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In 1978 custody case, Hillary Clinton took the side of a father

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton at Transylvania University in Lexington, Ky., earlier this month.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton at Transylvania University in Lexington, Ky., earlier this month. (Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters/file)

RISON, Ark. — A 30-year-old Hillary Clinton, then a new lawyer at the Rose Law Firm, took a seat at a table in a truck stop near this small town on a hot Friday evening.

She placed an order for scrambled eggs and a glass of buttermilk.

Then she excused herself from the group — which included a client and his family — and called her husband, Bill, to ask him to pick up the dry cleaning the next day.

The complicated child custody case that brought her to Rison was running long, she told him, and she would have to spend the night at her client’s home because the town didn’t have a hotel.

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Hillary Rodham — as she was known at the time — was building her legal case with an argument that runs counter to a central theme of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign nearly four decades later: Now billed as an unwavering advocate for women, she then argued that a father should be granted full custody of his 6-year-old-daughter over the objections of the mother.

Clinton was up against a long history of Arkansas legal culture that favored placing children in their “tender years” with their mother, particularly in a case like this where the mother also wanted full custody and no abuse was alleged, according to Arkansas lawyers who practiced family law in this era. To win, the Yale Law School graduate argued that the US Constitution prohibits discrimination against men because of their gender.

It was 1978, a time when Clinton was striving to make an impression separate from her husband’s identity in the legal circles of Arkansas and establish herself as an advocate for children and families. But she also was learning what it would be like to take on the role of a political wife, looking out for her husband’s interests and racking up favors throughout the state.

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In this case she would wade into the mess and high drama of family custody law — a field where she had little expertise — on behalf of a man who was also the Cleveland County cochairman for her husband’s gubernatorial campaign. It would earn her and her husband the lasting loyalty of the father, Sanford Beshear, who was the only lawyer in the town and an important figure in Southeastern Arkansas.

Hillary Clinton later described this period from 1978 to 1980 in her autobiography as “among the most difficult, exhilarating, glorious, and heartbreaking in my life.” Her husband’s career was finally beginning to soar — though rumors of his infidelities were already swirling in Little Rock.

It’s also one of the least-explored corners of a life that’s been plowed over for decades. The cases that Clinton took as a new associate — and the first female attorney — at the Rose Law Firm rarely are detailed.

Clinton, via her campaign, declined to comment for this story.

Biographies tend to focus on one early case — mostly because of the oddball nature of it. In that case, Clinton defended a canning company from a man who sued because he’d found the back half of a rat in a tin of beans. The man would constantly spit into a handkerchief in court, and said that the sight of the severed rodent caused him to do it over and over.

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“For years after, Bill used to kid me about the ‘rat’s ass’ case and mimic the plaintiff’s claim he could no longer kiss his fiancee because he was so busy spitting,” Clinton wrote in “Living History.”

But the child custody case had no antics, and doesn’t get retold in popular accounts of Clinton’s legal career. There’s little for Clinton to gain by bringing up an ugly dispute between two parents.

Clinton’s name — Hillary Rodham, actually — first appears in the court file in a motion submitted June 20, 1978. It was just 21 days after her husband had won the Democratic primary for governor.

The nominee was heavily favored to win the fall’s general election, so when Hillary Clinton showed up in a small county court for the child custody hearing, everyone knew who she was.

“She was about to be the governor’s wife,” recalled Donna Walker, a cousin of Clinton’s client, who sat through two days of testimony to provide moral support. “We were tremendously impressed that we were watching the governor’s wife at work.”

She was “a real down to earth kind of gal,” recalled Walker, but she added: “I thought she was one of the smartest people I’d ever met in my life.”

Sanford Beshear said he sought out Clinton to be his attorney in part because of her gender. Persuading a judge in the Deep South to award full custody to a man would be tricky, and he wanted every edge in the case.

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“I knew that’s what I needed, because every judge has a mother,” Beshear recalled.

Both Beshear and the mother of his child knew Hillary Clinton, because both were involved in the Arkansas Advocates for Family and Children, a Little Rock charity that she helped found. She was also acquainted socially with both parents in the dispute.

Beshear said Hillary Clinton expressed initial reservations about taking the case. “She said, ‘I see you at all these political functions, but you might be a monster at home,’ ” Beshear recalled.

“I’ll represent you so far as I believe you are doing this for your daughter’s best interest, not some vendetta against your ex-wife and her husband,” Clinton told him, according to Beshear. She made him write down everything that he’d done wrong during his marriage so there couldn’t be any surprises at court.

And Hillary Clinton issued a threat.

“She told me that ‘I’ll take this case. But I find out that you’re doing this for the wrong reasons, I’m not only going to drop you like a hot potato, you’re going to rue the day you came in to see me.’ ”

Beshear was in a pickle. He’d married and divorced the same woman twice. Their final divorce came in January 1978. At that time a judge granted the couple shared custody of their daughter Bethany, who has a developmental disability.

But Beshear didn’t like the arrangement, and sued for full custody of their only child. He lived in little Rison, and his ex-wife and the daughter were in Little Rock.

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The case court file — still contained in a green folder in the clerk’s office in the century-old Cleveland County courthouse — includes no searing allegations against the mother or arguments about her fitness to raise a child or have joint custody, nothing about drugs or any kind of abuse.

There are just vague hints, written in legal briefs by Clinton, that the mother, Susan Bensberg, “conducted herself . . . without regard to appropriate moral and ethical values and behavior.”

In an interview, Beshear said Bensberg was in a relationship while the couple was separated. She later married the man.

Bensberg, through her attorney in court papers, accused her ex-husband of being “emotionally unstable” and having “behavioral problems” that were having a “detrimental impact” on their daughter. She also accused him of failing to pay alimony and making “erratic” child support payments.

Bensberg, who now lives in a leafy neighborhood of Camden, Ark., declined to give an on-the-record interview about the child custody fight, saying she didn’t want to dredge up painful memories. She said that she voted for Hillary Clinton in the primary and will do so again in November, despite the unpleasantness of the case.

The custody hearing included what the judge described as “pointed arguments.” It was conducted in a different court each day — first in Calhoun County and then moving the next day, a Saturday, to Cleveland County.

The courthouse there is by far the most prominent building downtown — it’s a solid brick two-story building with a clock tower. Inside, both floors have high tin ceilings.

Clinton would pace as she tried the case, her heels making clicking sounds, recalled Donna Walker. A key part of the hearing came when she questioned Bensberg.

Many of Clinton’s questions focused on Bensberg’s role as a mother, Walker recalled, and as Clinton pressed for details “she slowly paced back and forth [as]she was talking to her.’’

In Walker’s view, Clinton’s questioning helped win the case.

Beshear said that Clinton clearly won over the judge — who at one point called her up to his desk with the other attorneys.

“He said, ‘You know Ms. Rodham, they say your husband is the pretty one in the family,’” Beshear recalled, saying that he could hear the exchange.

She laughed. “She has this hoarse cackle,” Beshear recalled.

“The judge said, ‘The longer I sit here the more of your beauty I see.’”

To win the case, Clinton played what now could be called “the man card,” arguing to the judge that men in child custody cases don’t get a fair shake.

“Case law which permits discrimination against men because of their sex in the award of a child’s custody is neither socially nor psychologically supportable and violates the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Arkansas and United States Constitution,” Clinton wrote then.

It was a novel line of argument for the time, said Sam Hilburn, a Little Rock attorney who has practiced family law in the state for 44 years.

“It’s a great argument,” he said. “But usually you don’t think in family law of using constitutional arguments to advance your case.”

The judge paid attention.

In his order granting full custody to the father, the judge cited a March 1978 case in Wisconsin where a trial judge was scolded for granting custody of a girl to her mother “without setting out the particular qualities and facts to support the awarding of custody to the mother.”

TheArkansas judge, Royce Weisenberger, had positive words for both parents in Clinton’s case, observing that “obviously each parent loves” the child.

Beshear, though, “sacrificed the most” by shortening his working hours, while the child’s mother had decided to “continue her education even though married now to a man able to support her,” according to the order.

The judge chided Beshear for “his vindictive pursuit” of his ex-wife’s past, but concluded that his “reputation and recommendations” were “stronger” than hers.

The daughter still lives with her father, in Utah.

But they’re not there much. The two have been traveling the country supporting Clinton’s presidential campaign.


Annie Linskey can be reached at annie.linskey@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @annielinskey.