For Clinton campaign, all in the family — except Bill

Ken Thomas
Associated Press

Washington — Hillary Rodham Clinton’s granddaughter, Charlotte, is a symbol of the future. Clinton’s late parents offer lessons about hard work and resiliency. Her own daughter, Chelsea, gives voters a window into her mother’s life long before she was one of the world’s most famous women.

In campaign kickoff events in Iowa and New Hampshire, Clinton shared stories with voters about the lesser-known members of her family: her father’s work running a small textile business in Chicago, her mother’s hardscrabble upbringing and what the future may hold for baby Charlotte’s generation. Taken together, the biographical sketches animate her pitch to middle-class families.

“When I think about my dad, it was a lot easier in those days to have an idea, to get what you needed and to go to work,” Clinton said at a Keene, New Hampshire, furniture factory this week, describing obstacles for small businesses. In Iowa, she remembered her father, Hugh Rodham Sr., as a “waste-not-want-not kind of guy” whose fabric drapery business provided for her family.

The Clintons’ political history will play a big part in her new campaign, but the early emphasis has been elsewhere. The most famous man in her life, former President Bill Clinton, only comes up in passing. In New Hampshire, where her husband remains popular, Hillary Clinton said she called him to offer travel updates while in Iowa, and smiled when a community college instructor recalled the bullish economy during her husband’s two terms.

“I remember!” she said.

Bill Clinton has avoided discussing the campaign so far, saying at Georgetown University on Tuesday, “For obvious reasons, I don’t intend to talk much about electoral politics,” though he was a vigorous and at times problematic presence in his wife’s 2008 campaign.

Aides say the ex-president will stay behind the scenes initially and that Hillary Clinton’s focus on her parents and grandchild allow her to fill in other aspects of her biography. Invoking Bill Clinton, who has high approval ratings, also can bring up positives from his administration, such as a strong economy, but at the risk of revisiting the Monica Lewinsky scandal and subsequent impeachment drama.

Hillary Clinton has held small gatherings as part of a soft campaign launch aiming to re-introduce her to voters. For the woman everyone knows, the idea is to show a side of Clinton often obscured during her first presidential bid, when she ran on a mantle of experience and Margaret Thatcher-style tough leadership.

“It’s just so fundamentally who she is,” said former speechwriter Lissa Muscatine.

The approach pushes back against months of scrutiny over Clinton’s six-figure speaking fees, use of private jets and foreign donations to her family’s foundation, a theme Republicans intend to promote.

“She can talk all she wants, but New Hampshire voters know the truth is that she’s an elitist politician,” said Jennifer Horn, chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party.

Foremost on the family tree is Clinton’s mother, Dorothy Rodham, who died in 2011. Clinton tells audiences her mother was abandoned as a girl and forced to live with strict grandparents, who forbade her from activities like eating at the kitchen table or playing in the yard. Her mother taught her about never quitting and kindness, Clinton says, an influence that led her to become an advocate for women and children.

Charlotte, born in September, is a frequent topic. “I have this new granddaughter and I want her to have every opportunity, but I want every child in our country to have every opportunity,” Clinton said.

The family talk can also lead to unforced errors. In Iowa, Clinton said “all my grandparents” came to the United States as immigrants. BuzzFeed, an online news outlet, noted census records that showed only one of her grandparents immigrated to the U.S.; the other three were born here. Clinton’s campaign said her grandparents had always spoken of the “immigrant experience” and she had always thought of them as immigrants.

Those roots left an impression on Pamela Livengood, a Keene furniture assembler who joined Clinton.

“It makes you know that she’s not just a character,” Livengood said. “That she has background, she has roots that she actually came from. She’s not this political figure that you just stick up on a pedestal and she starts speaking at you.”