In the ’60s, a Future Candidate Poured Her Heart Out in Letters
I'm wondering who told Gail Sheehy that this guy had the letters. There's certainly nothing damning in them. And an adult can scarcely be held accountable for musings done in their formative years. Even if she was a communist, does that inform us as to what person she would become?
Could this be an attempt by the Clinton Campaign to humanize a candidate universally seen as cold and calculating?
July 29, 2007
In the ’60s, a Future Candidate Poured Her Heart Out in Letters
By MARK LEIBOVICH
WASHINGTON, July 28 — They were high school friends from Park Ridge, Ill., both high achievers headed East to college. John Peavoy was a bookish film buff bound for Princeton, Hillary Rodham a driven, civic-minded Republican going off to Wellesley. They were not especially close, but they found each other smart and “interesting” and said they would try to keep in touch.
Which they did, prodigiously, exchanging dozens of letters between the late summer of 1965 and the spring of 1969. Ms. Rodham’s 30 dispatches are by turns angst-ridden and prosaic, glib and brooding, anguished and ebullient — a rare unfiltered look into the head and heart of a future first lady and would-be president. Their private expressiveness stands in sharp contrast to the ever-disciplined political persona she presents to the public now.
“Since Xmas vacation, I’ve gone through three and a half metamorphoses and am beginning to feel as though there is a smorgasbord of personalities spread before me,” Ms. Rodham wrote to Mr. Peavoy in April 1967. “So far, I’ve used alienated academic, involved pseudo-hippie, educational and social reformer and one-half of withdrawn simplicity.”
Befitting college students of any era, the letters are also self-absorbed and revelatory, missives from an unformed and vulnerable striver who had, in her own words, “not yet reconciled myself to the fate of not being the star.”
“Sunday was lethargic from the beginning as I wallowed in a morass of general and specific dislike and pity for most people but me especially,” Ms. Rodham reported in a letter postmarked Oct. 3, 1967.
In other letters, she would convey a mounting exasperation with her rigid conservative father and disdain for both “debutante” dormmates and an acid-dropping friend. She would issue a blanket condemnation of the “boys” she had met (“who know a lot about ‘self’ and nothing about ‘man’ ”) and also tell of an encounter she had with “a Dartmouth boy” the previous weekend.
“It always seems as though I write you when I’ve been thinking too much again,” Ms. Rodham wrote in one of her first notes to Mr. Peavoy, postmarked Nov. 15, 1965. She later joked that she planned to keep his letters and “make a million” when he became famous. “Don’t begrudge me my mercenary interest,” she wrote.
Of course, it was Hillary Rodham Clinton who became famous while Mr. Peavoy has lived out his life in contented obscurity as an English professor at Scripps College, a small woman’s school in Southern California where he has taught since 1977. Every bit the wild-haired academic, with big silver glasses tucked behind bushy gray sideburns, he lives with his wife, Frances McConnel, and their cat, Lulu, in a one-story house cluttered with movies, books and boxes — one of which contains a trove of letters from an old friend who has since become one of the most cautious and analyzed politicians in America.
When contacted about the letters, Mr. Peavoy allowed The New York Times to read and copy them.
The Clinton campaign declined to comment.
The letters were written during a period when the future Mrs. Clinton was undergoing a period of profound political transformation, from the “Goldwater girl” who shared her father’s conservative outlook to a liberal antiwar activist.
In her early letters, Ms. Rodham refers to her involvement with the Young Republicans, a legacy of her upbringing. In October of her freshman year, she dismisses the local chapter as “so inept,” which she says, audaciously, she might be able to leverage to her own benefit. “I figure that I may be able to work things my own way by the time I’m a junior so I’m going to stick it out,” she writes.
Still, the letters reveal a fast-eroding allegiance to the party of her childhood. She ridicules a trip she had taken to a Young Republicans convention as “a farce that would have done Oscar Wilde credit.” By the summer of 1967, Ms. Rodham — writing from her parents’ vacation home in Lake Winola, Pa. — begins referring to Republicans as “they” rather than “we.”
“That’s no Freudian slip,” she adds. A few months later, she would be volunteering on Senator Eugene McCarthy’s antiwar presidential campaign in New Hampshire. By the time she delivered her commencement address at Wellesley in 1969, she was citing her generation’s “indispensable task of criticizing and constructive protest.”
But in many ways her letters are more revealing about her search for her own sense of self.
“Can you be a misanthrope and still love or enjoy some individuals?” Ms. Rodham wrote in an April 1967 letter. “How about a compassionate misanthrope?”
Mr. Peavoy’s letters to Ms. Rodham are lost to posterity, unless she happened to keep them, which he doubts. He said he wished he had kept copies himself. “They are windows into a time and a place and a journey of self-discovery,” he said in an interview. “This was what college students did before Facebook.”
The letters are Mr. Peavoy’s only link to his former pen pal. They never visited or exchanged a single phone call during their four years of college. They lost touch entirely after graduation, except for the 30-year reunion of the Maine South High School class of 1965, held in Washington to accommodate the class’s most famous graduate, whose husband was then serving his first term in the White House.
“I was on the White House Christmas card list for a while,” Mr. Peavoy said. Besides a quick receiving-line greeting from Mrs. Clinton at the reunion, Mr. Peavoy has had just one direct contact with her in 38 years. It was, fittingly, by letter, only this time her words were more businesslike.
In the late 1990s, Mr. Peavoy was contacted by the author Gail Sheehy, who was researching a book on the first lady. He agreed to let Ms. Sheehy see the letters, from which she would quote snippets in her 1999 biography, “Hillary’s Choice.” When Mrs. Clinton heard that Mr. Peavoy had kept her old letters, she wrote him asking for copies, which he obliged. He has not heard from her since.
“For all I know she’s mad at me for keeping the letters,” said Mr. Peavoy, a pack rat who says he has kept volumes of letters from friends over the years. A Democrat, he said he was undecided between supporting Mrs. Clinton and Senator Barack Obama.
Ms. Rodham’s letters are written in a tight, flowing script with near-impeccable spelling and punctuation. Ever the pleaser, she frequently begins them with an apology that it had taken her so long to respond. She praises Mr. Peavoy’s missives while disparaging her own (“my usual drivel”) and signs off with a simple “Hillary,” except for the occasional “H” or “Me.”
As one would expect of letters written during college, Ms. Rodham’s letters display an evolution in sophistication, viewpoint and intellectual focus. One existential theme that recurs throughout is that Ms. Rodham views herself as an “actor,” meaning a student activist committed to a life of civic action, which she contrasts with Mr. Peavoy, who, in her view, is more of an outside critic, or “reactor.”
“Are you satisfied with the part you have cast yourself in?” she asks Mr. Peavoy in April 1966. “It seems that you have decided to become a reactor rather than actor — everything around will determine your life.”
She is mildly patronizing if not scornful, as she encourages her friend to “try-out” for life. She quotes from “Doctor Zhivago,” “Man is born to live, not prepare for life,” and signs the letter “Me” (“the world’s saddest word,” she adds parenthetically).
Ms. Rodham becomes expansive and wistful when discussing the nature of leadership and public service, and how the validation of serving others can be a substitute for self-directed wisdom. “If people react to you in the role of answer bestower then quite possibly you are,” she writes in a letter postmarked Nov. 15, 1967, and continues in this vein for another page before changing the subject to what Mr. Peavoy plans to do the following weekend.
Ms. Rodham’s dispatches indicate a steady separation from Park Ridge, her old friends and her family, notably her strict father. She seethes at her parents’ refusal to let her spend a weekend in New York (“Their reasons — money, fear of the city, they think I’ve been running around too much, etc. — are ridiculous”) and fantasizes about spending the summer between her sophomore and junior years in Africa, only to dismiss the notion, envisioning “the scene with my father.”
While home on a break in February of her junior year, Ms. Rodham bemoans “the communication chasm” that has opened within her family. “I feel like I’m losing the top of my head,” she complains, describing an argument raging in the next room between — “for a change” — her father and one of her brothers.
“God, I feel so divorced from Park Ridge, parents, home, the entire unreality of middle class America,” she says. “This all sounds so predictable, but it’s true.”
Ms. Rodham has been described by people who knew her growing up as precocious, and in the letters she is scathingly judgmental at times. She spent the bulk of one letter on a withering assessment of dormmates.
“Next me,” Ms. Rodham says wryly. “Of course, I’m normal, if that is a permissible adjective for a Wellesley girl.”
In other notes, she speaks of her own despair; in one, written in the winter of her sophomore year, she describes a “February depression.” She catalogs a long, paralyzed morning spent in bed, skipping classes, hating herself. “Random thinking usually becomes a process of self-analysis with my ego coming out on the short end,” she writes.
Another recurring theme of Ms. Rodham’s musings is the familiar late-adolescent impulse not to grow up. “Such a drag,” she says, invoking the Rolling Stones, a rare instance of her referring to pop culture.
Her letters at times betray a kind of innocent narcissism over “my lost youth,” as she described it in a letter shortly after her 19th birthday. She wrote of being a little girl and believing that she was the only person in the universe. She had a sense that if she turned around quickly, “everyone else would disappear.
“I’d play out in the patch of sunlight that broke the density of the elms in front of our house and pretend there were heavenly movie cameras watching my every move,” she says. She yearns for all the excitement and discoveries of life without losing “the little girl in the sunlight.”
At which point, Ms. Rodham declares that she has spent too much time wandering “aimlessly through a verbal morass” and writes that she is going to bed.
“You’ll probably think I’m retreating from the world back to the sunlight in an attempt to dream my child’s movie,” she says.
The letters contain no possibly damaging revelations of the proverbial “youthful indiscretions,” and mention nothing glaringly outlandish or irresponsible. Indeed, she tends toward the self-scolding: “I have been enjoying myself too much, and spring and letter-writing are — to the bourgeois mind — no excuses!”
She reports in one letter from October of her sophomore year that she spent a “miserable weekend” arguing with a friend who believed that “acid is the way and what did I have against expanding my conscience.”
In a previous letter from her freshman year, she divulges that a junior in her dorm had been caught at her boyfriend’s apartment in Cambridge at 3:15 a.m. “I don’t condone her actions,” Ms. Rodham declares, “but I’ll defend to expulsion her right to do as she pleases — an improvement on Voltaire.”
Ms. Rodham’s notes to Mr. Peavoy are revelatory, even intimate at times, but if there is any romantic energy between the friends, they are not evident in Ms. Rodham’s side of the conversation. “P.S. thanks for the Valentine’s card,” she says at the end of one letter. “Good night.”
Her letters contain no mention of any romantic interest, except for one from February 1967 in which Ms. Rodham divulges that she “met a boy from Dartmouth and spent a Saturday night in Hanover.”
Ms. Rodham skates earnestly on the surface of life, raising more questions than answers. “Last week I decided that even if life is absurd why couldn’t I spend it absurdly happy?” she wrote in November of her junior year. “Then, of course, the question naturally bellows operationally define ‘happiness’ Hillary Rodham, acknowledged agnostic intellectual liberal, emotional conservative.”
From there, she deems the process of self-definition to be “too depressing” and asserts that “the easiest way out is to stop any thought approaching introspection and to advise others whenever possible.”
The letters to Mr. Peavoy taper off considerably after the first half of Ms. Rodham’s junior year; there are just two from 1968 and one from 1969.
“I’m sitting here at a stolen table in a pair of dirty denim bell-bottoms, a never-ironed work shirt and a beautiful purple felt hat with a purple polka-dotted scarf streaming off it,” she writes in her final correspondence, March 25, 1969. A senior bound for law school, she betrays exhaustion with the times, a country at war and a culture in tumult. “I’m really tired of people slamming doors and screaming obscenities at poor old life,” she says, and describes the sound of chirping birds amid the “soulless academia” that she will inhabit for just a few more weeks as an undergraduate.