WASHINGTON DC, USA (4th UPDATE) – Early this year, a journalist asked Hillary Clinton if she had always been truthful with the American people. "I've always tried to," the Democratic presidential candidate replied.
Less cautious political figures would have offered an immediate and unhesitating "Yes." But Clinton, the trained lawyer, weighs her every word, always leery of falling into a trap.
What she sees as an effort at sincerity, however, comes across to her detractors as troubling duplicity – evident, they say, from her use of a private email server as secretary of state which has several times threatened to derailed her White House bid.
This is the burden that Clinton continues to labor under after 3 decades in public life.
And thus we have the Clinton paradox: she stands on the threshold of a historic victory – as the first woman president of the United States – while remaining one of the least popular politicians in recent American history.
This disconnect is nothing new. As long ago as 1979, the wife of then-Arkansas governor Bill Clinton was resigning herself to having the public misconstrue her actions, or take them badly.
"I think that's another one of the dangers about being in public life," she told Arkansas public television in an interview that year. "One cannot live one's life based on what somebody else's image of you might be."
She was too assertive for the time, too far ahead of the patriarchal society of the old South.
Now she is 69, and despite herself, a Clinton worn down by years of testing, tribulation and political intrigue has become part of the establishment.
"I get it that some people just don't know what to make of me," she said during her acceptance speech at the Democratic convention in Philadelphia in July.
And yet by this point in her life, much of the mystery of who Hillary Clinton is has been wiped away.
Stubborn and private
Born on October 26, 1947 in Chicago, Hillary Diane Rodham grew up in the middle-class white suburb of Park Ridge as the oldest of 3 children.
Her father, Hugh Rodham, came from a working-class family in Scranton, Pennsylvania. As a chief petty officer in the navy during World War II, he trained sailors for service in the Pacific theater. After the war, Rodham, a Republican, founded a small but successful drapery business in Chicago.
Hillary Clinton's beloved mother, Dorothy Howell, devoted herself to raising her children and was active in the neighborhood Methodist church.
Hillary, always a diligent student, pursued her studies at Wellesley College, a prestigious women's school near Boston. It was her first time living away from home, and she soon found herself plunged into the day's debates over the civil-rights struggle and the Vietnam War. She eventually left her father's Republican Party to embrace the ideals of the Democratic Party.
But even among the turbulence and contestation of the 1960s, she was hardly a revolutionary. Elected student president at Wellesley, Clinton did not exactly fan the flames of conflict. Her deep-rooted centrist and pragmatic instincts – which in the current campaign have been a target of the Democratic left wing – were already in evidence.
And so was her commitment to the cause of women and children. Her first real job – after graduation from the highly selective law school at Yale, where she met Bill Clinton – was for the Children's Defense Fund.
After wrestling with the question – and working for a time on the congressional committee investigating the Watergate scandal – Hillary Clinton decided to follow her man all the way to Arkansas, stunning friends who saw this as a backwoods exile far from the excitement and opportunities of Washington.
There she became a brilliant political partner to Bill; Arkansas became a stepping stone for their move to the White House in 1993. But her efforts as first lady to reform the American healthcare system fell flat, and she withdrew for a time from the Washington microcosm that had rejected her.
A zone of privacy
Drew Angerer/Getty Images/AFP
Demanding respect for her private life, her effort to contain certain controversies, including the complex Whitewater real-estate scandal, merely made them worse. Her relations with the political press, which she disdained for what she saw as its obsession with the trivial, have never recovered.
"I've always believed in a zone of privacy," she said in 1994, adding reluctantly: "I told a friend the other day that I feel, after resisting for a long time, I've been rezoned."
Since then her relations with the voting public have passed through a series of highs and lows.
Highs came when Americans sympathized with her during the worst humiliations of the Monica Lewinsky affair in 1998, and when New Yorkers elected her to the US Senate in 2000.
Lows came when she voted for the Iraq war in 2002, and when she was defeated in the presidential primaries of 2008 by a young Barack Obama. Yet, another high came when he named her as America's top diplomat.
Her use of a private email server, which she chose over a governmental system in an effort to protect her communications – striving yet again for a zone of privacy – hung over her return to politics in 2015, and reared its head again with less than two weeks to go until Election Day.
Her opponents, sifting through thousands of leaked emails, say they have found the proof of her obsessive secrecy.
But Bill Maher, the sarcastic liberal talk-show host, says he discovered a different woman: "a government nerd who never stops working." – Rappler.com
First published February 2, 2016