Lanny Davis: Hillary Clinton: Then and now

As I watched Hillary Clinton deliver her formal announcement speech Saturday at Roosevelt Island in New York City, I went through kind of a time warp. What year is this?

I remembered the first time I met her: It was in September of 1969, when she was an incoming freshman at Yale Law School, and I was in my third and final year. As I watched the former secretary of State speaking, I was reminded again that, despite the passage of almost 46 years, she really hasn’t changed very much at all.

{mosads}I thought about our many conversations during that year in law school about the state of the country as the decade that was the 1960s was closing. I sensed that this was a very different kind of person. Clinton seemed to be able to look beyond all of the travails that so many of us felt regarding our future and our nation: assassinations, urban violence, the Vietnam War, the sense of a society and culture unraveling. She always spoke of doing some kind of public service when she left law school. She spoke often about vulnerable children who needed early education and sometimes legal protection from abuse and neglect. And I recall her remarking how in 1964, she had been a “Goldwater girl” and that, by the end of the decade, she saw that government needed to level the playing field to give everyone an equal opportunity.  

Then, on Saturday, I heard almost the same words. Clinton answered everyone’s question as to why she wanted to be president simply and directly: to fight for a “better deal” for “everyday Americans,” the way Franklin Delano Roosevelt had fought for a New Deal. Like FDR, she sees government not as part of the problem, as many Republicans would say, but rather as part of the solution — but not the only solution, because every individual has responsibilities, too.

“President Roosevelt called on every American to do his or her part, and every American answered,” Clinton said. “He said there’s no mystery about what it takes to build a strong and prosperous America: ‘Equality of opportunity for youth and for others. Jobs for those who can work. Security for those who need it. The ending of special privilege for the few. The preservation of civil liberties for all. A … wider and constantly rising standard of living.’ That still sounds good to me. 

“It’s America’s basic bargain,” she continued. “If you do your part, you ought to be able to get ahead. And when everybody does their part, America gets ahead too.”

Clinton’s core identity, as I remembered her then and now, remains a fighter — for what she believes in, to overcome adversity, to press on undaunted. She promised to be a president who fights for everyday Americans, “for everyone who’s ever been knocked down, but refused to be knocked out. I’m not running for some Americans but for all Americans.”

Then there were the moments in the speech showing the former first lady’s sense of humor, reminding me that, while Clinton takes what she says and does seriously, she doesn’t take herself too seriously, either then or now. 

“All our presidents come into office looking so vigorous. And then we watch their hair grow grayer and grayer. Well, I may not be the youngest candidate in this race,” Clinton said, “but I will be the youngest woman president in the history of the United States. And the first grandmother as well. And one additional advantage: You won’t see my hair turn gray at the White House. I’ve been coloring it for years!”

When she concluded her speech, I thought back to the first time I had met her, on her first day at Yale. As a senior, I thought I could offer advice on teachers and studying techniques and how to read cases. She demurred but asked me where the nearest legal services clinic serving the poor was so she could volunteer. 

As I walked away, I thought: Volunteering in a legal service clinic is her first priority? Rather than worrying about her first semester at a pretty challenging law school? Really? 

This girl, I thought — yes, that was the word used in those days, girl — she is going places. She is going to be president of the United States someday.

I am not making that up. That is exactly what I thought that day almost 46 years ago.

And that is what I still think today.

Davis served as special counsel to former President Clinton and is principal in the Washington, D.C., law firm of Lanny J. Davis & Associates, and is executive vice president of the strategic communications firm Levick. He is the author of a recently published book, Crisis Tales: Five Rules for Coping with Crises in Business, Politics, and Life.

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