The Woman Who Tried to Talk Hillary Out of Marrying Bill

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At their last lunch before the caucuses, Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton, along with Hillary’s mom Dorothy Rodham, corralled a room for a group of their supporters at a Des Moines restaurant called Tursi’s Latin King in Des Moines. At their table was a petite blonde woman with brilliant blue eyes who had played a peculiar role in their family story. Bill threw an arm around her and introduced Sarah Ehrman to everyone in earshot as the woman who tried to talk Hillary Rodham out of moving to Arkansas to marry him. Indeed, as Sarah Ehrman had driven the young Hillary Rodham down to Fayetteville from Washington, she had implored her the whole way to let her turn the car around.

She told me the story a few hours later. “I thought, he’s the most gorgeous guy I’ve ever seen, but he’s going to be a country lawyer,” Ehrman recalled. “She could have been anybody she wanted. She was so smart and focused and organized.” Ehrman had met Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham back when all of them had been campaigning for George McGovern in 1972. A couple of years later, Hillary was looking for a place to stay in Washington while she worked on the House Watergate Committee and she called Ehrman for suggestions. As it happened, Ehrman’s son had just gone off to college and his room was free. Every morning, she would drive Hillary to Capitol Hill and drop her off at work. During that nine or 10 months, “I think she never made her bed,” Ehrman said. “I was perturbed, but didn’t say anything.”

But she felt no such hesitance when Hillary announced she was moving to Arkansas. “I thought she’s going to the end of the world,” Ehrman said. “I told her, ‘You can’t even get brie.'” When Hillary had trouble figuring out how to get her bicycle to Arkansas (“She had so much junk.”), Ehrman offered to drive her–in part, because it gave her more time to talk Hillary out of it. She started making the argument in Charlottesville, Va. She continued her pitch as they shopped for pottery in Tennessee, encountered a drunken Shriners Convention in Nashville and crossed the Mississippi River. No luck. She finally delivered Hillary to the split-level the couple had rented in Fayetteville–Ehrman’s worst fears confirmed by the rowdy crowd that had come to town for the University of Arkansas and University of Texas football game. “I just cried when I left her there,” she recalled. Not until 1974, when she came back to Arkansas to help out on Bill’s first campaign–an unsuccessful race for Congress–did Ehrman begin to see the potential that had made Hillary fall in love with him.

Ehrman is now 88, three months older than Hillary’s mother, an age she finally admits to after years of lying about it. (“It sounds better to be born in 1920 than 1919.”) She has spent the last 10 days in Waterloo making hundreds of phone calls and knocking on doors trying to persuade Iowans to vote for the woman who once lived in her son’s empty bedroom. All these years later, “It’s a little startling to see Bill Clinton gray and Chelsea all grown,” Ehrman said. At lunch in Des Moines, the former President asked her about the wisdom of Hillary’s decision to follow her heart and him: “Have you changed your mind yet?”

“I don’t know,” Ehrman told him. “We’ll see.”