By Anne E. Kornblut and Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, June 3, 2007; A01
For years, when Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton talked about her family, it was usually her famous husband or their well-known daughter. But Clinton has recently been discussing a more elusive figure in her life: her mother.
“She didn’t have a very easy time of it as a young child,” Clinton (D-N.Y.) said during an address to Democratic Party activists in California, describing the journey Dorothy Howell Rodham made in search of a home after her teenage parents divorced in 1920 and sent her away.
Drawing attention to her low-profile mother — who is in her late 80s and lives with the Clintons on Whitehaven Street in Washington — is one of several ways Clinton is seeking to give voters a new perspective on her biography. Armed with extensive polling data and an image road map tested in Upstate New York, the Clinton campaign has embarked on an ambitious effort to present the candidate the way they want her to be seen: as a pragmatic Midwesterner with a compelling life story of her own, rather than just the famous, and sometimes polarizing, senator and former first lady most of the country already knows she is.
Clinton tells crowds at the opening of virtually every speech that she was “born into a middle-class family in the middle of America, in the middle of the last century.” One of the least-known facts about her, according to campaign operatives, is that she is a native of suburban Chicago, not Arkansas or New York.
Howard Wolfson, the campaign’s communications director, said the senator is responding to the fact that voters “understandably want to know biographical information about people running for president.”
“People have a sense of Senator Clinton in the Senate; they obviously have a sense of her as first lady,” Wolfson said. “But most people do not know what she did before coming to Washington. We found that in New York: We ran ads in 1999 and 2000 about the work she had done prior to becoming first lady.”
Now, Wolfson said, “There are people who say they know everything about Hillary Clinton, and then you ask where she was born, and they have no idea.”
The challenge is more than just getting voters to connect to Clinton: She has extremely high negative ratings to try to counteract.
Introducing biographical information about her childhood and early adulthood, her advisers hope, will flesh out the familiar caricature of Clinton as an overly ambitious careerist who leaves scandal in her wake. After 15 years in Washington, she is also seen as an inside-the-Beltway figure; underscoring her Midwestern upbringing is, they believe, one way to shift that view (while also, not coincidentally, appealing to voters in Midwestern swing states such as Ohio).
“There are a lot things about Hillary you may not know that occurred in her life before she ever became a United States senator,” former president Bill Clinton intones in a biographical video on his wife’s campaign Web site. The segment goes on to show a montage of early photographs as Clinton describes his wife working for poor defendants while studying at Yale Law School, turning down lucrative job offers to work at the Children’s Defense Fund and chairing the national board of the Legal Services Corporation when she was 29 years old.
“When I saw that video on the Web site, I thought, ‘This is “The Man from Hope” all over again,’ ” Democratic consultant Peter Fenn said.
“The Man from Hope,” of course, was the moniker Bill Clinton assumed in 1992 and the title of his biographical film at the Democratic convention that year, when he relaunched himself as an up-by-the-bootstraps populist from Hope, Ark., rather than the silver-tongued governor his rivals were portraying.
Now, some of those same advisers — particularly Mandy Grunwald, who made the 1992 “Hope” film and directs all of the current Clinton media — are at work recasting Hillary Clinton.
Her transformation has been mostly about emphasis: Where she was once best known as a high-powered lawyer in a prominent Arkansas firm, she now talks about her legal work for the poor. Where she was once best known as the impassioned commencement speaker at her Wellesley College graduation in 1969, Clinton now reminisces about church outings on Saturdays as a child. At recent campaign stops in Iowa, she noted her father’s service in the Navy during World War II and the fact that while her family paid her college tuition, she paid for her books and then borrowed money to go to law school.
Fliers campaign workers distribute at events in Iowa encourage Hawkeye State voters to connect with a candidate with “strong Midwestern roots” and “the sense of community we Midwesterners hold dear.” “This is about introducing her to Iowa,” said JoDee Winterhof, the campaign’s Iowa director. “They know who she is, but these are the things people need to be reminded of.”
She eschews the large gymnasiums and big rallies that Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) often favors, holding events in small venues and leaving time after each event to shake hands and sign autographs (an Iowa-specific move urged on her by former Democratic governor Tom Vilsack, who recommended avoiding the larger sites).
At these small events, Clinton attempts to show a personal side, appearing at a pizza parlor in Algona, Iowa, for example, and talking about her love of jalapeño pizza. She said at another event that “I’m a mother, not yet a grandmother, but there’s hope,” and noted, “When people ask me what I want for my last meal, I always say pizza.”
Clinton’s surrogates have taken the cue, portraying her as a salt-of-the-earth Midwesterner at every opportunity.
“She’s a Midwesterner, she relaxes, she just dives into it,” Christie Vilsack, the ex-governor’s wife, said in an interview after traveling with Clinton for several days. “She doesn’t have to change. That’s going back to who she was as a little girl.”
“If Hillary’s story is only about a first lady and a politician, how does somebody connect to that story?” Democratic pollster Geoff Garin asked. “Once you give people the fuller account of who she is and where she came from, you give them a whole series of places where they can connect and they can see themselves in her picture. Because she sort of emerged on the scene through her husband’s campaign and administration, she’s a hard person for regular people to kind of figure out, where do they fit in? And this lets voters figure out where the voters fit in.”
With two controversial brothers and with her father deceased, it makes sense that Clinton would gravitate toward her mother as she sketches her early life. In the California speech in late April, Clinton devoted more attention than almost ever before to telling her mother’s story to an audience. Repeating a story outlined at the beginning of her autobiography, Clinton recounted her mother’s journey from Chicago to California’s San Gabriel Mountains, where she lived with her paternal grandparents before moving on, at age 13, to become a mother’s helper with another family.
Clinton described her mother’s experience as “harsh,” but pivoted to a happier theme. “From my mother, I learned a love of education and learning,” Clinton said, even though her mother never went beyond high school. “They had what you might call a mixed marriage. My father was a rock-ribbed conservative Republican, and my mother was one of those women who didn’t say much when politics was the conversation, but I learned later would cancel out my father’s vote every single time.”
Rodham remains mostly in the background for now. Feisty and dry-witted (traits that friends say mother and daughter share), Rodham is unpretentious enough to blend into the crowd at her daughter’s public events. At a portrait unveiling at the Smithsonian last summer, she sat quietly in the front row, locking arms with her granddaughter, Chelsea; the two are reportedly very close.
On the rare occasions she has granted interviews over the years, Rodham has talked about her only daughter in loving but no-nonsense ways. Asked in a joint appearance on “Oprah” in 2004 if she wanted her daughter to run for president, Rodham replied: “The terrible responsibility that our presidents have, you know, and the — the day-to-day workload and all of that sort of thing, I don’t know that I would wish on anyone, actually.”
“But she would do great. I have to say that,” Rodham said.