In the fall of 1969 a recent graduate of Wellesley College arrived in New Haven in “an old beat-up car with a mattress roped to the top” to study at Yale Law School. On February 4, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, J.D. ’73, returned to Yale on the eve of the Super Tuesday primaries as a candidate for president of the United States.

“This is so nostalgic,” Clinton told an audience of more than 200 people that included a large press contingent in the Cohen Auditorium of the Child Study Center (CSC). “I think back on those years as among the most important of my life for a number of reasons.” It was at the law school that she met her husband, the former president of the United States, Bill Clinton.

The reunion became an emotional occasion for both Clinton and Penn Rhodeen, J.D., a public interest lawyer in New Haven who had supervised her work in his legal clinic when she was a student. In his introduction, Rhodeen recalled that Clinton had worn purple bell-bottoms and a sheepskin coat. “You looked so wonderful and so 1972,” he said. As he neared the end of his remarks, Rhodeen choked up and Clinton’s eyes watered. “I said I would not tear up,” she said.

It was at Yale that Clinton first became an advocate for children, inspired by a talk at the law school by Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund. Clinton spent the next summer working with Edelman on behalf of youths incarcerated in adult facilities and against President Richard Nixon’s plan to grant tax-exempt status to segregated private academies. “I started to look at ways of using the law on behalf of children,” said Clinton, a Democrat who represents New York in the Senate. “That is how I found my way to the Child Study Center.”

At the CSC Clinton worked with the late Sally A. Provence, M.D., and the late Albert J. Solnit, M.D., HS ’52, pediatricians who championed child and family issues. She also worked with Jay Katz, M.D., HS ’56, J.D., the Elizabeth K. Dollard Professor Emeritus of Law, Medicine and Psychiatry at the Yale Law School. “We created a program,” she said. “We convinced the Child Study Center and the law school that it was a good idea for law students to come over here.”

For the February event, Clinton’s staff assembled a group of 11 local women for a round-table discussion. The group included a small-business owner from Stamford, a single mother of two, a Connecticut state senator, a stay-at-home mother from Middletown, the former president of the Connecticut Nurses’ Association, a clinical psychologist on the CSC faculty, a retired Army nurse, a community activist from Bridgeport, a retired New Haven police officer, a union official from New London and a second-year Yale law student who directs a domestic violence clinic.

The panelists’ stories played into Clinton’s policy themes: the stay-at-home mother talked about trying to make ends meet with two children in college and a third whose medical needs are not covered by her health insurance; the business owner decried the high cost of health insurance that limits her ability to hire new employees and expand her business; the single mother’s part-time job pays too little for her to engage quality child care and limits her career options; and the union leader said health care had topped the agenda during contract negotiations.

From each woman’s story Clinton plucked details that illustrated such themes of her campaign as her proposal for universal health coverage. “Universal health care is not just the moral thing to do, it’s the economically smart thing to do,” she said. Insurance companies, she noted, will reimburse for amputations but not screening for diabetes. Health care, she said, “should be more about keeping us well than about stepping in when we’re sick.” She proposed allowing the Bush administration’s tax cuts to expire and applying the increased revenues to universal coverage.

“We are going to have different rules,” she said. “The insurance companies are determining how people practice medicine and how hospitals cover costs. It is time to put our health back under the control of the professionals. We don’t want people going to the emergency room for sniffles and headaches. We want them to go to their own doctor.”

One of the last questions came from Rachel Friedman, a medical student who is graduating this spring. One of three in her class who’s planning to enter family medicine, Friedman asked what could be done to counter the shortage of family practitioners.

“We have to help medical students with the cost of med school,” Clinton replied, to cheers from students in the audience, who also cheered her suggestion for loan forgiveness for doctors who enter family practice.

After 90 minutes Clinton was ready to leave for her next campaign event, and the former law student in purple bell-bottoms was on her way. YM