Through the course of her 20-plus years in national politics, Hillary Clinton has on many occasions told a tale about the time in the summer of 1969 that she worked briefly at a fishery in Valdez, Alaska after graduating from Wellesley College.
The story appears to have a couple of purposes. It makes Clinton seem tough, gritty and humble — the kind of story that a person with political aspirations would like to tell. Clinton also uses it as the perfect analogy to a career in Beltway politics.
“Best preparation for being in Washington that you can possibly imagine,” she told David Letterman during an interview in 2007.
But the story has morphed over the years, from its first iteration in 1992 when the then-first lady of Arkansas claimed she was fired from her job because she confronted her fishmonger boss over the putrid state of the salmon she was hired to gut to the version she shared during a question-and-answer session during a town hall on Monday.
Asked if she has ever been fired from a job, Clinton told voters in New Hampshire Monday that she was. She went on to explain:
I went to Alaska after I graduated from college, and we worked our way — I was with some friends — we worked our way, we washed dishes. And then we ended up in Valdez, Alaska and we got a job at what was called a cannery, a fishery, where the fishermen were bringing in salmon and then they were being packed to be sent, in this case it was to Japan.
So I showed up, my first job was I was given a spoon and some boots and I was told to clean out the insides of the salmon. So I did that for a while, but the Japanese workers who were taking out the caviar thought I was too slow, so they were yelling at me in Japanese — which of course I couldn’t understand — to go faster. And so then they literally kicked me out of that job and they put me on this little conveyor belt where you had to pack the salmon, head-to-tail, head-to-tail. And I noticed — I mean, I know nothing about salmon, obviously, other than to eat it, which I love — but the way they looked, I didn’t know. And they were like green and black, they looked horrible. And so I went to the guy running the operation and I said ‘are you sure these are OK?’
Clinton said that her boss told her “just do the job, don’t ask any questions.”
“I said ‘but, they don’t look very good, and they don’t smell very good,'” Clinton recalled. “He just yelled at me, and then when I left, I came back the next day and the whole operation was gone.”
“So I think that was the equivalent of being fired,” she concluded.
But in previous versions of the story, Clinton’s firing was not ambiguous. In prior tellings, she has claimed she was canned outright, much like the sea-dwellers whose entrails she scooped out onto the floor of a south Alaskan fishery for a brief period in the summer of Woodstock and the moon landing.
The first version of the story appears to have been published in a May 1992 New York Times profile. In it, Clinton was portrayed as a progressive idealist willing to speak truth to power.
The Times reported:
…she will never compromise on big things. And, indeed, a story she tells over dinner in the hotel in Covington illustrates that strong will.
She is talking about the summer during law school when she went to Alaska and got a job in a fish-processing plant. She was supposed to scoop out the entrails, but she began to get worried about the state of the fish.
“They were purple and black and yucky looking,” she recalled. She questioned the owner about how long the fish had been dead, and he warned her to stop asking questions. But she continued asking questions, and was fired within a week.
She didn’t care. “I found another job,” she said coolly.
On Nov. 4, 1992, the day after Bill Clinton was elected president, The Associated Press retold the story, using it to bolster Clinton’s feisty image:
Hillary Clinton is no stranger to protest and controversy. Friends say she stands up for what she believes in, like when she got herself fired from a summer at a fish-processing plant in Alaska because she complained too doggedly about the odd, unhealthy pallor of the fish.
And in her 2003 autobiography “Living History,” Clinton described her short-lived job “in a temporary salmon factory on a pier” in much the same fashion.
My job required me to wear knee-high boots and stand in bloody water while removing guts from the salmon with a spoon. When I didn’t slime fast enough, the supervisors yelled at me to speed up. Then I was moved to the assembly packing line, where I helped pack the salmon in boxes for shipping to the large floating processing plant offshore. I noticed that some of the fish looked bad. When I told the manager, he fired me and told me to come back the next afternoon to pick up my last check. When I showed up, the entire operation was gone.