Through all the turbulence in her daughter’s life, both personal and political, Dorothy Howell Rodham was there as a steadying presence, never judgmental, always supportive. Hillary Rodham Clinton credits a lot of who she is today to her mother’s early encouragement to do well in school and take advantage of all the opportunities that the elder woman, a child of divorce and abandonment, never had.
Rodham died early Tuesday in Washington, D.C., where she had lived since moving in with her daughter in 2006, soon before Hillary Clinton launched her campaign for the presidency. Dorothy Rodham was 92 years old. Though she rarely spoke to the media and was reticent in public, she apparently didn’t hesitate to express her opinions privately. When she made a rare appearance on the campaign trail in April 2008, the height of the primary battle, Hillary drew knowing laughter when she said her mother “always has a lot of great ideas about what we need to be doing.”
Her early life was difficult, and at the age of 8, when her parents divorced, she and a younger sister were sent alone by train from Chicago to Alhambra, Calif., to live with grandparents. It was not a happy home, and at 14, she left to make her way on her own, first as a mother’s helper, then after returning to Chicago, doing clerical work. There she met Hugh Rodham, a traveling salesman eight years her senior, and after a five-year courtship, they married in 1942.
Hillary was the first of their three children, and in her autobiography, Living History, Clinton describes a childhood rich with experiences but governed by a father whose authoritarian ways made her chafe, as they did her mother. Yet if there was any gender bias in favor of Hillary’s two younger brothers, Dorothy made sure her daughter got everything she was capable of, including entrance to Wellesley College, an elite institution where Hillary made the transformation from Goldwater Girl to antiwar activist.
Rodham was a secret Democrat, and during the ’92 campaign, she reveled in meeting some of the media figures she had followed from afar. She was a fan of The McLaughlin Group, and told me that she got a kick out of watching the back and forth, especially when the moderator, John McLaughlin, referred to the progressive views expressed by her daughter as “creeping Rodhamism.”
Hugh Rodham was a staunch Republican, but Dorothy’s steadfastness when it came to her daughter and her daughter’s ambitions carried the day. When Hillary’s marriage seemed rocky, the Rodhams moved to Little Rock and helped Hillary shoulder whatever crises arose. A caring and consistent presence in her granddaughter Chelsea’s life from the time she was a toddler, Dorothy put into practice Hillary’s often-voiced belief that it takes a village to raise a child. After Hugh Rodham died in 1993, Dorothy spent much of her time at the White House, caring for Chelsea and bucking up her daughter through a minefield of policy and personal setbacks.
Rodham generally enjoyed good health and became ill only on Monday when she was admitted to George Washington Hospital. Secretary of State Clinton canceled a planned trip to London, Turkey, and Afghanistan to be at her side. Clinton was seen leaving the hospital with her husband, former president Bill Clinton, at 1 a.m. Tuesday.