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Life with baby Hughie

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Hillary's brother always craved her attention. He finally got it

So now scandal engulfs another Rodham, the genial, decent one, Hillary's younger brother, known as Hughie. A near constant presence in the Clintons' lives since he and brother Tony tagged along on their 1975 honeymoon, Hughie has a complicated relationship with his sister. Growing up, the little warmth their father Hugh Rodham Sr. had to give went primarily to Hillary. She was the Warrior Princess of Oak Park, Ill., beating up the boys in the neighborhood, always the captain when her brothers played "spaceship," less afraid, by her telling, of the scary flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz than Baby Hughie, who tried to hide under his seat at a Chicago movie theater.

Even before the pardon scandal, the relationship between brother and sister as adults could be strained. It was as if Hughie had never grown out of his grandiose and childlike schemes while Hillary became a real-life Warrior Princess. As Hughie bounced from Peace Corps volunteer to public defender to a quixotic run for the Florida Senate in 1994--getting only 30% of the vote--he looked slightly hapless and more dependent on his sister's good graces. During the second term, Hugh spent ever more time on the third floor of the White House, accumulating so much stuff that when the Clintons vacated the residence in January, he had nearly as many boxes to move as Chelsea. (He probably would have had more, but he also spent weekends at a Coral Gables, Fla., home he shares with his wife Maria Arias, a Cuban-American real estate lawyer.)

With Hugh under her roof, Hillary as First Lady continued to be hall monitor, trying to get Hugh to quit playing Upwords, the President's favorite board game, until all hours of the night. She imposed a strict Dean Ornish menu on the household--salmon, chicken, blueberries and bran--one that left everyone but her and Chelsea hungry. Hugh was known to steal off to McDonald's or organize family outings from Camp David to the Cozy Restaurant in nearby Thurmont, Md., for a fix of fries. As time went on, in ever larger sweat clothes and golf sweaters bearing the White House seal, the more he wanted Hillary's approval, the less likely he was to get it.

Hillary was, of course, right to be wary. From the start, the Rodham "boys," as Hugh and Tony are called, were hoping to take advantage of their sister's success, as if, a friend said, "they didn't know the Washington Post existed." They got off to a bad start during the first Inaugural when they solicited donations from a corporation for a party at the Renaissance Mayflower Hotel. Still, they came up short, and the Democratic National Committee had to pick up much of the tab. On his own, Tony, a former private eye in Miami, tried to land an Indian gaming license in New Jersey and a contract in China to clean the air. In 1993 he became a mid-level "constituency outreach" coordinator at the D.N.C., sent around the country to attend picnics, wave in parades and play golf. In 1994 he married Senator Barbara Boxer's daughter Nicole in the first Rose Garden wedding since Tricia Nixon's. The marriage was short and troubled, and the two are still embroiled in a custody dispute over their son Zachary, now five, who frequently stays with the Clintons. He sat in the Senate Gallery next to the President during Hillary's swearing-in.

But while Tony's schemes were dubious, Hugh sprinkled his with a hint of fantasy. During impeachment, a friend recalls, Hugh pictured himself as the one who, for once, could come to Hillary's rescue from the vast right-wing conspiracy that she alluded to in a TV interview amid the Lewinsky scandal. (Hughie would have been better advised to rescue his sister from her husband, but his dealings with the President were usually always warmer than with her.) Like Ralph Kramden, he saw himself suddenly striking it rich on one scheme or another, proudly telling potential clients that they could reach him at "the House." He got hired by antitobacco and antigun lawyers hoping he could deliver the political muscle to prevail. He didn't.

The two brothers nearly created an international incident when they tried to launch a $118 million hazelnut-export business in the former Soviet republic of Georgia by hooking up with a local chieftain. The chieftain was then the sworn enemy of U.S. ally Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, who told the White House he'd give the U.S. a day to get the Rodhams out of the country. To his credit, Hugh cooled it on the hazelnuts. But not Tony, who kept trying to get the President's blessing, calling during Clinton's last week every five minutes from a Washington hotel where he was holed up with a group of Russian moguls, trying to organize at least a photo op to prove his clout. (Tony got his moguls their presidential moment--more accurately, their ex-presidential moment--as Clinton dispensed handshakes at Andrews Air Force Base moments after the Bush Inaugural and just before he flew to New York.)

But as the Clinton era wound down, Hugh too was getting more desperate to make the killing that had not materialized in eight years of hustling. Taking and making whispered phone calls in the solarium on the third floor of the White House, Hugh was clearly up to something. That wasn't surprising. He always was: "Can you get me Oscar tickets?" "I want to go to the Super Bowl." "How about a lift on Air Force One?" And so, as Clinton popped in and out of the movie State and Main, which was being screened for the First Family, fielding last-minute pleas for various pardons, Hugh had decided not to attend, to make sure his were on track. He'd succeed in winning the ugliest pardons of all. He hit the jackpot, $400,000, for saving two worthless cheats, Carlos Vignali, who conspired to transport 800 lbs. of cocaine to the sons and daughters of Minneapolis, Minn., and the tax dodger Glenn Braswell, a snake-oil salesman peddling cures for cellulite and baldness.

It defies credulity to think that as Hughie was brokering the deal in the President's house, right under his nose, Bill Clinton thought his brother-in-law was working pro bono. Hughie was affable enough to give you the shirt off his back, but such a penny pincher, he wouldn't pick up the check at IHOP. And who helps scum for free, anyway? What other reason could Clinton have had for letting these awful people off than that his brother-in-law wanted it so badly?

Oh, brothers. Hugh isn't the only family member to disgrace a President (not even the only one in the Clinton family). Donald Nixon had shady business dealings. Billy Carter lobbied for Libya and peddled Billy Beer. The hard-drinking Sam Houston Johnson was practically kept under White House arrest by L.B.J. Roger Clinton, a mediocre musician and sometime actor (playing "Mayor Bubba" in Pumpkinhead II: Blood Wings), lived up to his bad-brother billing recently by abusing a nightclub bouncer and getting arrested for drunk driving--all after receiving a presidential pardon himself. He also submitted his own list of six pardon candidates to his brother; none made it to the final list. The only presidential relative to really benefit from his blood ties to the Oval Office is its current occupant.

But by carrying water for a drug trafficker, Hugh has seen Roger and raised him a truckload of cocaine. At her press conference after Hugh's payment was exposed, Hillary, used to separating herself from her husband's recklessness, separated herself from her brother's, doing it so harshly that a friend said, if Hughie were watching, he would be "suicidal." More than the money, what he has always wanted was her praise. At the press conference, she called her campaign treasurer, involved in securing two minor pardons, a "fine lawyer and a fine man." She claimed neither when referring to Hughie. Only once did she say she loved him, while repeating, like a well-rehearsed talking point, how "disappointed and disturbed" she was. She boasted about not having spoken to Hughie since the story broke.

I was with her until then, but having two brothers of my own, I know you can make the point that your sibling is wrong and still open your arms to him. What she did may be smart in the ruthless world of Washington, but not in the lasting one of family. You simply can't treat your kin as just another piece of roadkill. We've always known Hillary is smart. Her main problem is, we don't know if she's human. She may get out of the Hughie mess unscathed, but at the cost of confirming that being a Senator is more important than being a sister.


Cover Date: March 5, 2001



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