On this date in 1993, two months after Bill and Hillary Clinton moved into the White House, Hillary’s father suffered a stroke. Hugh Rodham died less than three weeks later, five days after his 82nd birthday.
Like Joe Biden, Hugh Rodham was born and raised in Scranton, Pa. He left home young, moving from Pennsylvania to Chicago, served stateside in the U.S. Navy during World War II, got married, and started a successful small business. He and his wife had a daughter followed by two sons. We get misty-eyed talking about the “Greatest Generation,” but some of those guys were hard-assed. By all accounts Hugh Rodham could be tough on his kids, and when Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke publicly about her parents, it was usually her mother she talked about.
The same dynamic was true of Hillary’s husband, for a much more basic reason: Bill Clinton never knew his father. And he dutifully gave his mother props for the sacrifices she made to raise him and his brother Roger.
I first saw this at a town-hall meeting during a precarious time in Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. Fighting a bad sinus infection while simultaneously fending off allegations of womanizing and Vietnam-era draft-dodging, Clinton found respite at a vocational retraining school in the New Hampshire town of Stratham. During the question-and-answer portion, one of the adult students asked the candidate to name his “hero” and “heroine.” I was struck by both answers: For his hero, Clinton named Abraham Lincoln – which, believe it or not, was still a rare answer for a Southern Democrat then. For his heroine, he was more conventional, but it was the way he answered that moved the audience -- and showed what an instinctively good politician he was.
“My mother,” Clinton began. “Many of you don’t know this, but my father died before I was born. My mother decided that with the skills she had, she couldn’t give me the opportunities she wanted me to have. So she went back to school, to get more training -- just like you are doing now!” The room was suddenly silent, the only sound being the soft crying of two single mothers in the audience.
Virginia Kelley succumbed to breast cancer two years after this encounter. Although she lived to see her son elected president, she was only 70 when she passed to the other side. Today, Americans and our fellow citizens of the world are facing a lethal pandemic that is especially risky to those in their 70s and 80s. It sounds almost clinical when the medical professionals relay such data, but these aren’t actuarial tables we are talking about -- they are America’s parents and grandparents. Or perhaps it’s you and me and our friends. We all must be careful. And mindful of the time we have.
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Virginia Cassidy was born on June 6, 1923 in a small Arkansas community about 12 miles from the town of Hope, where her parents ran a grocery store. After high school, she went to nursing school in Shreveport, La., where she met and married William Jefferson Blythe Jr., a young salesman, who left for Germany and the fighting in World War II shortly after their 1943 wedding. He died in a car accident in 1946, only 28 years old, leaving behind a young wife -- his fifth -- who was six months pregnant.
Faced with raising her son alone, Virginia returned to school in New Orleans -- to become a nurse anesthetist -- for more than two years, leaving her baby in the care of his grandparents and coming up to Hope on weekends to see him. That’s what Bill Clinton was referencing years later in New Hampshire. When I asked her about this once, Mrs. Kelley said simply: “He deserved the best. I wanted to be able to give him the best.”
She would marry four times herself. In 1950, she wed a car dealer from Hot Springs named Roger Clinton, who died of cancer in 1967. Her third husband, Jeff Dwire, died of complications from diabetes after six years of marriage. In 1982, she married Richard Kelley, a retired food broker. They lived in a small lakeside home in Hot Springs. With its racetrack and nightlife, Hot Springs was a spot that suited Virginia. She loved the good life, a stiff drink, and the town’s iconic racetrack, where she wagered enthusiastically on the horses. If her famous son ever bet a dollar on a thoroughbred or a ballgame, I’m unaware of it, and Bill Clinton is basically a teetotaler whose campaign-trail defense to revelations that he smoked weed at Oxford (“I didn’t inhale”) was actually believed by some of his college contemporaries.
So, yes, on the face of it, Virginia Kelley and her oldest son were quite different. Yet those who knew them both say they shared a driving determination to overcome any obstacle while remaining chipper and upbeat. “The president likes to say he’s ‘a congenital optimist,’” White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers said at the time. “Well, he comes by it honestly: His mother was just the same way.”
After spending her son’s first Christmas as president in the White House, she had gone to Las Vegas with her husband to attend Barbra Streisand’s New Year’s Eve concert. A few nights later, Virginia Kelley watched her beloved Arkansas Razorbacks play basketball on television and then retired to bed. When her husband checked on her, he realized she was gone.
“Apparently, she went peacefully,” said Myers. “In a way, she did it like she did everything else: kind of on her own terms.”
In her 70 years on earth, Bill Clinton’s mother attended the funerals of three husbands, one of whom -- Roger Clinton --- struggled with alcohol abuse. Their son, the president's half-brother, would face drug addiction, and prison. Late in life, she was forced to fight one last battle, this one with cancer. She never gave in and she never gave up.
“I have this knack of putting bad things in the back of my head. Forget about them,” Virginia Kelley said when asked about her travails. “I just get up every day and figure out how I can make it the best day of my life.”