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In the 1950s, when Hillary Rodham was growing up in the Chicago suburb of Park Ridge, she and her friend Ernest “Rick” Ricketts used to sit together on the wooden fence outside her family’s stately brick house, on the corner of Wisner Avenue and Elm Street. They’d perch there for hours, talking about cars, the Cubs, the Civil War, and, their favorite topic, politics. Two years ago, on a campaign stop in Chicago, Hillary saw Ricketts and asked if he remembered those marathon sessions from their grade-school days when, as she put it, they would “solve all the world’s problems.”
“That memory came flooding back to me,” Ricketts recalls. “That’s exactly what we’d do. We’d say, ‘This is what the government should do’ or ‘No, this is what it should do.’”
Forty years later, Ricketts owns The Homestead, a restaurant in suburban Melrose Park. But Hillary remains very much in character, helping decide what the government should do in her role as a “full political partner” of her husband, President Bill Clinton. For her unprecedented activism in her quasi-public office, the First Lady has been canonized (The New York Times Sunday Magazine dubbed her “Saint Hillary” in a cover story last year) and excoriated (a survey by Talkers Magazine ranked her as the second most vilified personality on talk radio, behind her husband, but ahead of Saddam Hussein). This spring, amid opposition to the Clintons’ national health-care plan, and nagging questions about the Whitewater real-estate matter and a lucrative commodities deal, exhaustive profiles in The New Yorker and Vanity Fair portrayed Hillary as manipulative and self-righteous, her true feelings and motives often maddeningly elusive. But nowhere in the recent flurry of coverage is much mention of her childhood in a comfortable, Republican Park Ridge home.
In fact, conversations with more than a score of her friends, classmates, teachers, and advisers from that time offer several clues to the making of this groundbreaking First Lady (she declined a request to be interviewed). The daughter of a rough-edged and demanding father and a mother who didn’t settle for traditional women’s roles, Hillary built an extraordinary record of accomplishment in school and out. A good student with many friends, she also excelled in sports. In her later years of high school, she was a recognized leader, tirelessly organizing projects and undaunted in expressing her strong opinions. Her unwavering self-assurance put off some of her classmates, but many others now say they enjoyed her candor and intelligence. Though she was a Goldwater Girl in 1964, she devoted equal time to discussing social issues, such as civil rights. In hindsight it’s hard to avoid seeing her as a liberal activist trapped in the body of a Republican teenager.
In some ways, Hillary in high school, with her excellent grades and perpetual activities, cuts a rather familiar American figure, the honor-society high achiever. But she was more than that-she was a poised and extremely confident young woman who clearly was someone special. One of the paradoxes in her story is the fact that several of the qualities for which she is harshly disparaged today-her moral certainty, her aggressive leadership-earned the admiration of students and teachers at Maine South High School.