The art of making possible
Hillary, me and the road not taken
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