Anita Rifkind wrote a note to her well-known high school classmate Hillary Clinton right after her husband, Bill, was elected president in 1992.
“None of us are surprised to see you in the White House,” Rifkind wrote. “We’re just surprised you had to bring that guy with you.”
Last week, it became clearer than ever before that Rifkind’s note could prove to be more than witty prose. Clinton, in her second attempt at the presidency, became the presumptive Democratic nominee after resounding wins in California and New Jersey, among other states, to close out the primary season.
In the process, she became the first woman to ever clinch a major party’s presidential nomination — a feat that less than half registered voters consider historic, according to a recent Morning Consult poll.
But for some who have known Clinton the longest — classmates of Clinton in high school, members of the first graduating class of Maine South High School in Park Ridge, Illinois, back in 1965 — the moment wasn’t just historic. It was powerful.
“Well, I have to admit that I felt stronger emotion than I expected to,” Maine South classmate Cheryl Harbour told Business Insider. “And really, my relationship with her exceeds politics. But when that happened, I had a tremendous feeling of history changing directions. It was such a profound day. Knowing her, I am proud of her for being the person that could make that happen.”
“This to me seems like an extension of who she was then and what every moment of her life has been,” she continued. “It’s not as if it was a huge leap. I feel like the person that we see today is the person that I first got to know in first grade. … I can still see the influences of Park Ridge in her.”
Rifkind, who first met Clinton in junior high, said she was “thrilled” by Clinton outlasting Sen. Bernie Sanders and securing the Democratic nomination. She told Business Insider that she felt Clinton “should have gotten it” over then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama in 2008, when she first ran.
Admittedly not a close friend of Clinton’s, Rifkind called herself a “D-list” connection.
“She was much more popular than I was,” she said, adding that the general public isn’t getting the proper perception of her classmate. Behind presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump, Clinton is the least favourably viewed nominee in recent electoral history.
“I look at the media coverage and I say this is not the person I know,” Rifkind said. “The person I know is warm. And open. And friendly. And is as honest as you can be. The fact that she doesn’t come across that way in the media always puzzles me.”
Harbour, meanwhile, called Clinton “extremely well-liked.” She said she knew Clinton mostly through classes and their work on student council, in which Clinton was heavily involved.
More recently, Clinton wrote the forward for Harbour’s book on becoming a grandparent, “It’s Good to be Grand,” soon after Chelsea Clinton became pregnant with her first child in 2014.
“She was the first grandmother or grandmother-to-be to read the book,” Harbour said. “We were together one evening and I half-jokingly said, ‘You should write the foreword,’ and she said ‘I will.’ And she did.”
“Her friends love her because she remembers what’s going on in your family and asks about it,” she continued. “I think she has a great capacity for empathy.”
Clinton’s high-school classmates, like the electorate at large, appear to exhibit a mix of jubilation — shown by Rifkind and Harbour — and being apathetic or unenthused about the choice between Clinton and Trump.
John Apolinski, who said he did not know Clinton well, simply said “I plan on voting” when asked who he was supporting in the fall.
“We’ll see what develops in the next few months,” he said.
“It’s a very interesting dynamic that’s going on in our political system right now,” he added. “It’s incredibly fascinating. It’s almost like reality TV but to the 10th degree.”
But Apolinski acknowledged the gravity of being classmates of the first woman to clinch a major party’s presidential bid.
“The fact that it’s the first woman to be officially nominated, which is a historic moment, that is phenomenal,” he said. “And of course, the fact that we both attended the same school, that’s nice.”
For Harbour — who got to know a president once before during the first Clinton administration — the moment of Clinton becoming the presumptive nominee was both “sobering and inspiring.”
“When you know the president, you feel personally connected to the hugeness of the responsibility,” she said. “But it’s also inspiring because it means the rest of us need to take responsibility for what more we can be and should be doing — and there’s no postponing it. No more waiting for ‘it’ to happen.”
“By knowing Bill Clinton through Hillary, I was conditioned to the idea of personally knowing a president,” she added. “All presidents have friends who know them as real people. But there is still a tremendous sense of awe and pride that Hillary, my friend, is in the center of this historic circumstance.”
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