The art of mak­ing pos­si­ble

Hil­lary, me and the road not taken

Country Life Every Week - - Another Country -

IDON’T like to think of my­self as friv­o­lous and vain, but, lately, I’ve been qui­etly re­vis­ing my im­age of my­self. It’s been a hum­bling ex­er­cise. The acute phase of this self-ex­am­i­na­tion be­gan in April 2015, when, af­ter two years of coy de­nials, Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton an­nounced she would seek the Pres­i­dency of the USA.

I watched that broad­cast three times. I mar­velled at the grit, the re­silience, the rock-hard de­ter­mi­na­tion and the stag­ger­ing en­ergy of the woman. I looked at her skin, which glowed. I stud­ied the teeth that are as straight and even as sweet­corn in Au­gust.

And her hair: thick, healthy, golden. I may have heard some­thing about ‘stronger to­gether’, but I was think­ing: what a great cut! What a ge­nius of a colourist! There is not a woman in the world I have watched grow older and blon­der with such com­pul­sive scru­tiny.

It’s a slen­der claim to fame, but Hil­lary Rod­ham and I once had the same hair: long and mouse brown with a cen­tre part­ing as straight as the line down the mid­dle of the high­way. I know this be­cause I have grainy black-and-white pho­to­graphs of us at about the same time, in June 1969. Al­though we are sev­eral hun­dred miles apart, we are do­ing the same thing: speak­ing at our col­lege com­mence­ment, mine the pro­gres­sive Sarah Lawrence Col­lege in New York, hers the tra­di­tional Welles­ley in Mas­sachusetts.

It was the decade of civil rights, Viet­nam, as­sas­si­na­tions and what would be called ‘stu­dent un­rest’. Our po­si­tions be­hind the podi­ums were the re­sult of pe­ti­tions ‘re­quest­ing’ the right to speak at our grad­u­a­tion cer­e­monies. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy had been dead barely a year and all the young men grad­u­at­ing were ner­vously look­ing for ways to avoid the draft (in­clud­ing Bill Clin­ton, Ge­orge Bush, Mitt Rom­ney and the present Repub­li­can can­di­date who got a de­fer­ment for ‘bad feet’).

My speech be­gan with Ber­tolt Brecht’s To Pos­ter­ity with its be­gin­ning ‘A smooth fore­head be­to­kens/a hard heart’ and its plain­tive end­ing ‘Do not judge us/too harshly’. I ex­plained—at what my fa­ther de­scribed as ‘Apos­tolic length’—that my gen­er­a­tion ‘finds no value or sta­bil­ity in a coun­try where there is in­creas­ing poverty in the midst of in­creas­ing wealth… which gives pri­or­ity to ABM (anti-bal­lis­tic mis­siles) while it closes poverty cen­tres, job pro­grammes, li­braries, hos­pi­tals… a coun­try that val­ues money more than it val­ues the lives of its peo­ple’.

Hil­lary’s speech also in­cluded po­etry: ‘All we can do is keep try­ing again and again. There’s that won­der­ful line in East Coker about there’s only the try­ing, again and again and again; to win again what we’ve lost be­fore.’ Nearly 50 years on, it seems prophetic. As does the poem she ended with, by her class­mate Nancy Schreiber: ‘And you and I must be free/ Not to save the world in a glo­ri­ous cru­sade/ Not to kill our­selves with a name­less gnaw­ing pain/but to prac­tise with all the skill of our be­ing/the art of mak­ing pos­si­ble.’

I didn’t know Hil­lary, but we al­most met the fol­low­ing Septem­ber. We had both se­cured a place at Yale Law School, two of the 28 women in a class of 235. Be­tween ap­ply­ing and ac­cep­tance, how­ever, I’d be­gun to doubt that I had the or­derly brain of a lawyer. I was also in­spired by a com­mu­nity or­gan­iser called Saul Alinksy; I de­cided to work for change ‘out­side the sys­tem’ and went to Cal­i­for­nia to work in fac­to­ries that were points of pro­duc­tion for the war. I had the hazy no­tion that, if the work­ers re­fused to pro­duce na­palm, de­fo­li­ates, det­o­na­tors and M16 ri­fles, the war would end. A ‘glo­ri­ous cru­sade’, in­deed.

My at­tempts at anti-war con­scious­ness­rais­ing got me elected shop ste­ward of the Oil, Chem­i­cal and Atomic Work­ers In­ter­na­tional Union, which was the be­gin­ning and end of my elec­toral ca­reer. My fel­low work­ers, many who’d gone west in search of work dur­ing the Dust Bowl era and the Sec­ond World War, were cyn­i­cal about the war in Asia, but had no quar­rel with cap­i­tal­ism—they owned houses, cars and mo­tor boats. Their lives were rooted in re­al­ity, not the­ory. I slowly be­came less con­vinced of ‘the­ory’ my­self. Af­ter a year of pack­ag­ing de­fo­li­ates, Glen Camp­bell and Johnny Cash had more res­o­nance for me than Marx and Hegel.

Al­though I had voted for Bill Clin­ton, I was un­aware of my ten­ta­tive con­nec­tion with Hil­lary un­til my fa­ther ar­rived one Christ­mas and slid a manila en­ve­lope un­der the tree. The card read ‘Sou­venirs of The Road Not Taken’. In­side were news­pa­per clip­pings from the New York Times that showed that, once, Hil­lary and I were march­ing to the beat of the same drum. She even wrote her se­nior the­sis at Welles­ley on Saul Alin­sky.

I have to ad­mit that I haven’t al­ways been an un­crit­i­cal fan. We fi­nally met when she was run­ning for Se­na­tor for the state of New York. I ad­mired her for ad­vo­cat­ing en­gage­ment, not dis­rup­tion or ‘revo­lu­tion’, but I was scep­ti­cal. When she ran for Pres­i­dent in 2007, I hitched my wagon to a star called Obama. It seemed as close to the good revo­lu­tion as I would see in my life­time. But now I find my­self a gen­uine ad­mirer of this woman who is a lib­eral prag­ma­tist, a dis­ci­plined lawyer and, I’m tempted to say, a ‘soul sis­ter’, the one who got the good hair. She is smart enough to un­der­stand that Don­ald Trump’s ap­peal can’t be dis­missed. She recog­nises that there is a deep and trou­bling di­vide in Amer­ica and there is no health in it.

On Novem­ber 8, bar­ring a cat­a­clysmic event, Hil­lary Clin­ton will be­come the first woman US Pres­i­dent. The re­lief will pass all un­der­stand­ing, re­lief round the world that goes be­yond the ni­hilism of a Trump pres­i­dency.

And ‘some­where ages and ages hence’, I might, like Robert Frost, be telling this with a sigh: ‘Two roads di­verged in a wood, and I—/I took the one less trav­eled by,/and that has made all the dif­fer­ence.’

I can live with that.

‘There is not a woman I have watched with such com­pul­sive scru­tiny

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