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Sneed: Hillary’s long and winding road

Hillary Clinton speaks on Feb. 9 in Hooksett, New Hampshire. | AFP/Getty Images

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Running with Hillary . . .

It’s been a long run.

Hillary Rodham Clinton has been on my radar since a White House luncheon invitation to meet the first lady arrived on my desk in 1995.

It was some lunch.

Ann Landers was there. So was New York columnist Cindy Adams. It was basically an off-the-record meet and greet with a small group of newspaper columnists.

Somewhere between the saffron soup, wheat berry pilaf and grilled basil shrimp, I listened to the nation’s most powerful woman being given unsolicited advice by the nation’s most powerful advice columnist, Ann “Eppie Lederer” Landers.

In hindsight, Hillary was warm and welcoming, but even then getting lost in translation.

I’m not sure what Eppie’s message actually was — something indexed between brains, brawn and baking cookies.

Hillary listened. Laughed. Seemed incredibly unlike the bulldozer being described in the press. I was young, flattered to be invited. But during her early years at the White House, I got to know the early Hillary. I subsequently met her numerous times, albeit briefly, but long enough to joke about pantyhose, the joy of girlfriends, the jolt of technology.

To those of you still translating Hillary, a few selections from my early interviews with Hillary during her White House years might be informative.

From Sneed’s archives

On Jan. 18, 1996, Hillary was in the midst of probes titled “Travelgate and Whitewater,” and was in Chicago to promote her book “It Takes A Village.” She talked about missing the counsel of her late father, who told her to always “carry a shovel” so she could dig herself out of trouble.

“I would consider doing anything,” she said. “I’d stand on top of the Sears [Tower] to bring this thing [Travelgate and the Whitewater probe] to a close. But to my bewilderment, every time we answer something and show we’ve been telling the truth, they say that’s not really what they are asking.

“Maybe I should have a letter-writing contest or something for people to give me suggestions. Maybe they would tell me to go to the South Pole.”

“It’s painful. It hurts. I don’t think you ever get used to it. I haven’t gotten used to it. Friends rally around and tell you jokes because they are worried about you.

“My mother can’t stand to turn on TV or radio because she can’t stand what they are saying about me. But it’s been four years. It flares up and down. I tried to quit being bewildered and angry and feeling totally confused. I just try and take a deep breath and collect myself and go on.”

So how does she cope?

“Sometimes I turn on music really loud. [President Bill Clinton] gave me the new Carly Simon “Clouds in your Coffee” CD for Christmas in my stocking. I turn that one to the highest decibel you can imagine and go around singing and beating the table in time to the music.

“Sometimes we go for long, hard walks inside the White House and the grounds and walk fast and hard around and around. Or go to a movie at the White House theater to get our minds off this stuff. The other night, we played word games with Chelsea. When we spend time with each other, we totally let down.”

OPINION

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Clinton said she draws on her Park Ridge childhood to give her strength.

“My parents prepared me to deal with challenges in life,” she said. “And my father, who died in 1993, always said: `How are you going to dig yourself out of this one?’ whenever I had a problem. I could always call him. He was salty. At times profane. I really miss him. He was down to earth. He had such a kind of typical overview of what was going on.

“He cared a lot more about how the Chicago Bears were doing than politics.”

The first lady says the mental image of a shovel she conjures up in distress has been a strength.

“I carry around the mental image of my father saying that. Since Bill has been in office, it has been shovels, hoes and bulldozers,” she said with a laugh.

“Maybe I don’t take a lot of the criticism as seriously as some might. I see this as a game. A partisan game. Part of the political season.”

So is it all worth it? The criticism? Being called a liar?

“It is worth it. I’ll tell you why. I don’t want to say I’ve gotten used to it. But I rely a lot on my religious faith. I try and develop a little distance from what goes on day to day. And Nelson Mandela’s philosophy taught me that you can take any misfortune in life and turn it to your advantage with iron will and skill.

“If you have to live with people doubting your integrity, that’s painful. But it’s nothing compared to what happens to others.

“I think ultimately the American public will see it the way my dad saw it, as part of the political scene today. . . . I was just laughing with a friend. I can’t remember every conversation I had in first grade, but I’m sure we are going to get to that. It’s absurd.

“But when the headlines fade, we are going to have to deal with what’s important. How are we going to help raise kids better?”

(Coming soon: The second part of a two-part series on former interviews with first lady Hillary Clinton and her Chicago years and childhood friends.)

Sneedlings . . .

A special memorial mass for the late, great Illinois Senate President Phil Rock was held at old St. Pat’s Catholic Church on Thursday officiated by pastor Tom Hurley, Maryville legend Rev. John Smyth, and Monsignor Ken Velo. The SRO crowd was attended by the state’s storied political giants: former governors Jim Thompson and Jim Edgar; former Illinois Attorney General Neil Hartigan; Ald. Ed Burke; former Mayor Rich Daley and Cook County Commissioner John Daley; Tom Hynes, former House Speaker Lee Daniels, House Speaker Mike Madigan, Senate President John Cullerton; former Cook County Assessor Tom Tully; Illinois Justice Anne Burke and Judge Aurie Pucinski. And in true Democratic Party fashion, a lunch was held at Plumber’s Hall. It was described as the stuff of legends. Saturday’s birthdays: Kelly Hu, 48; Peter Gabriel, 66, Jerry Springer, 72. . . .Sunday’s birthdays: Simon Pegg, 46; Michael Bloomberg, 74, Florence Henderson, 82.

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