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Adding up the experience divide

Clinton mixes up the math in her 35-year mantra.

By Bill Adair, Times Washington Bureau Chief
Published February 20, 2008

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton does have 35 years of public policy experience since she graduated from Yale Law School in 1973.
[AP photo]
[AP photo]
Sen. Barack Obama has a total of 18 years involved in public policy matters, including 11 years in the Illinois Senate and U.S. Senate.

WASHINGTON - Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton often boasts that she has a long resume - 35 years long, to be precise.

"I have 35 years' experience making change," Clinton said in a TV ad that ran in New Hampshire and Iowa.

Asked about the difference between her and Barack Obama, she replied, "Well, about 35 years of experience."

She has used the phrase "35 years" in at least 55 speeches, debates and interviews since 2004, according to our search of a public statements database maintained by Project VoteSmart. So it's no surprise that a Google search of "Hillary Clinton" and "35 years" yields 515,000 hits.

Several PolitiFact readers asked us to explore the 35-year claim, which Clinton uses to distinguish herself from Obama, her younger and less experienced rival. To examine the claim, we interviewed two authors of Clinton books, Sally Bedell Smith and Suzanne Goldenberg, and we examined biographies from Clinton's campaign Web site, her Senate office, the White House and the Encyclopedia of Arkansas.

In simple terms, any experience counts as experience, but it's clear from the context of Clinton's remarks that she's speaking about public policy experience, so that's how we have focused our examination.

We'll start with the math.

Clinton is 60, so if we assume that her 35 years were consecutive, they would have begun in 1973 when she graduated from Yale Law School at age 25. That year she joined the Children's Defense Fund, an advocacy group for children.

For the most part, her claim is solid, but the math gets in her way when she says the difference between her and Obama is "35 years of experience." By our count, Obama, who is 14 years younger than Clinton, has three years of experience as a community organizer, four years as a full-time attorney handling voting rights, employment and housing cases, and 11 years in the Illinois Senate and U.S. Senate.

That's a total of 18 years involved in public policy matters. So the difference between Clinton and Obama is really 17 years.

Still, comparisons aside, the broader question remains about whether Clinton has "35 years of experience" relevant to her quest to become president.

Her career can be divided into four parts: her first years after law school, her work at the Rose Law Firm and as first lady of Arkansas, her time as first lady in the White House and her seven years in the U.S. Senate. There's little question that her time in the Senate is political experience, so we'll focus on the other three.

After law school, Clinton worked briefly for the Children's Defense Fund and then joined the House Judiciary Committee to work on the impeachment of President Richard Nixon. She then taught law in Arkansas for three years (while running a legal aid clinic) before she joined the Rose Law Firm, a prominent corporate firm in Little Rock.

Although she has not always drawn a paycheck for her political work, it's clear from her resume that public service, particularly involving the welfare of children, has been a major focus for her career and outside activities.

As first lady of Arkansas, she was active in several groups involving education, child welfare and poverty. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter appointed her to the board of directors for the Legal Services Corp., a federal agency that provided legal aid to the poor. She was co-founder of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families and she was president and a member of the group's board of directors until 1984. She also chaired an advisory committee on rural health, was on a task force on infant mortality and chaired an Arkansas education task force. She chaired the Children's Defense Fund board from 1986 through 1992.

This work occurred while she was practicing corporate law at the Rose Law Firm.

Goldenberg, author of Madam President: Is America Ready to Send Hillary Clinton to the White House?, said Clinton couldn't work full-time in politics or on children's issues because she needed a well-paying job to compensate for her husband's modest salary as governor. (Arkansas ranks near the bottom of the states for gubernatorial pay.)

"Hillary Clinton was the breadwinner - and that was an important role," said Goldenberg.

Sally Bedell Smith, author of For Love of Politics: Bill and Hillary Clinton: The White House Years, said Clinton has sometimes exaggerated her involvement with political causes, especially for her Arkansas years. "I think she certainly has, over time, been involved in children's issues at various intervals. But the fact is she was not employed in the nonprofit sector. She was a corporate lawyer."

Clinton also had parental responsibilities. Her daughter, Chelsea, was born in 1980, after Clinton had been at the law firm for four years.

"Like many women, her life was a juggling act," Goldenberg said. "She had her family, her full-time job, and she had these other activities that really were on the side."

Her legal work gave her entre into the corporate world: She was on the boards of Wal-Mart, the yogurt chain TCBY and the French building materials company Lafarge.

After her husband was elected president in 1992, Clinton left the Rose Law Firm and became first lady. By most accounts, she was one of the more active first ladies in U.S. history.

She chaired the White House task force that made an unsuccessful proposal to provide universal health care, and she played a key role in creating a children's health care program. Soon after the legislation passed, the New York Times reported, "Participants in the campaign for the health bill both on and off Capitol Hill said the First Lady had played a crucial behind-the-scenes role in lining up White House support."

As first lady, she advised her husband on Cabinet appointments and senior White House staff positions, Smith said. Clinton also was active on welfare reform and foreign policy issues.

"Her activism was quite unprecedented," said Smith.

Smith said if she had been given a title that matched her role, it would have been special counsel to the president.

And so we find Clinton's resume and accomplishments generally support her claims of 35 years of political experience.

There are a few periods during her Arkansas years when she had less time for public service because she was busy with corporate law and her duties as a new mother. But an examination of her resume and interviews with her biographers show she had a wide range of political and public service roles over those 35 years.

Her claim to be "an agent of change" for that time is a flourish of campaign rhetoric (she was trying to match Obama's claim to the word change), but we find it's reasonable because to be an advocate for any group or cause often means to seek change. We find her claim to be Mostly True.

Washington bureau chief Bill Adair can be reached at or (202) 463-0575.


The statement: The difference between her and Barack Obama is "about 35 years of experience."

The Ruling: That would be true only if he had no experience. He has actually held elective office longer.

The statement: "I have 35 years' experience making change."

The Ruling: Yes, right after law school she began work on public policy issues (with some time away for corporate law).


[Last modified February 19, 2008, 23:30:45]

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