In a presidential campaign focused on the future, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama spend a lot of time talking about their pasts.
Both lean heavily on tales of early, formative experiences — she running a law clinic in Arkansas, he as a community organizer in Chicago — to show they understand the problems of average people.
Now the race for the Democratic nomination is coming down to its decisive contests, with Clinton locked in a do-or-die struggle to wrest that prize from an increasingly confident Obama, who appears poised to make history.
Voters in battleground states such as Ohio and Texas are still trying to take the measure of the two contenders — and for both candidates, these vignettes are a critical part of forging bonds with fellow Democrats.
Obama, for instance, grew up in Hawaii and briefly lived in New York — but returns time and again in speeches to the streets of Chicago’s South Side, where he tried to help residents of the city’s forgotten neighborhoods build a better life.
He offers that time to illustrate his real-life experience — a gritty counterpoint to Clinton’s time in Washington, a way to combat charges that his stints in the Illinois state legislature and the U.S. Senate don’t add up to the foundation to be president.
For Clinton, her time in Arkansas is a key component of the argument that her three decades of public service have prepared her to be president on Day One.
As the first woman with a serious chance to lead the nation, it’s a way for her to demonstrate how she fought to improve the lives of families and children.
Hillary Rodham Clinton often invokes her “35 years of experience making change” on the campaign trail, recounting her work in the 1970s on behalf of battered and neglected children and impoverished legal-aid clients.
But there is a little-known episode Clinton doesn’t mention in her standard campaign speech in which those two principles collided. In 1975, a 27-year-old Hillary Rodham, acting as a court-appointed attorney, attacked the credibility of a 12-year-old girl in mounting an aggressive defense for an indigent client accused of rape in Arkansas — using her child development background to help the defendant.
The case offers a glimpse into the way Clinton deals with crisis. Her approach, then and now, was to immerse herself in even unpleasant tasks with a will to win, an attitude captured in one of her favorite aphorisms: “Bloom where you’re planted.”
It also came at a crucial moment in her personal life, less than a year after she followed boyfriend Bill Clinton down to Arkansas — a time when she struggled to gain a foothold in a new state while maintaining her own professional identity.
“Bill was out front,” said Tim Tarvin, one of Rodham’s student assistants at the University of Arkansas Law School legal aid clinic. “But Hillary was running just as hard behind the scenes, battling just as hard for acceptance.”
In May 1975, Washington County prosecutor Mahlon Gibson called Rodham, who had taken over the law clinic months earlier, to tell her she’d been appointed to represent a hard-drinking factory worker named Thomas Alfred Taylor, who had requested a female attorney.
In her 2003 autobiography “Living History,” Clinton writes that she initially balked at the assignment, but eventually secured a lenient plea deal for Taylor after a New York-based forensics expert she hired “cast doubt on the evidentiary value of semen and blood samples collected by the sheriff’s office.”
However, that account leaves out a significant aspect of her defense strategy — attempting to impugn the credibility of the victim, according to a Newsday examination of court and investigative files and interviews with witnesses, law enforcement officials and the victim.
Rodham, records show, questioned the sixth-grader’s honesty and claimed she had made false accusations in the past. She implied that the girl often fantasized and sought out “older men” like Taylor, according to a July 1975 affidavit signed “Hillary D. Rodham” in compact cursive.
Echoing legal experts, Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson says the senator would have been committing professional misconduct if she hadn’t given Taylor the best defense possible.
“As she wrote in her book, ‘Living History,’ Senator Clinton was appointed by the Circuit Court of Washington County, Arkansas, to represent Mr. Taylor in this matter,” he said. “As an attorney and an officer of the court, she had an ethical and legal obligation to defend him to the fullest extent of the law. To act otherwise would have constituted a breach of her professional responsibilities.”
Rodham, legal and child welfare experts say, did nothing unethical by attacking the child’s credibility — although they consider her defense of Taylor to be aggressive.
“She was vigorously advocating for her client. What she did was appropriate,” said Andrew Schepard, director of Hofstra Law School’s Center for Children, Families and the Law. “He was lucky to have her as a lawyer ... In terms of what’s good for the little girl? It would have been hell on the victim. But that wasn’t Hillary’s problem.”
The victim, now 46, told Newsday that she was raped by Taylor, denied that she wanted any relationship with him and blamed him for contributing to three decades of severe depression and other personal problems.
“It’s not true, I never sought out older men — I was raped,” the woman said in an interview in the fall. Newsday is withholding her name as the victim of a sex crime.
With all the anguish she’d felt over the case in the years since, there was one thing she never realized — that the lawyer for the man she reviles was none other than Hillary Rodham Clinton.
“I have to understand that she was representing Taylor,” she said when interviewed in prison last fall. “I’m sure Hillary was just doing her job.”
In late 1974, Rodham arrived in Fayetteville, Ark., after working for nearly a year on the legal staff of the House committee investigating Watergate. Her friends thought she was throwing away a promising big-city career, but she was intent on helping her boyfriend Bill Clinton get elected to Congress that year and was intrigued by her new job running the university’s nascent legal aid clinic.
She viewed Fayetteville, a pleasantly provincial college town dominated by Razorbacks football, as a layover, she told friends at the time. Bill would be elected to Congress, she reasoned, and she would move back to Washington to work with her mentor, Marian Wright Edelman, on children’s causes.
Her life, as would so often happen through the years, diverged from the script. Before the clinic was up and running, Rodham was forced to wage a protracted battle with a local judge named Tom Butt to grant students permission to represent poor clients. Next, Bill Clinton lost his congressional race, effectively stranding her in Arkansas while he plotted a run for attorney general. Then came the agonizing Taylor case.
Rodham immersed herself in the work, people involved in the case say, mounting a ferocious and exhaustively researched defense that made a strong impression on some in the male-dominated legal community in northern Arkansas.
“She was just a real bulldog — a real bulldog,” said former Washington County prosecutor Mahlon Gibson, her opponent in the case.
Susan Carroll, senior scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, says Clinton’s attitude toward her work in Arkansas foreshadowed the workaholic approach she’s adopted today in her uphill battle against Barack Obama.
“I think Hillary prides herself on being someone who throws themselves 100 percent into an issue. Sometimes that’s worked for her, sometimes it hasn’t,” said Carroll. “She showed when she was trying to implement health reform, she just put her nose to the grindstone and that didn’t work out. She’s doing it now. She just has faith that the hard work will pay off.”
On May 21, 1975, Tom Taylor rose in court to demand that Washington County Judge Maupin Cummings allow him to fire his male court-appointed lawyer in favor of a female attorney. Taylor, who earned a meager wage at a paper bag factory and lived with relatives, had already spent 10 days in the county jail and was grasping for a way to avoid a 30 years-to-life term in the state penitentiary for rape.
Taylor, 41, figured a jury would be less hostile to a rape defendant represented by a woman, according to one of his friends. Cummings agreed to the request, scanned the list of available female attorneys (there were only a half dozen in the county at the time) and assigned Rodham, who had virtually no experience in criminal litigation.
“Hillary told me she didn’t want to take that case, she made that very clear,” recalls prosecutor Gibson, who phoned her with the judge’s order.
“I didn’t feel comfortable taking on such a client, but Mahlon gently reminded me that I couldn’t very well refuse the judge’s request,” the eventual first lady writes in “Living History.”
The case, she quickly learned, was hopelessly convoluted, hinging on the accounts of three people — Taylor, the girl and a 15-year-old boy — who all had reasons to withhold details.
Finding out precisely what happened in the pre-dawn hours of May 10, 1975, is difficult three decades later, particularly since Taylor died in 1992 of a heart ailment. But a basic outline can be reconstructed from interviews, court documents, witnesses’ statements and the Washington County sheriff’s original case file, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
Sometime around midnight, the girl was sleeping over at a friend’s house in Springdale when Taylor and his 20-year-old cousin walked in, asking if anyone wanted to take a drive. The sixth-grader, who says she was bored and wanted to buy a soda, jumped into Taylor’s beat-up red 1963 Chevrolet pickup truck.
Soon after, they picked up the 15-year-old boy and drove to a liquor store, where Taylor bought a pint of Old Grand-Dad whiskey, which he mixed for the girl in a cup of Coca-Cola, according to the boy, now a 48-year-old Army veteran. (Newsday is withholding the boy’s name because he was charged in the case as a juvenile offender.)
After a few hours at a local bowling alley, the foursome crammed into Taylor’s truck and drove to a weedy ravine off a busy two-lane highway connecting the sister cities of Fayetteville and Springdale, according the sheriff’s department account.
Taylor and the older man went off for a walk, leaving the 12-year-old and the teenager alone in the cab. In a statement to police, the 15-year-old said he removed his pants and admitted to having sex, revealing the encounter only after being pressed by investigators.
Moments later, he said he left and Taylor approached the truck, climbing on top of the girl. The girl let out a scream, according to the police report, and he claims to have seen Taylor hitching up his pants.
The victim, the boy reported, turned to both of them and yelled, “You all planned this, didn’t you?”
At 4:50 a.m., the girl walked into a local emergency room, badly shaken. The doctor’s report noted that she had injuries consistent with rape. Sgt. Dale Gibson, the department’s lead investigator in the case, interviewed her as she huddled with her mother. She offered a chilling detail — a threat from Taylor and his friends. “If I did say anything about it, they would catch me out later,” she told the investigator.
Gibson (who is not related to prosecutor Mahlon Gibson) had no illusions about how hard the case would be to prove, because the girl seemed to have a romantic interest in the 15-year-old.
“She was kind of led into it,” says Gibson, now retired and living in a Dallas suburb. “My sense was that she wanted to be part of something exciting with the young guy, but it turned out to be more than she bargained for ... Taylor, I think, had the idea he was going to make a man out of the young guy and jumped on when he had his chance.”
He added, “Whatever she did, the bottom line for me was that this kid was 12 and Taylor was a grown man.”
Rodham immersed herself in Taylor’s defense as the law school’s spring semester came to an end. “She worked a lot of nights on it,” said Van Gearhart, her teaching assistant at the law clinic in 1975. “I remember her doing that because she wanted to show that she was willing to take court appointments, hoping that the bar would help us in getting established as a clinic.”
John Barry Baker, the public defender Taylor fired in favor of Rodham, was struck by her intensity when he hitched a ride with her to the crime scene.
“Taylor was alleged to have raped this girl in a car right near a very busy highway — I told her it seems sort of improbable and she immediately agreed,” said Baker, who remembered Rodham as “smart, capable and very focused.”
During her first few months on the case, Rodham fired off no fewer than 19 subpoenas, affidavits and motions — almost as much paper as was typical for a capital murder case that year, according to case files on microfilm.
She successfully petitioned to obtain Taylor’s underwear for independent testing after the state medical examiner found traces of semen and blood. She also secured Taylor’s release on $5,000 bond after getting his boss at the factory to vouch for him.
But the record shows that Rodham was also intent on questioning the girl’s credibility. That line of defense crystallized in a July 28, 1975, affidavit requesting the girl undergo a psychiatric examination at the university’s clinic.
“I have been informed that the complainant is emotionally unstable with a tendency to seek out older men and to engage in fantasizing,” wrote Rodham, without referring to the source of that allegation. “I have also been informed that she has in the past made false accusations about persons, claiming they had attacked her body.”
Dale Gibson, the investigator, doesn’t recall seeing evidence that the girl had fabricated previous attacks. The assistant prosecutor who handled much of the case for Mahlon Gibson died several years ago. The prosecutor’s files on the case, which would have included such details, were destroyed more than decade ago when a flood swept through the county archives, Mahlon Gibson said. Those files also would have included the forensics evidence referenced in “Living History.”
The victim was visibly stunned when handed the affidavit by a reporter this fall. “It kind of shocks me — it’s not true,” she said. “I never said anybody attacked my body before, never in my life.”
In December, when Clinton was campaigning in Iowa, the woman was being released from a state prison after serving a year for forging checks to pay for her methamphetamine addiction.
She doesn’t blame Taylor for all her problems, but says the incident continues to haunt her, compounding her bouts of depression and anxiety.
“I remember a lot of bad things about what he did to me in that pickup of his,” said the woman, who says she attempted suicide a year after the incident. “I’ve had a lot of counseling and saw a psychiatrist for five to ten years ... It really affected me mentally. I was always kind of scared to be alone with a guy afterwards.”
In the early 1970s, Rodham studied children with similar problems as a Yale Law School student working at the university’s renowned child study center. As part of her course work, she helped train medical personnel to identify physical and behavioral clues of child abuse at the Yale-New Haven Hospital.
“She’s clearly wired to be empathetic, concerned and can-do about children,” said Penn Rhodeen, a New Haven Legal Aid lawyer who worked with Rodham on a foster-care case while she was at Yale. “It’s personal to her.”
Rodham’s fluency on the topic is evident in her filings. “I have ... been told by an expert in child psychology that children in early adolescence tend to exaggerate or romanticize sexual experience and that adolescents with disorganized families, such as the complainant’s, are even more prone to such behavior,” she wrote in her July 28 affidavit. “She exhibits an unusual stubbornness and temper when she does not get her way.”
The judge granted Rodham’s request for the exam, but the results, like the other prosecution files, were apparently lost in the flood.
By the fall of 1975, the prosecution’s case was crumbling under pressure from Rodham and other factors relating to the evidence and the witnesses.
Taylor was a tight-lipped client, never wavering from his claim that he’d driven all the passengers home that night without stopping in the ravine, according to Dale Gibson. (Taylor was less guarded around his 15-year-old companion, who recalls the older man whispering “Let’s keep our stories straight” when the two met in county jail.)
Most damaging to the case, the retired detective says, was the girl’s “infatuation” with the teenage boy, which she refused to admit, leading to serious inconsistencies in her statements about the incident.
The victim says it was her mother, who had recently been abandoned by her husband, who pushed for a quick plea deal to avoid the humiliation of having her daughter testify in open court. The mother, who died several years ago, was so eager to end the ordeal she coached her daughter’s statements and interrupted interviews with police, Dale Gibson recalls.
“We both wanted it to be over with,” the victim told Newsday. “They kept asking me the same questions over and over. I was crying all the time.”
On Nov. 4 that year, Mahlon Gibson agreed to reduce the charges from first-degree rape to unlawful fondling of a minor under the age of 14, which carried a five-year sentence. During the plea hearing, Cummings asked Rodham to leave the room while sexually explicit details of the case were discussed with the girl. “I can’t talk about any of these things in front of a lady,” he told her, according to the senator’s autobiography.
She refused and Cummings interviewed the girl in court. A few minutes later, he reduced Taylor’s five-year sentence to four years probation and a year in county jail — with two months taken off for time he had already served.
Taylor was out of jail by the summer of 1976 and remained on probation until 1980. There’s no record that he was ever incarcerated or charged with a serious crime again in Arkansas or Missouri, where he relocated.
Rodham was paid a $250 retainer for her services, minus 10 percent for court costs, records show. In her book, Hillary Clinton says the case spurred her to create the first rape hotline in Arkansas.
In 2005, while working in a laundry, the victim stole several hundred dollars worth of checks from her boss to buy drugs. She is now living in a halfway house and looking for work.
Despite these problems, she bears Hillary Rodham Clinton no ill will and was eager to read “Living History” — at least pages 72 and 73, which contain her case.
This story appeared in Newsday’s print edition on Feb. 24, 2008.