Even Hillary Clinton may not know when the dream — her personal dream — was born.
It may have been at Wellesley, nearly half a century ago. As the first student commencement speaker in the history of the women’s college, Hillary Rodham began in an earnest, slightly nervous voice, “I find myself in a familiar position — that of reacting, something our generation has been doing for quite a while. We are not in the position yet of leadership and power.”
At that moment (May 31, 1969), there was exactly one woman in the United States Senate, Republican Margaret Chase Smith of Maine. So not only had Hillary Rodham’s generation — the first baby boomers — not yet achieved positions of “leadership and power,” but neither really had women of any age or era.
Walter Mondale’s choice of Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate on a doomed 1984 Democratic ticket may have sparked something in the wife of an Arkansas governor with national ambitions. Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign — with all the talk of “two for the price of one” and occasional cries of “run, Hillary, run” — was, of course, a catalyst.
But there were other times, like the tear-stained Monica Lewinsky summer of 1998, which reinforced her inner fortitude. Watching Hillary, almost mute with rage, still manage to carry on at a private party on Martha’s Vineyard was a reminder of the power of her determination. It may have also been a reminder to her that she could make it on her own.
Just a year later, during another Martha’s Vineyard summer, brought an infinitely happier occasion. It was the first fundraiser of her nascent 2000 Senate campaign in New York as Hillary spoke in generalities and the president of the United States beamed silently from the corner. And at that moment in a roomful of summer friends and longtime Clinton supporters, Hillary launched a journey that her hero Eleanor Roosevelt had never attempted: to be elected to public office in her own right.
Once she was Senator Clinton of New York, a White House run seemed almost inevitable with the only question being which year. But by waiting until 2008, she never figured that her ambitions would clash with someone even more historic than she was, an Illinois senator with as much charisma for Democratic audiences as Bill Clinton himself.
And so, likeable enough Hillary Clinton, battered but not bowed, dutifully did what she considered to be the right thing — four years of endless plane flights, briefings, temporary successes and enduring frustrations as secretary of State.
When her four years were over and with Barack Obama starting his second term, she was asked about her ambitions for the next four years. And for a moment, she let down her guard and said something nakedly honest: “I just want to sleep and exercise and travel for fun … I would like to see whether I could get untired.”
Finally, with the 2016 campaign, the stars were aligned for the first woman to head a national ticket. The Clinton name, her fundraising prowess and the sense among older Democratic activists that it was her turn all cleared the primary field for Hillary. Her only opponents were a bland former Maryland governor and a cranky leftwing Vermont senator who wasn’t even a Democrat.
But once again, nothing came easy for the former Wellesley commencement speaker, out to make history. That Vermont senator, five years older than she was, somehow captivated younger voters, even millennial women who didn’t fully appreciate the battles that she had fought.
Hillary’s own quest for safety and security complicated everything — whether it was her homebrew server to keep her emails from prying eyes or her Wall Street speeches to support the family’s lush out-of-power lifestyle. Suddenly, she was labeled as “Crooked Hillary” by the almost-certain GOP nominee and watched helplessly as her negative poll ratings almost equaled those of her venomous Republican opponent.
But, finally, in late spring, the clouds parted and the sun began shining. Her Democratic opponent grew tiresome with his outlandish fantasies about wresting the nomination from her. The bilious billionaire that the GOP was poised to nominate discovered new ways to alienate and appall Republicans of conscience. And Hillary Clinton put herself firmly over the top Tuesday night by winning the New Jersey primary.
And so, 47 years after a Wellesley commencement speaker stood in her cap and grown and spoke of “leadership and power,” a radiant Hillary Rodham Clinton finally crashed through the glass ceiling as the Democratic nominee.
Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro first interviewed Hillary Clinton in the governor’s mansion in Little Rock during the 1992 campaign.
Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and the Washington Post. His book on his con-man great-uncle will be published on June 14: “Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled the Fuhrer.” Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.