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How Hillary Clinton emerged more resilient after turbulent White House years

Hillary Clinton, who hopes to become the first woman president, has been breaking glass ceilings for years: The first First Lady to hold a graduate degree and first to run for office. She was also the first to testify before a grand jury during her husband’s turbulent two-term tenure, pocked by impeachment and the Lewinsky scandal. It’s all in Day 2 of our look at her journey to Philadelphia.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Now we turn to the second part of our series exploring Hillary Clinton's life — tonight, the eight years she spent in the White House.

    Her tenure as first lady can be categorized as atypical, and even controversial at times. She logged many firsts, first presidential spouse with a graduate degree, first to testify before a grand jury, and the first to have an office in the West Wing of the White House.

    Before the Clintons ever stepped foot into the White House in 1993, and she was given her own West Wing office, there were hints Hillary Clinton would be a different kind of first lady.

    HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D), Presidential Nominee: I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    That candid comment early in the '92 campaign didn't go over well with voters, so she shifted to a more traditional role until Election Day. But as soon as her husband was elected, she was again a public player.

  • HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON:

    Hello. This is Hillary Clinton. I want to thank you for letting me speak with you about an issue that is central to our children's future.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Early on, President Clinton tapped his wife to steer a major initiative, running the Task Force on National Health Care Reform.

    David Gergen was an aide to the president at the time.

  • DAVID GERGEN, Former White House Aide:

    She's an extraordinarily competent woman. She is very much on — she knows the issues better than anybody I know, including her husband. That was threatening to some people, to some voters.

    Men would — of the older generation would say, I would be really proud if my daughter grew up to be like Hillary Clinton, to be the kind of pathbreaker she is, but I sure as hell am glad that my wife isn't.

  • HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON:

    Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    In the beginning, the health care effort looked promising, says author Rebecca Traister.

    REBECCA TRAISTER, Author, "All The Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation": When she first took on the project, and initially testified in front Congress about health care reform, it actually looked like it might go well. She was already a very divisive figure. People hated her. People loved her. She was so clearly smart, competent. Her approval ratings went way up. People liked it.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But as weeks passed, Clinton's health care plan was attacked by the right and the left. Conservatives called it a government takeover. Even with a Democratic majority in Congress, the bill never made it out of committee.

    Hillary had recruited dozens of experts to help craft an elaborate plan for universal coverage, but she had insisted most of the work be done in secret.

    David Gergen says it was that and the lack of political outreach that led to failure.

  • DAVID GERGEN:

    She hadn't learned yet to play the Washington game.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    The collapse of the health care initiative was one of the major factors in the GOP's takeover of Congress the following year.

    During Bill Clinton's second term, Hillary was successful in her push for a program that enabled Washington to partner with states to ensure health coverage for uninsured children.

    But, unlike the first four years, she spent less time in the West Wing, and more time traveling abroad, much of it promoting women's rights.

  • HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON:

    It is no longer acceptable to discuss women's rights as separate from human rights.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Traister describes it as a retreat into a more traditional first lady role.

  • REBECCA TRAISTER:

    She and Chelsea did a lot of traveling around the world. She wrote a book called, "Dear Socks, Dear Buddy," notes to the White House pets. She was blamed so enthusiastically for what happened with health care reform, and she was really attacked so forcefully, that it precipitated a real retreat by Hillary from this divisive public role that she had held within the administration.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Hillary was also at the center of a string of controversies. The Clintons' involvement in a failed Arkansas land deal known as Whitewater would follow both of them through his presidency.

  • DAVID GERGEN:

    I think one of the most troubling moments for me at the White House came over the Whitewater issue.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Former White House aide David Gergen:

  • DAVID GERGEN:

    I had a conversation with the president, and we got his assent to give over the documents to The Washington Post.

    But then the president said: "Before we do this, you got to remember this. Both Hillary and I were involved in this. We can't release the documents without her blessing as well. And, by the way, David, you ought to go get it."

    I made the effort to see her, and try to persuade her to give over the documents, and I was ultimately very, very unsuccessful.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    For years, Hillary Clinton resisted calls to release documents related to Whitewater and other controversies. That, in turn, drew more attention from the news media and ultimately led to the appointment of a special prosecutor.

  • DAVID GERGEN:

    If you stick to secrecy too much in the White House — and there's a temptation for every White House to do that — but if you stick too closely to temptation, you can pay a big, big price. And she paid a price for it.

  • HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON:

    The conventional wisdom about Whitewater always is, take any straw you can to go on. So, I don't have any doubt that there are those who will say this should go on. I just would like to tell them, go on where? We have been going on for four years.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    The investigation ended after it was declared there was insufficient evidence to prove any wrongdoing.

    But the prolonged struggle led to a far more damaging controversy, brought to light by independent counsel Kenneth Starr.

  • DAVID GERGEN:

    Had it not been for Kenneth Starr, we would have never heard of Monica Lewinsky. And if we had never heard of Monica Lewinsky, Bill Clinton would have not been impeached.

    BILL CLINTON, Former President of the United States: I didn't have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    As the story of the president's involvement with a young White House intern unfolded, it set off a firestorm of headlines about the state of the Clinton marriage. Gergen describes their relationship as being a bit like a seesaw.

  • DAVID GERGEN:

    As long as the seesaw was in equilibrium, they worked well together. When Hillary sort of got hurt and lost a couple of things, lost the Congress, and the seesaw tipped like this, and Bill was up sort of on top, that's when I think he allowed himself to get — to succumb to some of the temptations.

    There was a lot of volatility in that relationship. How did she — how well did she handle it? Well, she stuck by her man.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    As the end of Bill Clinton's presidency approached, sympathy for the first lady helped boost her image. She began openly planning her own political career.

  • HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON:

    Bill and I are closing one chapter of our lives, and soon we will be starting a new one. For me, it will be up to the people of New York to decide whether I will have the privilege of serving them in the United States Senate.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    One year later, Hillary Clinton added yet another first to her resume, the first presidential spouse to run for elected office.

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