Editor’s Note: CNN brings you the stories of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump from those who know them best in two CNN Special Reports, “Unfinished Business: The Essential Hillary Clinton” and “All Business: The Essential Donald Trump.” The documentaries air back-to-back starting Monday at 8 p.m. ET. For a look at Trump, click here.
A former first lady, senator, and secretary of state, Hillary Clinton has lived in the public eye for parts of five decades, emerging now as the first woman to be the presidential nominee of a major American party. To many, though, Clinton remains an inscrutable figure – a trailblazing feminist icon in some corners, she has long been a target of scorn and suspicion from her political opponents.
Carl Bernstein’s book, “A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton,” is widely considered the definitive biographical exploration of Hillary Clinton’s life and career. Bernstein interviewed more than 200 people for the book, published in 2007 and 2008, and his findings seem as relevant today as they were when she was running her first campaign for the White House eight years ago.
CNN.com sat down with Bernstein to capture some of his perspective.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
CNN: Who is the real Hillary Clinton? And how did you come to write this book?
She’s the most interesting woman, I think, of our era. At the time – she was already the most famous woman in the world. More famous than Princess Diana. More famous than Elizabeth Taylor. And, you know, we forget – with Donald Trump, we remember what a celebrity he is and how the key to him is celebrity and celebrity culture. But it also is, in many ways, to Hillary Clinton as well. She is, very much, the most celebrated woman in the world. And it has a lot to do with her story – and how she is judged, often not in context, but the way superstars in popular culture are usually judged: black and white, great or awful.
Also, going back to the impetus for writing the book: I was fascinated after the impeachment [of President Bill Clinton] by the story of Hillary Clinton. Here was this person who had never run for public office before. She had been the first lady. She had never lived in New York state, where she was running for the United States Senate. The retiring incumbent senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a giant in the U.S. Senate, did not like her; and he was angry at her because she, in his words, “demonized” members of Congress too often for his taste, beginning with the health care experience. And so I just thought, “This is one of the great stories. But underneath, there’s a whole story we know nothing about.” And we didn’t really know about Hillary Clinton’s life, which is what I found out in doing this book. Particularly when I went back to childhood. She has now been in public life for more than 40 years. She’s this familiar figure. She’s been in this bubble, which also has to do with who she is – both the political bubble, the Washington bubble, and a media bubble for 40 years.
So the extent to which she’s out of touch with things, which has been demonstrated in this campaign, is not incidental to who she is. She hasn’t really driven a car in over a quarter century. But she is someone who has lived her life as an adult being judged. And that has affected very much who she is.
We’re talking about a great human drama here. And I think that’s another thing that gets lost with Hillary Clinton, in our easy caricatures: She’s a human figure. And immensely subject to the hurts and pains that all the rest of us feel. She might put up a pretty good impression of being unaffected and simply looking at all this through a political lens, but no. She’s a wife, too.
In “A Woman in Charge,” you wrote about three pillars that describe the life of Hillary Clinton. What are they?
Big surprise. Family, religion, and public service. And those commitments are real. There is nothing fake about them. And they inform everything she does and has done. I’ll give you one quick example. When she was in the White House and being vilified by particularly conservative Republicans, she was going to prayer breakfasts with the wives of many of those far-right conservative Republicans. And she never let it be known that she was going to those prayer breakfasts. The same when she became a senator. She went to the prayer breakfasts with many of the Republican senators who had voted to convict her husband. Her Methodism is absolutely essential to understanding who she is. She carries a Bible with her, and reads it in cars and on planes. She underlines passages. She knows it. She’s looking for parables.
But on the next to last page of the book, I noted that, “Since her Arkansas years, Hillary Rodham Clinton has had a difficult relationship with the truth … Through one crisis after another in a life creased by personal difficulties and public and private battles … a fierce desire for privacy and secrecy seems to cast a larger and larger shadow over who she is.”
What do we know about Hillary’s childhood? How did her upbringing impact the kind of woman and the kind of leader she would become?
Hillary’s father was a difficult, sour man, given to exaggeration and fantastical pronouncements about his own life. He was a misanthrope. He really disliked people and tried to isolate himself from other people outside his family. He made it very difficult around the house. He was sullen, tight-fisted, contrarian, authoritarian, given to rage. He had been a drill sergeant in World War II. And he ran his household like a drill sergeant. Boot camp. If one of the kids, Hillary or her two brothers, left the toothpaste cap off the tube, in the Chicago winter, he would throw it out into the snow and tell the kids to get down on their hands and knees and find the damn thing.
But really, what was the worst aspect, for Hillary, as well as for her mother, was her father’s abuse of his wife. The verbal abuse, diminution, disdain that in many ways he showed for Hillary’s mother. And it really was extreme. It made it difficult for Hillary to bring friends into the house. They would sit at the dinner table. Hillary, her father, her brothers, her mother. Her father, again kind of like the drill sergeant, would throw out a topic for conversation at the dinner table, go around the table, and ask everyone their opinions. Until it got to Hillary’s mother. And he would then say, “What do you know, Miss Fancypants? You don’t have anything to contribute to this.” And he would go on diminishing her, and she would get emotionally upset and leave the table. And then he would say, “Go ahead. Just don’t let the screen door hit your ass on the way out.”
This happened numerous times. Very early in my research on the book, I was able to find and have lengthy conversations with Betsy Johnson Ebeling, who had never talked to any reporters or the press and had been Hillary’s closest friend as a girl. And she described the atmosphere in this household and the abuse to which Dorothy Rodham, Hillary’s mother, was subjected.
The real question, as Betsy and others asked, is, “Why didn’t her mother leave her father?” Dorothy would never say, “That’s it. I’ve had it,” Betsy told me. And, of course, that’s a shrink’s dream, and I’m not a psychobiographer. But I think when you lay out the story as I do of Hillary’s childhood, you get a sense of this remarkable girl, dealing with these things in her home. Her mother teaching Hillary, “Look, if the boys knock you down, you get up, dust yourself off, and, and you go back up to bat.” Her father, despite the difficulties, actually saw in Hillary an extraordinary young woman who would not be restrained by the fact that she was a girl. But he was harsh, and imposed impossible expectations on her – telling her when she got a B on a report card filled with A’s that she could have done much better. At various times, he didn’t want her to get her driver’s license, said she could ride a bike instead, and didn’t want her to go on dates with boys even though her friends went on dates with boys. He held her back in certain ways.
There’s a terrific anecdote you outline in the book, about Hillary and her mother Dorothy Rodham that sheds some light into the early lessons that helped shape her character.
Dorothy Rodham gave Hillary the example of a carpenter’s level, and showed her how it worked early on, and said that’s how she needed to focus on her life. She held out the level, with the bubble going back into the middle to illustrate the notion of righting yourself as a person when things get off balance and then coming back to center so that you can function. And that is a kind of metaphor, I think, for Hillary’s life. She is really amazing at resetting the bubble, and going to that place in the middle, and shutting out the noise when she has to, and trying to stay in that level place while the world around her, including immediate proximity, is going wildly off balance.
Dorothy Howell Rodham is the real hero and inspiration of Hillary’s life. Dorothy’s childhood was a horror of abandonment by her own parents –at age 8. Her way to cope was to persevere always. And, eventually, to make a home for her family in the midst of familial adversity. Like Hillary, she had a deep streak of rebelliousness and they shared a wicked sense of humor. And she was a secret Democrat; Hillary’s father – called “Mr. Difficult” by his wife – was a self-described rock-ribbed conservative Republican who despised labor unions, opposed government aid programs, fulminated against higher taxes, and spoke in epithets about black people.
By the time Hillary Rodham graduated from Wellesley College in 1969, it was clear she was no ordinary student. What do we know about her college years?
One of the things that’s important to understand and remember in terms of the dynamic between Bill and Hillary Clinton is that she was the better known and celebrated of the two when they met at Yale Law School in 1970. She had given a commencement speech the previous June at Wellesley College at the height of the anti-war movement that drew great national attention to her. The scheduled commencement speaker was Senator Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, the first black senator since Reconstruction, a Republican, for whom she had worked as a campaign volunteer. By the time of her graduation, the anti-war movement had swept through the campuses of America. Martin Luther King had been assassinated a year before.
Campuses were being taken over by students and it was decided at Wellesley that a student speaker should also be chosen by the student body. They chose Hillary, who was president of her class, to be the speaker. First, Brooke spoke and was condescending and patronizing towards the anti-war movement and the young people in America who were transforming the country and our politics; he was dismissive of the anti-war movement and backed the war without much thought to the consequences.
So Hillary threw aside her prepared speech and gave a response and a rebuke to Brooke, saying that she and her generation had been patronized too long by such attitudes as he expressed in this rather thoughtless speech of his, and that she could not stand there in good conscience and let this moment pass without saying that this was really out of order.
The speech drew tremendous response, and resonated in the press, and Life magazine featured a profile of her very prominently. So that when Bill Clinton met Hillary at the Yale Law School, he knew who she was. She was famous, and there had been stories about how she was going to move ahead in the political process and maybe even be President of the United States some day.
You spoke before about the importance of religion in Clinton’s life, her Methodism. How does that inform her politics – how does it drive her?
To start, when she was a teenager, a youth minister, age 26, came to her Methodist congregation in Park Ridge, Illinois. Reverend Don Jones. He was something of a radical minister who preached not just the gospels of Christ but also stressed the teachings of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, and his admonition to “do all the good you can, whenever you can, wherever you can, to all the people you can, as long as you ever can.”
For Jones, this meant, among other things, reading the poetry of T.S. Eliot and the lyrics of Bob Dylan, and taking these young people in his congregation to hear Martin Luther King speak in Chicago. And one of the things you must understand about Hillary Clinton: the theme of race and her commitment to undoing the horrors of racism in this country going back to our founding, and understanding the role of race in our culture – just as Bill Clinton does – this is who she is. It goes to her core beliefs about what kind of people we are. And say what you will about other aspects of political life or character, but this is a constant that really does and should, to some extent, define her.
So she found a comfort in the church and in Jones’ youth ministry. The gospels of Christ, the service of Christ, and Christ’s teachings about the poor, about helping neighbors – she took them very, very literally. There will, of course, be those who say, “Well, you know, she uses this as an excuse to do the things that her opponents think are untoward or unsavory.” But that’s really a separate question.
Many people assume that Hillary really went to Arkansas to hitch her wagon to his ascent. But you discovered something that really turns that on its head. And it happens very early in their life together.
It’s another amazing thing – why and how she finally decided to go to Arkansas. I mean, I was astounded when I learned this. She had failed the D.C. bar exam.
She had never revealed it for 25 years or so that she had failed the bar exam. She had intended to stay in Washington after working on the Nixon impeachment investigation of the House Judiciary Committee and go to work for a big D.C. law firm, and probably specialize in children’s defense law, which she had devoted her life to up to that point and still is devoted to. It’s one of the best aspects of her character and her empathy. Part of it comes from her mother’s experience and abandonment as a child.
And what happens? She failed the D.C. bar exam. Not one of the more difficult bar exams in the country. I’m sure she felt humiliated by it. Lots of people fail the bar exam the first time they take it. They have a bad day. But she hid the fact from others for all those years. Those who knew her the absolute best, including Diane Blair, probably her closest friend. When I said to Blair, “Did you know that Hillary had failed the bar exam?” she looked at me like I was out of my mind.
And so, to explain what really happened in this period: Bill Clinton had wanted her to come to Arkansas, but she wasn’t heading that way. She was heading to a big Washington law firm and wanted Bill to join her in the capital. She took the bar. She failed it. And then she decided, “Okay. I’ll go to Arkansas.” And she did.
We know how the Clintons matched-up romantically, but how did they align ideologically and politically in those early years?
In a letter to Rev. Jones from Wellesley, Hillary asked whether it was possible for one to be, “a mind conservative and heart liberal.”
No description of Hillary Clinton – a mind conservative and a heart liberal – has so succinctly defined her as this observation she made about herself at age 18.
She is very conservative in her own beliefs about personal things. About fidelity. About loyalty, and family. Yet she seems almost incapable of introspection. And this, of course, gets to the question about the anger she carries, which so many friends and associates discussed with me as an essential component of understanding her. You can’t get beyond the thread of anger in her life. She’s not the happy warrior that Bill Clinton is. However, in private with her friends, she is fun, girlish, and mischievous and shows no difficulty letting her hair down. One other aspect: She is a great and caring friend, and the stories are legion about notes she has written (with no possible ulterior or political motive) to friends and strangers about their trials and tribulations and triumphs.
Bill Clinton is the intellect. He was then and is now a conceptual thinker. Hillary is much more an executor who synthesizes the ideas of others – and acts on them. She is very much a pragmatist. Obviously Hillary’s anger at her husband has marked their marriage. And at the same time, this is a great love affair. It might sound strange – but anyone who knows them understands that. For almost half a century now, each has seen the other as the brightest star in the other’s universe. And that continues to be the case. It’s been an uninterrupted dialogue since they met – about ideas, about the world, and the possibilities of politics in behalf of the ideals they share.
Arkansas. It’s a long way from Yale. Or Chicago for that matter. How did Hillary adjust to her husband’s home state?
It was a backwards Southern place in terms of her outlook and familiarity, with what was going on in other parts of the country when she moved there. And she immediately took action to begin building a women’s movement in Arkansas, including establishing rape crisis centers, opportunities in politics for women, and somewhat defiantly she used her maiden name – “It showed I was still me,” she said – until Bill Clinton had to run for reelection as governor and it had become a political issue. Aides thought that might cost him politically, so she went back to using her married name. She seethed at the press for making it an issue. He lost, thought his political career was over, and went into a deep depression that lasted months, so wounded that Hillary thought he might never recover. Chelsea was less than a year old, and they had to move out of the Governor’s Mansion, into a tiny apartment. Within days, Hillary took charge and never again let go of his political destiny. She became the architect of his political resurrection, planning the battle to regain the governorship in two years, persuading Bill to adopt more flexible, pragmatic positions on issues that had figured in his defeat.
On Chelsea’s second birthday – the day he announced he would run to regain the governorship – Hillary presented him with a framed picture of the three of them, with the engraving, “Chelsea’s second birthday, Bill’s second chance.” That campaign became the model for their political future, with Hillary assuming a dominant, hands-on role in terms of policy, strategy, scheduling, and hiring staff. He won. And she began taking on substantive portfolios in his administration: education reform, to start.
And when she went to the White House, and she made that famous statement, “I’m not gonna just sit around and bake cookies all the time.” Her heroine was Eleanor Roosevelt, who had broken so many barriers, both as First Lady and in terms of the work she had done, in terms of human rights, civil rights, women’s rights. So this, too, goes to who Hillary Clinton is.
How did Hillary Clinton handle the reports of her husband’s infidelity while she was first lady of Arkansas?
Shortly after Hillary arrived in Arkansas, before they were married, Bill decided to run for Congress – and had an affair with a student volunteer in the campaign. Hillary, who assumed a major strategic role in the race, ran the young woman off – had her banned from campaign headquarters. Even then, his political opponents were waging a whispering campaign about his affairs, especially as election day neared. (Bill lost, by 2 per cent of the vote.) Rumors, amplified because he was considered a political comer who might someday run for president – and some affairs – continued through his terms as governor.
In 1987, he and Hillary discussed the possibility that he would seek the Presidency in the ’88 election; and when Gary Hart was forced to drop out of the race because he’d been caught in an affair, Bill tentatively decided he would run; Hillary and Bill summoned old friends to Little Rock for the expected announcement of his candidacy; a hotel ballroom was booked for the event. And, after talking with friends on the eve of the announcement and at the urging of his chief of staff Betsey Wright, who went through a list with him of women who might “come out of the woodwork” during a campaign, Bill decided not to run, saying he heeded “some family time. Some personal time.” Hillary seemed relieved on one level on and angry on another. It was anything but certain there would be such clear opportunity again to possibly win the White House.
But perhaps the most threatening event to Bill’s political future occurred in 1990, when he decided to seek a fifth term as governor, in a race that looked very close. Four weeks before the election, his political opponents – you could call them the vast right-wing conspiracy – initiated a lawsuit alleging that he had maintained a slush fund as governor that he used to entertain five women with whom he supposedly had sexual relationships. The suit was obviously intended not just to hurt Clinton in Arkansas, but to derail any future presidential race, as Hillary understood.
And it named the five women, among them Gennifer Flowers. And so how did Hillary Clinton respond? Here is perhaps the template for so much that happens later. According to Betsey Wright and others, she and Hillary arranged that Webb Hubbell and Vince Foster – her partners at the Rose Law Firm – be hired, by or through the campaign, to represent the women and obtain their signed statements that they had never had sex with Bill Clinton. Some of the women were brought into an interview room to be interrogated by Vince, Webb, and on one occasion Hillary. Two of the women were prominent friends of Bill and Hillary – both black, and thus adding to the incendiary nature of the allegations; and almost no one familiar with the case believes they were anything more than friends. Acting through another lawyer, Wright said she was able to get Gennifer Flowers to sign a statement that she had never had a sexual relationship with Bill.
Now, toward the end of his gubernatorial period in Arkansas, Bill Clinton fell in love with another woman named Marilyn Jo Jenkins. And the damage from that was considerable within the marriage. This was a woman who did not meet the easy and condescending “trailer trash” criteria that Hillary applied to some of the other women, whom she chose to denigrate for their supposed lack of accomplishment or sophistication. This was a rich and successful businesswoman, with a graduate degree, whom Hillary recognized as different. And Bill was not secretive about the affair. Betsey Wright tried to keep the woman from coming around the office and confronted Bill numerous times about it. Hillary learned about it. And Bill Clinton decided that he wanted to leave the marriage. But Hillary refused. Bill told Betsey Wright that Hillary would fight to keep her marriage and family together. That she had put too much of her own heart and mind and soul into their partnership to abandon it. And ultimately Bill Clinton decided not to leave the marriage.
Until then, Hillary Clinton had never seriously contemplated running for office. Now, she and and Bill briefly toyed with the idea of her running for governor instead of him in 1990, while he worked on the marriage and relationship with his family. Ultimately, Dick Morris, their polling guru, determined that she did not have enough separate identity from Bill to run and win – which infuriated her.
But she didn’t run for governor. She didn’t leave her husband. She followed him onto the campaign trail and to the White House. And you wrote that she essentially saved his White House bid by the TV damage control she did when the Gennifer Flowers story broke.
You have to factor that into what Hillary Clinton carried around in her head as a result of Bill’s relationships with other women. You get to the campaign for president in 1992, and Gennifer Flowers resurfaces with a story in The Star tabloid saying she and Bill had had an affair which went on for twelve years.
Part of Hillary’s response was to go after her as trailer trash, a term she used in private to describe Flowers. Hillary had also wanted in that campaign to go after President George Bush, the elder, for supposedly having had some affairs with women, without knowing whether or not there was real substance to it. There’s no question that Hillary wanted to do that, through surrogates. But in the case of Gennifer Flowers, Hillary’s initial instinct, when Bill again denied the affair to her, was to “tell them (the press) the truth and get this off our backs.” Then Flowers provided lurid details and claimed she had tape recordings. “If we don’t turn this into a positive, we’re going down,” said Paul Begala, one of the campaign’s principals. He and others convinced Bill and Hillary the way to save the campaign was for them to appear together on an extraordinary broadcast of “60 Minutes” after the 1992 Super Bowl. And it worked. Hillary was worried she might cry on the air. This television appearance seemed to captivate its vast audience.
“Who was Gennifer Flowers?” Steve Kroft asked. “How would you described your relationship?” “Very limited,” said Bill. He and Hillary talked on camera about how they loved each other, how much they cared for Chelsea and how they had stayed together through the kinds of “troubles” most married couples encounter.
From the beginning there was no question Hillary was Bill’s biggest defender from other women causing trouble and how to handle them. As I wrote in the book: “Always. It was as if she, much more than he, better understood the danger – to him, to her, to Bill’s future, and their dream. She never doubted that if the women, and the enemies who used them, succeeded or became too visible and credible, the whole edifice could come down, including their marriage.” On “60 Minutes,” she said: “I’m not sitting here some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette. I’m sitting here because I love him and I respect him.”
In the book, you raise the notion that the Clinton administration was in many ways a co-presidency. What do you mean by that?
It was a co-presidency. And I think there’s reason to think if there is another Clinton presidency, it too will be a co-presidency. Because each is – and was during the first Clinton presidency – the dominant influence on the other. Intellectually and in terms of their individual areas of strength and expertise.
They really are fused after all these years. And you have to look at the Clinton presidency in many areas. You have to look at it in terms of economic policy, health care, women’s rights, foreign policy, reading the mood of the country. But you also have to look at it in terms of the relationship of the Clintons to the Washington establishment, which was very distant. From the beginning, Hillary wanted nothing to do with the, quote, “Washington establishment.” We see something of the same in the Obama presidency in his reluctance to socialize with members of Congress and other power brokers in the town.
But Hillary set the Clintons back in terms of their relationship with the traditional power structure of the town. Much to the disadvantage of the Clintons, as soon as they got there, she kind of drew a line in in the sand, saying, “We’re going to be outsiders, as it were, even though we’re the President and first lady.” And she had a wise social secretary who wanted to take her in exactly the opposite direction, who wanted a real integration in which the Clintons would win the goodwill of the permanent Washington class. They never did. It was a big problem and Hillary really initiated that.
The Republicans in Congress certainly didn’t support a co-presidency, and Hillary Clinton suffered a stinging defeat when her advocacy of health care reform failed. How critical a loss was that for her?
If we look at an historic event that changed the direction of the country and its politics in the last decade of the 20th century, it’s the election of the Gingrich Congress in 1994. And the election of that Congress can be largely attributed to the antipathy directed at Hillary Clinton by the electorate as a result of her actions as first lady during the health care fight. The secrecy. The alienation of Democratic friends. The political clumsiness. She became the issue to a disproportionate extent in that congressional election and, as a result, she was exiled, in effect, from her husband’s own White House.
Did Bill want to see her exiled? No. But he didn’t have much choice. She became the issue and had to really leave the White House in terms of not only a portfolio, of health care or some substantive aspect of the Clinton presidency, but in terms of dealing with his aides. They shut her out. What did she do? She reinvented herself, decided she wanted to travel around the world, talk about women’s issues. She went to China, gave an amazing speech in China about women’s rights being fundamental human rights, and became an ambassador on behalf of women and the causes of women, and the civil liberties and civil rights of women and girls. It was an extraordinary accomplishment. And this goes back to her mother’s lesson about picking herself up after getting knocked down.
The former first lady coined the phrase “vast right-wing conspiracy” to describe her opponents. Was there in fact a concerted right-wing effort to undermine the Clintons?
You know, she said Monica Lewinsky was about the vast right-wing conspiracy, and she said the same damn thing about the email server. Yes, the “vast right-wing conspiracy,” in some way, exists. The far-right wing is out to get the Clintons and to destroy what they see as Clintonism. And they have they been, as I say in the book, since the 1990s. But that’s part of the cultural warfare that the country has been engaged in. The Clintons have been in the crosshairs of that cultural war for some 35 years now. Nonetheless, there’s a way to factually separate the enemies from her own self-destructive actions.
And what has happened with the email server is not a product of the enemies. It might be a response in her mind to thinking, “I have to protect myself from the enemies, from the press, from the, quote, ‘vast right-wing conspiracy,’” both in setting up the server and lying about it. But that’s no justification for the actions she took.
Let me cut to the chase here. I think it is very important that we look at Bill and Hillary Clinton in terms of the cultural warfare in this country in our politics and our media of the last 35 years. They are the central actors to some extent in the culture wars. They are the Antichrist of the other side. And they – you know, you look at what Barack Obama has faced from the Republicans. Vicious opposition. Some of it racist, some of it not. But you look at the kind of opposition that he has faced and you also have to look at it as an extension to some extent of what the Clintons have faced. And what happened to exacerbate the cultural warfare and make it even higher velocity, heavier artillery, was Bill Clinton’s affairs with women. Once that became part of the political debate about Bill and Hillary Clinton, then you had a new set of circumstances.
The Republican right has always looked at the Clintons as radical leftist demons – exemplars of the ultra-liberalism the right despises, even though Bill and Hillary Clinton are more conventional center-left in their politics. Hardly radicals. And their enemies became even more enraged after Bill survived impeachment and Hillary went on to the Senate and then candidate for president. The Clinton presidential legacy, in tatters after impeachment, was redeemed after its enemies had thought “Clintonism” was dead. Redeemed largely by Hillary.
Of course, it was at the Rose Law Firm that Vince Foster became a close friend and confidant, years before committing suicide while employed as a deputy White House counsel. Much has been written about Hillary Clinton’s relationship with Foster, and about the circumstances of his death. What is the truth?
Well, first of all, she was a woman partner in a major law firm in Arkansas, which was unusual. And a person in the firm I think whom she most identified with – there were two, Webb Hubbell and – the other was Vince Foster. And he became her great, great friend. And he was also a pretty good lawyer. And he came to Washington to be part of the Clinton administration and to work with Hillary on health care, especially.
But then came the travel office controversy, in which an old friend of the Clintons convinced them that the White House Travel Office, which handled millions of dollars a year arranging flights for reporters and executive branch personnel traveling with the President and first lady, was being mismanaged and should be investigated by the FBI for embezzlement and fraud. Meanwhile, largely at Hillary’s behest, suspect Travel Office employees were fired and a Little Rock firm was hired to run the office – with a twenty-five year-old cousin of Bill Clinton’s in charge. Vince Foster knew what had transpired in the travel office controversy and was going to be asked about that imminently by the FBI and probably in congressional investigations instigated by Republicans. He also had witnessed Hillary’s mismanagement of healthcare and was responsible for defending it legally. And he was deeply depressed, partly because Hillary had been very rough with him in previous days, fuming that the defense of her and her staff and others in the White House in the travel office matter had not been sufficient. And he was in charge of organizing that defense.
And in fact in the travel office affair, once again, she had been less than truthful. George Stephanopoulos, the White House press secretary at the time, privately referred to Hillary’s pattern of “Jesuitical lying.” She was deeply involved in the travel office upheaval. And she did not want to say that she was deeply involved in it. And it was during this time that Vince Foster committed suicide. And there was the question of his records and what would happen with his records and certain billing records, which went around like poltergeist before they eventually ended up at the Williams, Connolly law office – the Clintons’ lawyers. The suicide of the person that she was closest to on the White House staff shook her profoundly, and she blamed the press for driving Foster to kill himself.
Now, Donald Trump has outrageously thrown out there the idea that there was a murder or that Vince Foster did not commit suicide, which is pure bullshit. He committed suicide. And every investigation, and there’ve been some very good ones, has shown it. And it’s Trump at his absolutely lowest and most irresponsible.
In your book, you report that Bill Clinton confided to friends that he did not think his presidency would survive the first week of the Lewinsky scandal. What about his marriage? What was Hillary’s response in those early days?
The day after the Lewinsky story broke in the press, Bill Clinton said to someone I interviewed, a major Washington Democratic player, “I don’t l believe that I can last the week in office: I think that the cry for my resignation is going to be such that I will have to resign before the end of the week.” But he managed to get to the end of the week. Though he probably would not have gotten much farther; I think we now have a pretty good idea of that. What then happened was that Hillary Clinton, on the following Monday, went on the “Today” show and gave connubial credence to his denials, saving Bill Clinton’s presidency – again.
Hillary Clinton, interestingly enough, had believed Bill Clinton when he told her he had not had sex “with that woman.” He didn’t just tell the country that. He told Hillary that. And she believed it up until days before his testimony to the special prosecutor months later. And even then he didn’t go to her and tell her it was true. Instead, his lawyers had to go to Hillary several days before Bill testified and tell her, “Yes, the allegations were true.” But she had convinced herself, unlike her brothers, unlike her best friend Diane Blair, perhaps unlike even her mother, that the allegations against her husband were not true and that Monica Lewinsky was a stalker. So once again, this pattern emerges: of blaming the other women as those who are at fault in these relationships, along with political enemies.
You say she saved his presidency. How did she do that?
It’s worth looking at the video of the “Today” show. And again, she said there was no truth to the allegations about this woman being involved sexually with her husband, that it was part of a vast right-wing conspiracy, which was, in essence, back to what she had alleged before – with Gennifer Flowers, and those five women in Arkansas. That the enemies of the Clintons were responsible for the allegations. “I do believe that this is a battle,” she said. “The great story here for anybody willing to find and write about it and explain it is this vast right-wing conspiracy that has been conspiring against my husband since the day he announced for president.”
As one of her aides told me, “She doesn’t look at her life as a series of crises but rather a series of battles…she would much rather play the woman warrior – whether it’s against the bimbos, the press, the other party, the other candidate, the right-wing. She’s happiest when she’s fighting, when she has identified the enemy and goes into attack mode.”
In her ongoing explanation of her problems caused by her email server, there are many similarities to what she said on the “Today” show 18 years ago, especially about all the incoming fire she and her husband have taken in their long political lives and stood up to, and framing the allegations in the context of their enemies’ aggression.
And it was true that the enemies were involved in pushing the stories about other women out there. The Clintons’ enemies had produced this lawsuit about the five women. And it’s true that in the case of Lewinsky, their enemies, Lucianne Goldberg and others, had been deeply involved in trying to get this story out. But most importantly, many of the allegations were true.
This time Hillary went on the “Today” show and said, “There’s no truth to this – this is going to be shown to be part of the vast right-wing conspiracy.” That, and then the stories about Monica Lewinsky being a stalker. And then the whole White House campaign to discredit her. And of course it became part of the special prosecutor’s investigation.
How does a sitting first lady who has never run for elected office decide to make a bid for Senate in New York state?
Part of it was about redemption. I open the book with the scene of the day that Bill Clinton is being tried in the Senate of the United States. Hillary is meeting in her study at the White House with Harold Ickes, her political guru, with maps of New York State spread out, and looking at New York State to see whether it’s possible that she can possibly win the Senate, while at that exact moment in the Senate chamber her husband is being judged and acquitted of high crimes and misdemeanors.
Well, that’s a pretty amazing scene when you think about it. She is the main reason that Bill Clinton was not convicted. She was able to marshal the impeachment defense – on constitutional grounds – in such a way that the Democrats stayed with him.
And it made this look to their minds, to some extent, like a political witch hunt or certainly something that was nothing approaching the same standard of high crimes and misdemeanors as Nixon’s transgressions, which they weren’t. But they’re apples and oranges also. And so she ran for the Senate, seeking redemption, redemption of their political journey together, redemption of their reputation, redemption of all of the good things that happened during the Clinton presidency.
It was a pretty successful presidency in many regards. Look at the economy. Look at the number of jobs created. Look at the economic situation. Look at the deficit that was reduced, et cetera, look at a foreign policy that kept us out of disastrous warfare.
Did she distinguish herself in the Senate? How will history remember Hillary Clinton the senator?
She was not a distinguished senator in terms of any important legislative role, but she certainly received more attention in the press than any other senator. And she learned a lot, a good student as always. The first thing was she decided, was that “I, Hillary Clinton, will not be a bull in the china shop.”
Well, think about that. That’s fairly unusual for Hillary Clinton. And she decided, “I’ll become really close to Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, the Democratic leader. And I’m gonna learn the rules and take his advice and sit quietly in my seat. And then I also am going get to know my Republican enemies.” She had some advantage here because she already knew some of them through the prayer groups. But she also treated them with great deference and respect. And on small-bore bills unrelated to great national questions and matters, she joined with them in sponsoring things. She was not an important senator, in terms of the destiny and direction of the country except on one question: the biggest of all, the Iraq war.
How important is the Iraq War vote to her Senate legacy?
It was the most consequential vote that she made. It was the most consequential act of her being a senator. And she came down on the wrong side, and partly for cynical reasons. Some perhaps not. She also is very sympathetic to Presidents of the United States and their powers, and that Presidents need to have the inherent powers to go to war. But she also didn’t do her homework, which is very unlike Hillary Clinton. She didn’t read the briefings that she should’ve read, that would’ve shown that there was much less information to back up George Bush’s claims about weapons of mass destruction.
He and Dick Cheney were asserting that there was legitimacy to these claims. There wasn’t. And so that on the most consequential act of her being a senator, she really, as Bernie Sanders had said, did the wrong thing. And she has said it was a mistake. At the same time, she did not sponsor any significant legislation in her time in the Senate. But what she was, was a great, terrific senator for bringing back the bacon to her state, especially after 9/11.
New York City and New York State desperately needed aid. And she was great in getting it. And it’s one of the reasons she was reelected overwhelmingly. She was effective for her state. She had the credibility with some of those former enemies, as well as with Democrats that were from other regions of the country, who otherwise would’ve looked askance at favored treatment for New York. But she convinced them that New York needed it in the wake of the attacks at 9/11. It’s certainly the best thing that she did as a senator. She shouldn’t be shortchanged on what she accomplished there.
But meanwhile she was contemplating running for President of the United States, as I lay out.
She became a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, partly to learn, and partly to bolster her qualifications for the presidency and to overcome the perception of weakness that she faced as a woman. Her vote to go to war in Iraq was calculated partly in terms of her knowing that if she voted against supporting George Bush in going to war in Iraq, it might make her path to the presidency much more difficult.
Was it hard for Hillary Clinton to bury the hatchet and work for her rival as secretary of state?
No. She saw it above all as an opportunity to do important work that she was qualified to do; and with the knowledge that, if she succeeded – and almost inevitably by being the secretary of state stayed in the forefront of the national imagination – she could well become the frontrunner to succeed Obama as the presidential candidate of her party.
Perhaps the most difficult part in some way may have been the physical challenge: The U.S. secretary of state travels more than any leader on the world. She had just finished a presidential campaign – and lost. She had gone from eight years in the White House, through the impeachment of her husband, straight into a campaign for the Senate, re-election in the Senate. Almost no downtime. Her stamina is incredible.
What kind of secretary of state was Hillary Clinton, and how does the “server question” relate to that?
She expected as secretary of state to be a real policymaker who would help shape President Obama’s foreign and national security policies. It turns out she was shut out from real policy making and from having great influence on the president very, very early in his presidency. So what did she do? She became an ambassador, really, and probably as great an ambassador for the United States, a kind of ambassador-at-large to the world, as we’ve ever seen in the modern era. And the goodwill that she won around the world for both this country and for President Obama’s policies, was extraordinary. Both with leaders of other countries, and with their people.
You can make all kinds of charges, and there are some to be made about her conduct as secretary of state. And we’ve talked in this interview about the server, because it goes to who she is just as much as this question of being a great ambassador. Here are these two sides of her. And should equal weight be given to those two sides? Maybe at this point equal weight ought to be given because we’ve seen repetitively now her ability to get up after being knocked down, to put the bubble in the level in the middle; but also at the same time this question of truthfulness – that has bedeviled her. The last paragraphs of “A Woman In Charge” begin, “Since her Arkansas days, Hillary Rodham Clinton has had a difficult relationship with the truth.”
And those two aspects exist side-by-side. You don’t get one without the other. I think we know that now. And one of the things in this election that’s so interesting to watch is the enormous distrust factor, which is partly the product of this “difficult relationship with the truth.” Her lies, especially. And I don’t think there’s any other way to talk about some of the things that she has said, particularly in regard to the email server. Despite the fact that Donald Trump’s lying, by comparison, is incessant, and however unbalanced he may be.
Let’s be frank about it. There are fact-based reasons for the “distrust factor,” in quotes, about Hillary Clinton, why she has such negative numbers. You can talk about her enemies and the damage they have done to her, but there are so many of these self-inflicted wounds that come from an unwillingness to be truthful at various important times. The vast right wing conspiracy did not tell her to put a server in her basement or dispatch Monica Lewinsky to the Oval Office.
We can now see that – consistently through her life on the public stage. As I write at the end of the book, “[J]udged against the facts … it underlines how often she has chosen to obfuscate, omit and avoid.” This goes to her, not just to enemies. And it may be the question that ultimately will be the answer to whether she will be the president of the United States. Because she is up not just against Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders. She is up against herself right now and these traits – that have come more and more to the fore to define her for too many people for political comfort.
And maybe – and I’ve talked to many prominent Democrats and a lot of people who have adored Hillary Clinton and been in her circle for years who now think that the worst thing she has done is to perhaps make it possible for Donald Trump – the first neofascist demagogue in our history likely to be nominated by a major party – to become President of the United States, through her recklessness.
Why can she not put this issue of the email server behind her?
(This interview was conducted before FBI Director James Comey announced his decision last week not to recommend charges.)
There’s a thread from Hillary’s work on the Nixon impeachment, to Whitewater, to the server. About secrecy and not disclosing the truth, especially. Even keeping secret her failing the bar exam. Refusing to release her Wellesley senior thesis. Fiercely resisting disclosure of the transcripts of her paid Wall Street speeches. I’ve given a lot of thought to this in the last few months. And I think you do have to connect some dots. I’ve been asked many times in the last year since the server first came to light, “Was there anything Nixonian about this and about Hillary?” To which I always have said, “No, the parallel does not hold.”
But – and I want to be very careful in what I say – I’ve changed my mind about certain aspects of that, though Hillary is not Richard Nixon or anything approaching him. There are some Nixonian tendencies, however. I think now that we’ve seen in Hillary, particularly in the server controversy. Not just the lies. Some real paranoia, blaming enemies for problems of her own making, and real indications that she and Bill Clinton don’t believe they are bound by rules that ought to be expected of them; that because others, especially Republicans, have flouted rules and political norms, that the Clintons are entitled to do it too. All in the larger scheme of “doing good,” which they see themselves as totally committed to.
But I do not believe that Hillary Clinton is a criminal in the Nixonian sense, or anything close to it; or Bill Clinton, though their ethical blindness to the conflicts of interest involving the Clinton Foundation and her being secretary of state are indefensible. And the money-grubbing. Yes, in some regards there are similarities between the Clinton Foundation and presidential libraries of the Bushes, and family dynasties and foreign donations. No excuse. It was said of Nixon, wrongly, that the cover-up was worse than the crime. Not true in Nixon’s case, because Nixon was a criminal President from the beginning of his presidency until he resigned. The Watergate cover-up was inevitable – because of the enormity of his crimes as president – and thus the cover-up was almost the least of his crimes. And we know this from the tapes, not just from the reporting on Watergate, or from the Watergate committee or the impeachment investigation. It was a criminal presidency throughout.
But in the case of Hillary the, quote, “cover-up” about the server and the unwillingness to be truthful about it and its origins and real purpose, has caused her terrible difficulty. Look, this server was set up to evade accountability, so that her emails could not be subject to the Freedom of Information Act, and would be hidden from the press, and from members of Congress who might want to subpoena them. And I know this as a reporter from talking to people. It’s indefensible.
You said at the start of this interview that Hillary Clinton is the most famous woman in the world. She is a former first lady, senator and secretary of state. Her life is the proverbial open book. But do we know the real Hillary Clinton?
That’s the real question. Who is the real Hillary Clinton? That’s why I wrote the book. That’s what I attempted to answer through reporting, so that people could reach their own conclusions. And I don’t state one. But what I do in the last three pages that turns out to be – others who have read the book say – prescient is I throw out there the idea that unless she can deal with her record about trustworthiness and honesty, then that part of the equation is going to increasingly define her and perhaps cost her the election.
And the election I was talking about in the book was 2008. But now it turns out those pages are resonating in a way that I could not imagine when I wrote them. So, who at this date is Hillary Clinton? She is the sum of all of the parts in this book and in this picture of her. But in the years since the book was first published and while she was in the Senate and then the secretary of state, there has been a shifting in the weight of which aspects of the real Hillary Clinton are prevailing and have prevailed. Certainly in terms of how she is judged.
Toward the end of the book, one of Hillary’s oldest friends and political associates, a wonderful woman named Sara Ehrman says (as Hillary embarked on her first Senate campaign), “I would say right now most everybody in her life is simply a means of getting where she has to go. … I’m not saying she’s an unethical person, because she’s definitely not. But everything and everybody is part of the package of getting them there, getting them – her and the president – there for the greater good.” By then Sara worried that Hillary’s Christian, progressive optimism was in danger of devolving into arrogance – ” ‘God is on my side,’ can be arrogance,” Sara said. “Hillary still believes she’s going to shape the world.”
What has amazed me in these past months since she announced for the presidency is how many of Hillary’s old friends – who still support her – say they are no longer sure, as they once were, who the real Hillary Clinton is. They express the same concerns as Sara Ehrman.
Knowing Hillary Clinton as well as you do, what do you think she needs to do to convince America she should be the next President of the United States?
First, continue with her message that Donald Trump is unfit to be president of the United States for all the reasons she – and not a few Republicans – have said. In fact, he is not fit, and, by comparison, she manifestly is, which she ought to be able to demonstrate on the basis of her life and record and the issues she has championed, whatever her shortcomings.
Second, show and summon some real contrition about what has happened with the server and the underlying patterns that have led so many Americans to distrust her. Redemption: I suppose that’s what she must come up with – again. But this time for herself and not for her husband’s presidency. There are plenty of attributes there. She’s battle-tested, and that’s admirable and helpful in this election. She’s almost uniquely knowledgeable about the presidency. She understands America’s national security needs. She actually has a history from her Senate years of learning how to work with Republicans. And thanks to Bernie Sanders, whose candidacy in part pushed her into it, she now has a vision of domestic political solutions that recognize the justifiable anger and dismay of so many struggling Americans who have been ignored by the “elites” and government policies and left behind in the “new economy.” The dismaying aspect for many of her old friends and supporters is that it took her so long to get there.
It’s probably her good fortune – or the nation’s misfortune if he wins – that Donald Trump is her opponent, because given the downward trajectory of her campaign since she announced her candidacy, my guess is that her ship might have sunk by now if she had a different Republican opponent. She’s got a lot of heavy lifting to do if she is going to win this thing.
I say in the last paragraph in the book, and it probably still holds in 2016: “But the jury remains out. She still has time to prove her case to effectuate those things that make her special, not fear them or camouflage them. We would all be the better for it because what lies within may have the potential to change the world, if only a little.”