An excerpt from Helen Jonsen, a contributing author to a new book, Love Her, Love Her Not: The Hillary Paradox, edited by Joanne Bamberger.
“Election Day 2014 was the midterm election for the lame-duck years of President Barack Obama. Being self-employed, I avoided the crowds and waited until mid-morning to cast my ballot at our school polling place in Chappaqua, New York, often described as a leafy suburb an hour north of Grand Central Terminal. As I spoke to the volunteer to register, I heard the familiar voices of another voter or two who arrived next to me at the table. To my right were my neighbors, Hillary Rodham Clinton and President Bill Clinton. They, too, had come to meet their civic duty–to vote for our federal and state representatives, local judges, and governor.
We exchanged pleasantries and headed to the little kiosks to fill out our ballots. Secret Service men dressed as casually as the Clintons stood near them in the room. Little by little, others noticed them, but there was no press, no cameras. A number of people asked about their new granddaughter.
Outside, two black SUVs stood at the curb in the bus lane of the closed suburban school that serves as our polling place. When the Clintons came out alone, not in a hurry, I said hello again. They don’t know me well but for 15 years our paths have crossed both here in this berg and elsewhere. So we spoke for a while, not about politics but about mutual friends and acquaintances and local interests. Part of the conversation centered on how much they enjoy living in a town where their privacy has been reasonably protected and where they are comfortable dining, walking, shopping–even voting–without interruption (when reporters don’t have a reason to stalk them, that is).
I have been a television and digital journalist for many years, so I always walk a fine line when it comes to running into the Clintons. I don’t look for scoops but have sometimes been assigned to “cover” them. I am not paparazza. When not working, I’ve settled into the role of observer and neighbor, in their company when our paths cross. This has given me a glimpse into their lives and a perspective about them as people, rather than mere politicians, that others rarely get.
Fifteen years ago, when Hillary Clinton decided she would run for the U.S. Senate in New York, she went house hunting. Ironically, for me, it was the same summer my husband and I were looking for a new community for our family, complete with four children.
It became something of a running gag that Hillary seemed to be following us. I would spend a day with a real estate agent in a Westchester town, and the next day the newspaper would report Hillary had been house hunting in the same community. Our price range was more than a million dollars apart from the former first couple, but we seemed to be looking in similar areas. Finally, I thought I had outrun them by moving to Chappaqua, a town a little further afield.”
“To our surprise, that August weekend in 1999, as we unpacked a mountain of boxes in our new house, trying to find kitchen supplies, bedding, and kids’ shoes, helicopters hovered above our heads. Unbeknownst to us, the day before, the Clintons came to meet the owners of the white Dutch colonial on nearby Old House Lane and closed their own deal on a new home. They walked across lawns and introduced themselves to a few of the neighbors–ironically they were the only ones we knew before moving in. It was clear that sleepy Chappaqua would soon be on the GPS of every news desk in the nation and that Hillary and I were destined to share an adopted hometown. Not long after, the local Gannett newspaper headline read: “First Family of Chappaqua,” along with five articles about the house, the deal, the hamlet, and how life might change for the citizenry because of the new neighbors.
Bill Clinton would be in the White House for more than a year after the purchase, but he and Hillary took possession of the charming colonial in November. In those first couple of months, fences were thrown up, security updated, and Secret Service moved into a rented Cape Cod up the hill from us with access to the Clintons’ home via the driveway and backyard of other friends. Black cars and men in dark suits with curly cords tucked behind their ears became common sights.
Sleepy Chappaqua would never be the same.
There were plenty of things to complain about having the Clintons as our neighbors. Folks who owned homes more expensive than the Clintons or who lived in town for many years were concerned with the anticipated disruption. Some criticized Hillary’s perceived New York carpet-bagging and the intrusion of the press in their quiet town. The state posted “No Parking” signs along the town’s winding roads to keep gawkers at bay.
But when spring of 2000 came and her U.S. Senate campaign was well underway, First Lady Hillary surprised us with her desire to actually be a part of our community. We were delighted when she asked the Girl Scouts if she could march with them in our town Memorial Day parade. Just when we thought things might calm down as President Clinton came to the end of his presidency, on his last day in office, he became embroiled in a pardon controversy. The press swooped in as never before. Live TV trucks parked in front of our supermarket and train station…”
Helen Jonsen is the creative founder and chief storyteller of HJ Media, a consultancy & roll-up-your-sleeves firm focused on media-training, video production, digital, text and social media preferably for “social good.” She is hoping to see a woman in the White House her three voting-age daughters can be proud of (and so can her son).