlight outside the synagogue, Clinton was already being hustled to her next gig. "My God, you've lost weight," she cried out to Tony, hugging him before whisking off. "I didn't even recognize you."
Bill Clinton may well be the moderate Southern Democrat to finally put GOP officials on the defensive, and recapture the White House after twelve years of monarchal Republican rule. But allegations of marital infidelity, draft dodging, and most recently, financial improprieties, have left the Arkansas governor with a nagging image problem.
Voters, guided by a media forever whacking at the stimulus bars of innuendo and scandal, have begun to detect a twang of insincerity in his downhome delivery, a come-on as oily, perhaps, as it is smooth. So too has George Bush been battered by his inability to shake demagogue/columnist Pat Buchanan and his self-immolation on the domestic front.
By contrast, Hillary Clinton has emerged from the grim and tawdry primary prelims as a cult of personality. First spotted sitting by her man for a weepy 60 Minutes interview, Clinton's adamant support quickly dispelled comparisons to Gary Hart's puffy-eyed wife Lee and, some political analysts contend, saved her spouse's campaign from a crash and burn. She is viewed, rightfully, as the antithesis of a pushover, a high-powered attorney and children's advocate who is amassing a growing stack of reportorial love letters.
Her blazing style on the campaign trail thus far suggests she will be a crucial asset in Clinton's predicted race against Bush, and as a first lady she promises to be a quantum leap in quality over anorectic power freak Nancy Reagan, frumpy hausfrau Barbara Bush, and ice-maiden-on-standby Marilyn Quayle. A woman with the brains of Eleanor Roosevelt and the looks of Jackie O. Pundits already have knocked around the notion of Hillary Clinton as the nation's first female attorney general.
None of which comes as a surprise to her kid brothers, who have regarded her with unmitigated awe since their earliest days in the Chicago suburb of Park Ridge. Back then, family speculation was that Hillary would be the first female Supreme Court justice. "She's never tolerated injustice," says 41-year-old Hugh Rodham, an attorney who has worked at the Dade County office of Public Defender since 1980. "I remember one instance, a snowball fight, where some kids from another neighborhood hit my little brother Tony in the head with an ice ball, and Hillary just took off after them, chased them away. She must have been eight or nine."
Both Rodhams recall the elaborate neighborhood Olympic games their sister used to organize. "She'd set up a long jump with the sandbox as the pit, and run the marathon around the block," says Hugh. "She had an incredible imagination. We used to listen to a record album called Fudini and Pinhead Go to Mars, and we'd sit in the basement on a bench and Hillary would draw a viewing screen, like on a spaceship. And we'd put on our helmets and fly off to the moon. Then mom would call for lunch and Hillary would say, `You can stay down here until lunch is over. I'll tell mom you're on the moon.'"
As a student Hillary Rodham was the quintessential nightmare older sibling. "A tough act to follow," groans Tony, 39. "I don't remember her ever receiving anything lower than the highest mark in class." She was student body president in high school, extracurricular all-star, and in a community of bedrock Republicans, a loyal Goldwater girl.
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 Arkansas®MDNM¯.' 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.
So does her mother, who was in Miami last week to visit her boys and attend her daughter's rally in North Miami Beach. A soft-spoken woman, Dorothy Rodham has been tagged a "homemaker" in the press, a title that hardly suggests the vigor of her intellect. Few know, for instance, that it was mom who dispensed the Rodham kids their earliest lesson in political rebellion. "Where we grew up, everyone was supposed to vote Republican," Tony explains. "When campaigners came by, it was always to tell us which Republicans to vote for. But our mother always asked them for information on the Democratic candidates. She always taught us to question."
For now, mama Rodham's main question is when, if ever, her family's life will return to normal. While she enjoys tending to granddaughter Chelsea during the campaign, she frets over the campaign's grueling schedule. Backstage after her daughter's speech, she politely grills a personal assistant about Hillary's plans, nodding helpfully at the assistant's nervous speculation.
"I never knew what Hillary was going to do when she grew up," she says. "First it was a doctor, then a lawyer. She was always so motivated, so directed."
But didn't little Hillary ever want to be anything more fanciful? A painter, perhaps? Or a ballerina?
Dorothy Rodham gazes at her daughter, just a few feet away and still surrounded by a wall of fans. "A ballerina?" she says. "Oh no, never. Never a ballerina.