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I Was a Teenage Republican

Before she was a New York senator and a presidential hopeful, Hillary Rodham was a teenage Republican. Here’s our 1994 look at the girl who grew up in Park Ridge.

(page 5 of 5)

But of all the images of Hillary that classmates remember-canoeing on Murphy Lake as a Mariner Scout, demonstrating exercises as a gym leader, lobbying for a joint senior prom after the opening of Maine South-the most vivid is Hillary as Organizer. She was vice-president of the junior class, and, as a student council representative, she maneuvered her way onto the most prominent committees. Cultural Values allowed her to review the dress code (friends recall she supported it), and Organizations allowed her to rewrite the council’s constitution. For Hillary and her friends, these projects were serious business, even if the particular concern was only choosing a theme for homecoming or selecting the music for the prom.

“When you had to say ‘no’ to Hillary, because school officials felt [the project] wasn’t a good move, you’d better be able to support that decision because she’d question it,” recalls Kenneth W. Reese, former student council adviser and now director of guidance at Maine South.

Ricketts watched her in action with the late Dr. Clyde Watson, Maine South’s principal. “Hillary wanted the student council election [in the spring of 1965] to be a carbon copy of the national conventions-nominating speeches, demonstrations, signs,” he says. “She had all of this material written down, and a group of us went to see Dr. Watson. The administration was very conservative, and they were taking away the extracurricular things we’d had at Maine East, like all-school assemblies. But Dr. Watson was completely blown away by Hillary’s plan, and he approved everything. She recruited everybody to work on it, and it turned out exactly as she’d envisioned it.”

Not everyone in Maine South was a fan, however. “Hillary was so take-charge, so determined, so involved in every single activity that you’d think, ‘Why don’t you chill out a bit? Why don’t you give somebody else a chance?’” recalls a female classmate. “I always felt Hillary thought she knew what was best, so that’s what everybody should do. It’s the same attitude with health care-Hillary knows what’s best for the country, and we should just go along.” Adds a male classmate, “She could be abrasive. She definitely could get on her high horse. ”

One of her classmates was Penny Pullen, who went on to become a Republican state legislator with deeply conservative views. They were acquaintances, not friends, and Pullen says today, “She was always ambitious, but she’s certainly not Saint Hillary in adulthood.”

Even her friends remarked on her unwavering moral certainty. In an English class, “the question came up about a moral system, and whether you could live by an absolute code of right and wrong,” says Arthur W. Curtis, class valedictorian and now a doctor in Chicago. “Hillary said you could. It’s a very WASP characteristic, her strong sense of right and wrong.”

* * *

In January 1993, Rick Ricketts, along with ten of Hillary’s other childhood friends, went to the White House to celebrate Bill Clinton’s inauguration. At a dessert party in the Blue Room, he saw Dorothy Rodham, Hillary’s mother. “I said, ‘How in the world did Hillary get to be a Democrat?’ And Dorothy replied, ‘I was a Democrat,”’ Ricketts recalls. “I said, ‘Oh, so was my mother, but we never talked about it.’ In Park Ridge in the 1960s, it wasn’t really accepted to be a Democrat. Everybody was a Republican.”

Through the election of 1964, Hillary held with the politics of Park Ridge and of her father, a devout Republican, who is said to have crossed party lines only to vote for Bill Clinton. She stayed Republican, even though the Presidential election that year brought the U.S. political scene into unusually sharp relief, with Republican Barry Goldwater trumpeting small government and Democrat Lyndon Johnson organizing his Great Society program of social reforms.

Betsy Johnson Ebeling says Goldwater’s political manifesto, The Conscience of a Conservative, reinforced the Republican gospel preached in their homes. “[Hillary and I] both read the book and found it very striking-Goldwater’s championing of the individual,” she says. Wearing sashes that screamed GOLDWATER GIRL, Hillary and Betsy recruited classmates for Republican rallies, and, under the wing of local Republican leaders, went down to 26th and Wentworth to check voters’ registrations.

Ellen Press Murdoch, one of the few Johnson supporters at Maine South, says she took “an incredible amount of heat [from Hillary] for being a bleeding-heart liberal. By my early 20s, I became a Republican. Our senior year in high school was as liberal as I ever got and as conservative as Hillary ever got.”

After Goldwater’s defeat, Hillary and Betsy focused on college applications and spring vacations. In December 1964, they were deluged with invitations to teas held by local alumnae of prestigious East Coast schools. Sometimes, Hugh Rodham would drive the girls, dressed in their Sunday best. As Ebeling recalls, he usually traveled with a wad of tobacco in his cheek. “When we’d come to a stoplight,” she says, “Hugh would open the door and spit.” When they’d get to the hostess’s house-typically on the North Shore-Hugh would sit outside in his gold Cadillac, reading the Tribune, while the girls were inside, drinking tea.

In June, Hillary finished in the top five percent of her class, became a National Merit Scholar finalist, and won the social studies award at graduation. No one blinked when the faculty gave her the Daughters of the American Revolution Citizenship Award. Or when Maine South’s Class of 1965 voted Hillary the girl most likely to succeed.

That September, she headed to Wellesley College, outside Boston (and 1,000 miles away from Hugh Rodham’s influence}-embarking on a life of extraordinary success and controversy. By the time she graduated from college in 1969, Hillary had organized campus teach-ins on the Vietnam War, campaigned for antiwar Democrat Eugene McCarthy in the 1968 primaries, and worked for Senator Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic nominee, in the general election.

She never again lived full-time in Park Ridge, and in 1987, her mother and father sold the house on Wisner Avenue and moved to Little Rock, Arkansas, to be near Hillary and Governor Bill Clinton and their daughter, Chelsea. (Earlier this summer, following extensive renovations, the new owners resold the house for an amount reportedly near the asking price of $459,900.)

Over the years, Hillary has remained close to her childhood friends. These days, when she’s in Chicago-whether to address the American Medical Association, throw out the opening-day first pitch at Wrigley Field, or celebrate the start of the World Cup-she almost always manages to squeeze in some off-the-record fun with the old gang, a group whose number can climb to 50, depending on the event. (The 30th reunion for Maine South’s Class of ‘65 may be held in Washington, D.C., next year, with a visit to the White House included among the scheduled events.) “She remembers her friendships, and she services them lovingly,” says Ebeling. ‘’We’ve always kept in touch-family and friends are part of all of the events in [her] life.”

In July 1992, at the Democratic National Convention in New York City, Ebeling was standing next to Hillary in a box at Madison Square Garden as Bill Clinton strolled onto the stage to accept the Presidential nomination. Suddenly, Hillary grabbed Ebeling’s hand. It was a surreal moment for these daughters of Park Ridge, who’d come so far since they bombed at the piano recital. Critics of the First Lady would have you believe that at that very moment, she was plotting how to become co-President and leave her mark on American history. Ebeling knows otherwise. “I don’t know why this came into my head,” Ebeling says, “but all I could say was, “To think, all you wanted in the eighth grade was Don Wasley.”’ As the applause thundered and the celebration began, Hillary Rodham Clinton was trying to stifle a laugh.

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