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Hillary Clinton Recalls Role as Watergate Lawyer: ‘It Was Unbelievable’

May 25, 1992 GMT

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The year was 1974, and the nation was consumed with Watergate. Not long out of Yale Law School, Hillary Rodham found herself helping lay the legal groundwork for what was once unthinkable: Impeachment of the president.

Pushed by a former professor, she signed on in mid-January as a lawyer on the impeachment inquiry staff of the House Judiciary Committee.

It was a job that brought her into the vortex of a history-making legal debate, surrounded by some of the brightest legal minds and under intense public scrutiny.

″Hillary was a star from the beginning,″ recalls Dagmar Hamilton, a former colleague who is now a University of Texas professor.

Today she is known as Hillary Rodham Clinton, wife of the likely Democratic presidential nominee, Bill Clinton, the governor of Arkansas.

Now a successful lawyer in Little Rock, she remembers her Watergate year as ″one of the greatest personal and professional opportunities I’ve ever had.″

″It was an unbelievable experience,″ she recalled.

″The staff that was put together was so professional, experienced. They were some of the greatest lawyers I’ve ever worked with. I was just a fresh, young law school graduate, and I got to work with these people, and it was such an historic experience.″

Hillary Rodham was a 26-year-old lawyer for the Children’s Legal Defense Fund when she joined the impeachment inquiry staff. She was one of only three women among the 43 lawyers on the staff and had the title of counsel, lowest in the professional pecking order.

″Any lawyer in the country would have wanted to work on this,″ recalled a colleague, Fred Altshuler, now a San Francisco lawyer.

″The job sought after you - you didn’t seek the job,″ said another, New York lawyer Robert Sack.

″She was a very good lawyer and a very willing worker and an exceedingly pleasant person to work with,″ recalled Joe Woods, now a lawyer in Oakland, Calif. As senior associate special counsel on the impeachment inquiry staff, Woods was her direct supervisor.

Even then, before she was married, the future Mrs. Clinton began to feel the strains of a two-career couple in the public eye.

Hamilton, who was also a staff counsel, remembers the time she took a brief trip to Arkansas to see Clinton, whom she had been dating. Clinton was running for Congress, his first attempt at public office.

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When she returned to Washington, Hamilton recalls, ″she said, ’I’m not used to this - everybody wanted to know what the candidate’s girlfriend thought.‴

The staff was headed by Special Counsel John Doar, and the Republican minority’s special counsel, Albert E. Jenner Jr.

Doar’s group of lawyers was separate from the permanent staff of the House Judiciary Committee, then chaired by Rep. Peter W. Rodino, D-N.J.

It was assembled as the case against President Nixon was reaching a climax and after the conclusion of the televised Senate Watergate hearings. There North Carolina Sen. Sam J. Ervin had engaged the nation with his tenacity and wit as he laid bare the crimes that would force Nixon from office.

A fellow counsel on the impeachment inquiry staff was William Weld, who now is the Republican governor of Massachusetts. Weld declined through an aide to comment on his work with Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Burke Marshall, a Yale law professor, knew both Clinton and his future wife. He recalls recommending her when Doar came to him in search of young lawyers.

″That job required not just brightness but some sense of balance, some discretion, prudence and integrity,″ Marshall said.

Doar had met both Rodham and Clinton when he judged a moot court competition they were managing at Yale.

″My first job,″ Doar remembers, ″was to recruit lawyers. And one of the first ones I recruited was Hillary.″

″Everybody was good. Everybody worked very hard. Nobody talked to the newspapers,″ said Doar, now a prominent New York attorney. ″They followed the rules, and they performed a dedicated task with real distinction.″

Rodham’s principal assignment was establishing the legal procedures to be followed in the conduct of the inquiry and impeachment, Woods said. That meant handling subpoenas, making sure the proper legal steps were anticipated and followed.

She and her colleagues labored to compile the large notebooks that were on the desk before each Judiciary Committee member once the hearings began. They were filled with statements of information and legal analysis.

″It was like 18-20 hour days,″ Hillary Clinton remembers. ″People just worked around the clock.″

The staff worked largely out of sight in an annex building several blocks from the Capitol.

″It was a pretty intense kind of seven or eight months,″ Sack said. ″And in a sense we were shut away from the rest of the Washington world.″

When the end came, it came quickly. On Aug. 9, Nixon resigned, sparing the nation the trauma of impeachment.

The staff disbanded and scattered. Rodham moved to Arkansas and married Bill Clinton. He lost his challenge to Republican Rep. John Paul Hammerschmidt. But he had other races in mind, and a year later was elected state attorney general.