Hillary Rodham Clinton likes to say she was born in the middle of the country at the middle of the century, in a Chicago suburb that defined a childhood out of “Father Knows Best” or “Ozzie and Harriet.”
Years later, a group of her old teachers and classmates got together with her to reminisce, with a historian to moderate. During the round of introductions, Clinton’s second-grade teacher turned to her and deadpanned: “And who are you?”
“Oh yes,” said the first lady of the United States. “This is the question we’re all trying to answer.”
Clinton has charted a decade and a half now on the national stage. She is by far the most familiar to us of the nearly 20 people running for president. And yet she remains somehow paradoxical, impenetrable, unknowable.
Her life has been marked by polar forces: She is the daughter of a left-leaning mother and an archconservative father. She campaigned for Barry Goldwater, and then for Eugene McCarthy. She married a force of nature, then struggled to define her own image.
She has wrestled with a somewhat stilted public speaking voice, a scripted style, belied by what friends say is a whimsical affinity for costume jewelry at the holidays and a signature laugh she lets loose occasionally — boisterous and infectious.
She has an unquestioned intellect but, as former aide Melanne Verveer says, an “absolute tin ear for foreign languages” rivaled only by her flat singing voice infamously pilloried on YouTube.
There always has been a holographic quality to Hillary Clinton: Looked at from one angle, she can be the tough trailblazer, weatherer of a thousand storms. From another, she can be the personification of icy, calculating ambition.
But what about that teacher’s basic question? Who is she?
There are clues at each stage of her singular American story.
On the day Hillary Diane Rodham turned 10 years old, she was in the midst of a childhood she later called cautious and conformist, growing up in a two-story brick house in Park Ridge, Ill.
It was 1957, and she won perhaps the first election of her life, co-captain of the safety patrol for her elementary school. As an adult Clinton reflected that it was one of many times as a child she had to learn to stand up to rambunctious boys.
She was a tomboy and a Girl Scout, encouraged by her mother to fight back when a neighborhood girl pushed her around. Mother and daughter played games of strategy and calculation: Concentration, Monopoly, Clue.
Young Hillary came early to politics, influenced by opposing pressures. This was true at home, where her father’s outspoken, opinionated conservatism contrasted with her mother’s quiet Democratic leanings, but perhaps more searingly at school.
She learned about Barry Goldwater through her ninth-grade history teacher at Maine East High, Paul Carlson, who taught passionately and with an admitted rightward bent, punctuating lectures with the expression, “Better dead than red!”
He later recalled Hillary as bright, talkative, enthusiastic.
“She always knew what the affairs of the day were,” Carlson, who retired from Maine East just this spring, remembered years later in an interview with The Associated Press. “Her parents sat with her and her brothers at dinner, and they talked politics.”
She grew up Methodist, and her social conscience was forged by a youth minister named Donald Jones. He took her to visit black and Hispanic churches in Chicago, and to see the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Jones later joked he and Carlson fought for her mind and soul. She exchanged letters with both men regularly for decades, and 40 years later, desperate for spiritual guidance during the crisis that threatened her marriage, she turned to Jones for help.
In high school Hillary Rodham ran for student government and lost. And long before Hillary Clinton acknowledged presidential ambitions, she would tell a story about the sting she felt from one of her opponents that senior year.
He told her she was stupid to think a girl could be elected president.
On the day Hillary Rodham turned 20, she was halfway through her time at Wellesley College. It was 1967, and she was nearing a sort of political fulcrum in her life. She struggled, not for the last time, with her feelings about a war — in this case Vietnam — and continued support for it by both Republicans and Lyndon Johnson.
She served for a time as president of the campus Young Republicans. As a senior she was president of the student government and presiding officer of its Senate. On May 31, 1969, she was selected to give the student commencement speech.
The act she had to follow was Republican Sen. Edward Brooke, who spoke against “coercive protest.” Rodham later wrote that she waited in vain during the speech for some mention of the pain and soul-searching of the time — Vietnam, JFK, RFK, MLK.
Rodham took to the dais, peering out through Coke-bottle-thick glasses.
“Every protest, every dissent,” she said, challenging Brooke by name, “is unabashedly an attempt to forge an identity in this particular age.”
She had just begun forging one of her own. The speech was a sensation. She was featured in Life magazine.
She also said this: “And then respect. There’s that mutuality of respect between people where you don’t see people as percentage points. Where you don’t manipulate people.”
Fairly or not, precisely those qualities — manipulating people, seeing them as percentage points — would become the lodestar for those who chose to tilt the hologram to see Hillary Clinton in a negative light.
On the day Hillary Rodham Clinton turned 30, she was a young lawyer at the Rose Law Firm in Little Rock, Ark. Her husband had been elected state attorney general, a losing race for Congress behind him, the governor’s office on his mind.
It was 1977, and two years earlier she had finally married Bill Clinton, the energetic, talkative Arkansan whom she had met in 1970 at the library of the Yale Law School.
“Bill Clinton and I started a conversation,” she would write years later. “And more than 30 years later we’re still talking.”
Sheila Bronfman, an Arkansas political consultant who met the couple in 1977, remembers Hillary for her “big glasses and hair” — and also for the almost intimidating way she had accomplished so much at such a young age.
“She was always somebody you looked up to,” Bronfman recalled recently in an interview. “I was a young woman back then, and you’re just breaking out and doing stuff — she’d already done so much. We always said — he’ll kill me for this — she was smarter than Bill.”
A few months after Hillary Clinton turned 30, a businessman named Jim McDougal came to the young couple with a plan to buy land on the White River, divide it into lots for vacation homes and resell at a profit.
The Clintons went in with McDougal and his wife and formed a shareholders company. They named it Whitewater.
It was the piece of frayed string that would later nearly unravel the Clinton presidency, a $70 million, yearslong investigation by a special counsel that led to the imprisonment of McDougal and his wife, Susan, but never resulted in charges against the Clintons.
On the day Hillary Rodham Clinton turned 40, her husband was three months removed from a decision not to run for president in 1988, despite the urging of prominent Democrats.
Allegations of sexual impropriety had derailed the campaign of Gary Hart, and at least one panicked adviser suggested to Bill Clinton that rumors of his own infidelity might derail a White House campaign. He chose not to run.
“We came up with this notion that maybe she could run for governor,” Betsey Wright, Bill Clinton’s former chief of staff in Arkansas, said in an interview. “The feeling in Arkansas at the time was that a spouse was a for-free, full-time volunteer for the state.”
Wright, who calls Hillary Clinton one of the sharpest, shrewdest political minds she has ever known, said, “Things have changed a lot since then.”
Bill Clinton ran for the presidency and won in 1992, of course, and Hillary struggled to reconcile her own profile — career-minded, politically astute, incredibly successful — with traditional American impressions about first ladies.
Two slips in particular were memorable. The first was her declaration in a “60 Minutes” TV interview during the campaign that “I’m not sitting here, some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette.”
The second, in response to a question about her law career, was that “I supposed I could have stayed home, baked cookies and had teas.” Both created media typhoons.
Clinton herself later wrote that the outcry may have suggested a society “still adjusting to the changing roles of women” and — perhaps in an acknowledgment that some voters are still adjusting — insisted she had baked more than a few cookies in her day.
She also wrote that the episodes taught her never to take criticism personally. But there was another misstep early in the White House years — her disastrous attempt, at the direction of her husband, to overhaul the U.S. health care system.
Republicans smelled blood, railed against “Hillarycare,” and swept into control of both houses of Congress in 1994. For Hillary Rodham Clinton, it was the darkest moment of the first Clinton term, friends say.
“It was a very difficult time,” said Melanne Verveer, the first lady’s former chief of staff. “I think she very much felt as though she had truly failed in what she was trying to do — with her husband’s commitment to having her do it.”
At a meeting of about 10 advisers, all women, Clinton wondered aloud whether she should completely give up on policy matters.
“She was clearly down,” Verveer recalled in an interview. “She was expressing how deeply discouraged she felt. We all said, you’ve got a great deal that you need to be doing.”
It was only the beginning of a rocky period. Her poll ratings dropped by more than 10 points in a single week in January 1996 when news reports were dominated by speculation about Whitewater and her role in White House firings. Columnist William Safire famously called her “a congenital liar.”
Burned by her very public involvement in the proposed health care overhaul, she dug in as an aggressive force behind the scenes in her husband’s 1996 re-election campaign and in the White House’s response to a cavalcade of scandals.
When a former FBI agent published a book attacking the Clintons, she called it a “politically inspired fabrication.” When President Clinton was unsure whether personally to respond to the conviction of three Clinton associates in the first Whitewater trial, she advised him to talk to reporters.
And when a newspaper reported in early 1996 about Vice President Al Gore’s hopes of succeeding Clinton in 2000, Gore personally visited the first lady to stress his loyalty.
“Gore knew which Clinton to go to,” an aide said at the time.
On the day Hillary Rodham Clinton turned 50, about 500 of her friends gathered on the White House South Lawn to celebrate, and the next day she reminisced in Park Ridge — the same day her second-grade teacher playfully asked, “And who are you?”
It was 1997, three months before the nation would first hear of a young intern named Monica Lewinsky.
Friends of Clinton like to recall the middle years of the White House term and say the first lady took a personal interest in her staff, relishing the chance to pop up in the back of the plane in gym clothes and no makeup and just shoot the breeze.
“She took a great interest in trying to be a matchmaker,” Lisa Caputo, her former press secretary, said in an interview. “She loved to know just within the White House who was dating whom. She loved to be in on the social mix.”
Then came Monica.
Hillary Clinton became the deceived wife in one of the greatest sex scandals ever to rock the government. She insisted on the existence of a “vast right-wing conspiracy.” Americans who once identified her in polls as domineering now saw her as strong.
As she tells it in her 2003 autobiography, “Living History,” she faced the two toughest decisions of her life in her 50s. One was to stay married to Bill. The other was to run for U.S. Senate.
She wrestled once again with her identity. Criticized as a carpetbagger for running for Senate from New York, a state with which she had virtually no personal connection, she embarked on a statewide “listening tour,” and easily defeated a Long Island congressman to win in 2000.
Her first Senate term would be remembered for two things: her insistence on federal aid for New York after Sept. 11, an effort for which even Republicans praised her, and her 2002 vote to authorize military force against Iraq — a vote for which she has refused, in the face of criticism from the left, to apologize.
In 2006 she captured two-thirds of the vote and won all but four of New York’s 62 counties. Two and a half months later, exactly two years before Inauguration Day 2009, she appeared in an online video.
She was seated on a couch, her right arm casually draped over a pillow, soft light in the background. She spoke of energy independence, an end to the war in Iraq and, yes, health care for all Americans. And she announced her candidacy for president.
“Let the conversation begin,” she said. “I have a feeling it’s going to be very interesting.”
On the day Hillary Clinton turns 60, the last Friday of this October, she and the rest of the Democratic presidential field expect to be preparing for one of their final debates the following week in Philadelphia.
The Iowa caucuses, no longer some far-off abstraction, loom just around the corner.
Hillary Clinton’s campaign has deployed husband Bill on the campaign trail, though political pundits note his speeches are limited to a fraction of the length of hers and sometimes he’s kept entirely off stage.
To people who know her, there is little doubt whose campaign it is.
“I believe Hillary makes the decisions,” former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, whom she calls a friend, said in an interview. “I don’t think Bill Clinton, the former president does. I don’t think (Clinton strategist Mark) Penn does.”
“I’m sure she will listen,” he went on. “But if she disagrees, I guarantee you, it’s going to be Hillary’s way.”
Former aide Verveer tells a story about a December 1996 visit to La Paz, Bolivia — a South American city whose altitude, more than two miles above sea level, gives it notoriously thin air.
Two reporters had fainted by the end of the first event, and that was just the beginning. Security officers and aides wound up on gurneys. Someone was reaching for a tank of oxygen the staff had brought along for the trip when Clinton burst in.
“She runs in and says, `I’m sorry, you’re going to have to give me that — we just lost the Secret Service agent,'” Verveer recalls. “She was playing nurse. She was having to minister to the less of us who were just passed out.”
Verveer says, “She had a constitution different from all of ours.”
Perhaps — but who is she?
It’s the question, she herself said, “we’re all trying to answer.”
Associated Press Writer Nancy Benac in Washington contributed to this story.