The Democratic National Convention gets underway in Philadelphia today. In this guest post, Duke University history professor William H. Chafe, author of Hillary and Bill: The Politics of the Personal, writes about what he thinks Hillary needs to share with voters at this week’s convention.
Throughout this presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton has been unwilling to talk personally – and emotionally – about who she is and how she came to share the value that are most important to her. That started to change on Saturday, when she appeared with her vice-presidential running mate Tim Kaine, and they both emphasized her passion for issues of women’s rights, children’s rights and civil rights. Kaine brilliantly drew the sharp lines that separate Trump from Clinton in terms of their character, who they care about, and what they focus on.
Now it is time for Hillary to seize the opportunity to share with the American people how she came to be who she is. She needs to start with the story of her mother. Born to a 15 year old mother and a 17 year old father, her mother Dorothy was abused as a child. At the age of 8, she was sent across country by train – alone with her three year old brother – to live with her grandparents. They too mistreated her badly, until finally, she was taken in as an au pair by someone who finally showed her affection and concern. Shortly thereafter, she went to work for a curtain manufacturer, Hugh Rodham, who soon thereafter married her.
Despite her difficult childhood, Dorothy was a caring mother. She insisted that Hillary stand up for herself and not be intimidated by her peers. Deeply religious, Dorothy became an ardent Methodist and insisted that Hillary join the Methodist Youth Fellowship. There, Hillary met Don Jones, the assistant pastor and youth leader. Jones believed profoundly in the Social Gospel, teaching his youth group that their goal should be to create a society of social justice based on the egalitarian teaching of Jesus. He took his youth group to the ghettos of Chicago, and brought them to hear Martin Luther King, Jr. preach. Although Hillary grew up in a Republican household – her father was a strong supporter of Barry Goldwater – she embraced the Social Gospel. When she went to Wellesley College, though still a Republican, she worked with black children in the ghetto community of Roxbury, and at Wellesley, became a campus leader on behalf of women’s rights, black studies and recruiting more faculty and student of color to the college. She pursued the same causes when she went to Yale Law School, and became a leader of the children’s rights movement in New Haven, where she met and worked with Marian Wright [Edelman], subsequently the head of the Children’s Defense Fund.
Hillary stayed in close touch with Don Jones until his death in 2004. She worked on women’s and children’s rights throughout her time in Arkansas. These causes define the center of her life as an activist. No other issues galvanize her energies more. Despite the twists and turns of her political career – her failure to secure passage of Health Care reform, her reputation for criticizing her husband’s staff – she never ceased her advocacy of social justice causes, all of which went back to her Methodist youth group, and her belief in the Social Gospel.
If she is to win the presidency, she must go back to those formative years and tell the American people why and how her mother – and her faith – shaped her life.