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Austin, San Antonio, Texas ... Allies Remember A Driven Hillary Rodham During ’72 Visit

via The Texas Tribune
This photo, courtesy of the William J. Clinton Presidential Library's Clinton Historical Collection, shows Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham in New Haven, Conn., in 1972.

WASHINGTON — As Garry Mauro drove up to Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern’s Texas headquarters in October 1972, a young couple burst out of the office, begging for a ride to the Austin airport. 

Mauro, who would serve as state land commissioner from 1983 to 1999, obliged, racing the tall, bushy-haired Democratic operative and the 24-year-old law student from West Sixth Street east to the Robert Mueller Airport.

“We gotta get to New Haven because we gotta register late for law school,” Mauro, now 67, recalled Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham saying.  It was a frantic moment that followed an impetuous decision by the Yale Law School students to come to Texas for a doomed political endeavor in the middle of their studies. 

Thanks to several books — including the Clintons’ own memoirs — their short few months in Texas have become a part of Austin lore

The couple worked on the failed Texas campaign for McGovern, a liberal U.S. senator from South Dakota. During their few months in Austin, San Antonio and elsewhere, Clinton and Rodham befriended several allies who would help Bill Clinton’s political ascent in Arkansas and on to the White House. And as Hillary Clinton makes a second run for the White House, some of those bonds forged in Texas are poised to help again. 

Bill Clinton arrived to Austin first as McGovern’s Texas political point man, but Hillary Rodham was not far behind. “Bill asked if I wanted to go too,” she wrote in her memoir, Living History. “I did, but only if I had a specific job.” 

That job was registering black and Hispanic South Texas voters for the Democratic National Committee. 

The campaign’s challenge was insurmountable. McGovern’s liberal policies repelled old Lyndon B. Johnson allies like John Connally, who led the “Democrats for Nixon” effort. Stricken by a state party at war with itself, McGovern ended up losing Texas in November by a two-to-one margin.  

But ever since, the Clintons have had a personal connection to the state. “Although Bill was the only person I knew when I got to Austin, Texas in August, I quickly made some of the best friends I’ve ever had," Hillary Clinton wrote in her memoir.  

Clinton declined to be interviewed for this story. And many of the people who worked with her on the 1972 campaign have passed away. But there are still several who worked with her in Texas who remember the serious and driven law student. 

“We Want a Real Lawyer” 

Sara Ehrman first laid eyes on Rodham in McGovern’s San Antonio headquarters, a former nursing home.  

A longtime Washington-based Democratic political operative, Ehrman led the campaign for South Texas. She and her team put up out an S.O.S. to Washington that they were in dire need of legal counsel. 

What they got was a law student who looked more like an undergraduate, dressed in all brown: pants, shirt and glasses.  

“This young woman looked 19 years old, and she came in and said she was a lawyer, and everybody started howling and saying we want a real lawyer," Ehrman said.  

Even so, Ehrman, who was in her 50s, instantly formed a maternal bond with Rodham.  “We were not Texans,” Ehrman, now 96, said of the connection. “We did not know all the intricacies of Texas politics, which were very complicated at the time."  

Ehrman describes Rodham's brief stint at the San Antonio headquarters as “prepared, mature for her age, focused and in charge.”  

“We bonded,” she added. “We just knew each other.” 

Rodham split her time between San Antonio and Austin, where Bill Clinton was based with writer Taylor Branch. Branch and Clinton ran the state campaign together and the three shared an apartment.  

Eddie Bernice Johnson, who is now in her 12th term in Congress, worked closely with Bill Clinton on the 1972 campaign. But she recalled encountering the couple together just once during that time. 

“I only saw them together one time, and then he treated her very gently, but I didn’t really realize” they were dating, she said in an interview.  

Besides Ehrman, one of Rodham’s closest friends from the Texas experience was a University of Texas at Austin graduate named Betsey Wright. 

Wright would often visit Barton Springs with Rodham, according to David Maraniss' book on Bill Clinton, First in His Class

But she would have an exhilarating and rocky political future. She would later move to Arkansas and become a pivotal Clinton operative during his rise in state politics, serving as Bill Clinton’s gubernatorial chief of staff and campaign manager in the 1980s. Many have said she was the inspiration for Kathy Bates’ political enforcer character in the novel and movie Primary Colors, a roman à clef on the Clintons.  

Bill Clinton called Wright “the Texan who had, by far, the greatest impact on my career.” 

“Without Betsey Wright, I could not have become president," Bill Clinton later wrote in his memoir. The Clintons, however, “cut her loose before they moved into the White House” according to The New York Times. She pleaded no contest in 2010 to charges that she attempted to smuggle contraband inside of a Doritos bag while on a 2009 visit to death row. Wright now lives in Arkansas, and in recent years she was a fellow for a state library system.  

Wright did not respond to emailed questions for this story. But in 1992, she said in a New York Magazine interview that, like Mauro, she was impressed that the couple worked full time on a presidential campaign while simultaneously attending law school. 

“I’d never been exposed to people like that before. I mean, they spent the whole semester in Texas, never attended a class —then went back to Yale and aced their finals,” she said.  

Did Mauro ever see either one of them study?  

“Christ, no,” he said. 

A Lost Cause 

Neither Rodham nor any of her colleagues were under the impression that they could deliver a Texas victory to the McGovern campaign. 

“We all knew McGovern wasn’t going to win,” Mauro said in a recent interview with The Texas Tribune. “But historically, you just didn’t get less than 40 percent of the vote [in Texas] if you were a major party nominee.” 

This was the first time 18-year-olds could vote in a presidential election, adding to Rodham’s challenge in registering South Texas voters. She also concentrated on Hispanic voters. Franklin Garcia, who died in 1984, was her guide in the region. 

“Hispanics in South Texas were, understandably, wary of a blond girl from Chicago who didn’t speak a word of Spanish,” Clinton wrote in Living History. "[Garcia] took me to places I never could have gone along and vouched for me to Mexican Americans who worried I might be from the immigration service or some other government agency.”  

Bill Clinton was often on the road, organizing events and hanging flyers in county courthouses.  

But it was a lost cause. “When the vote count came in, I’ll never forget walking out to the car,” Mauro said. “I ripped the McGovern bumper sticker off.”  

The Nixon landslide did not surprise either Clinton, they would later write. Their circle of friends soon disbanded and scattered across the country. The couple made a trip to Mexico for vacation and then went back to New Haven for finals.  

That Godforsaken Place 

A year later, Rodham decamped in Erhman’s Washington apartment in 1973 while working as a staffer on the House Judiciary Committee's impeachment inquiry into the Watergate scandal. Bill Clinton headed to Arkansas to begin his political career.  

Branch occasionally saw Rodham during that year.  

“I could tell she loved him, but she did not want to move to Arkansas,” he said, noting her awareness of her legal work’s place in history. “I did notice some strain over that,” he added. “Even at the time, I was pretty sure she would do it because her attachment to him was pretty evident.” 

But Rodham did go to Arkansas. “When Hillary decided to go to Arkansas to marry Bill Clinton, I drove her down,” Ehrman said. “And all the way down, for hundreds of miles, I kept saying, ‘Are you crazy? Why are you going to that Godforsaken place where you can’t even get French bread?’” 

Ehrman said the conversation went in circles, and each time Hillary Rodham had the same answer: “But I love him … and I’m going to be with him.” 

Over the next decades, the Clintons would return to Texas, both for delegates, campaign dollars and out of a sense of political loyalty.  

Bill Clinton counts Mauro and Austin ad executives Roy Spence and Judy Trabulsi as the closest Texas friends who helped him through his presidential runs. 

Mauro managed Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign for Texas, and Spence was a close media adviser to Hillary Clinton in her 2008 presidential campaign and is expected to hold similar influence this time around. Mauro does not have an official title with the campaign at this point, but he told the Tribune recently that he’s working the phones on behalf of the couple.   

Eddie Bernice Johnson, too, became a reliable Congressional and political ally, until she supported then-Sen. Barack Obama in the 2008 campaign. She immediately sided with Hillary Clinton in this presidential campaign.  

Also while in Texas, the couple befriended donors like the late Bernard Rapoport of Waco, who would financially back both of their campaigns. 

Texas helped deliver the Democratic nomination to Bill Clinton in 1992, and gave Hillary Clinton life support to continue her own campaign into the spring of 2008.  

But also, they frequently returned to the state over the years to boost their old friends’ own campaigns. “All these people went in different directions and made a real difference,” Mauro mused. “We only got 32 percent of the vote,” he added. “But...you look at all the people involved in that and what they went on to accomplish in their careers, it was probably an incubation, a seminal moment in Texas politics, if not national politics.” 

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune here.