The FRONTLINE Interview: Lissa Muscatine
A former Washington Post journalist, Lissa Muscatine became a speechwriter for First Lady Hillary Clinton in 1993. Muscatine continued writing for Clinton when Clinton was Secretary of State — “Once you work for Hillary, you always work for Hillary,” she says — before leaving politics to run Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C. with her husband. While working on the speech Clinton delivered in 1995 to a United Nations Conference on Women in Beijing, Muscatine recalls “[Clinton] said, ‘I just want to push the envelope as far as I can on women’s rights and human rights.’ … I thought, that’s why I do this.”
In her interview, Muscatine describes the experience of working closely with Clinton and tells the story behind some of the speeches that have defined Hillary Clinton to America and the world.
This is the transcript of a conversation with FRONTLINE’s Michael Kirk held on June 15, 2016. It has been edited for clarity and length.
How would you describe Hillary Clinton in just a few words?
Paradoxical, devoted, disciplined and compassionate. I know those aren’t the things that necessarily people think. … It’s been so interesting to see how people don’t get her and they keep saying she needs to be herself and she needs to be more authentic.
I’ve really gone back to: “What is it that I find so compelling about her? What is it not only that I admire about in her, but also what do I just like about her?” It’s so many things. It’s a kaleidoscope of a person. And they don’t all fit together neatly, and some of it is just the sheer determination, the grit and the resilience, which I think people do see.
But what fuels that? It’s this very deep, almost religious, spiritual devotion to what she believes, which is to try to make the world better. She has an incredibly deeply felt responsibility to do something for the broader world, and that has motivated her. So I’m not sure how I would encapsulate that in one word, but it comes through in a very disciplined, very pragmatic, very relentless way of going about her life and her career.
That’s interesting. You know, we too struggle with, who is the essential Hillary? As you start to talk to people who know her really well, you realize that she’s elusive as a sort of one thing. She’s Hillary Rodham for periods of time and Hillary Clinton for periods of time.
I remember when she was first first lady and she was breaking all these areas, right? She was the first first lady to take on a substantive policy issue. She was the first first lady to have an office in the West Wing; to have her chief of staff be an assistant to the president, which is the highest ranking White House staff member; to have her chief of staff have an office in the West Wing. And she was the first professional woman to be a first lady. So she was doing all these things. People couldn’t quite tell if she was part of Bill Clinton’s more centrist Democratic Party, or was she still the progressive from Wellesley in the ’60s and who campaigned for [George] McGovern?
Reporters were constantly trying to categorize her. Is she a liberal? Is she a progressive? Is she a DLCer [Democratic Leadership Council]? Is she a moderate? What is she? … David Maraniss wrote one of the best pieces about Hillary. Basically, he didn’t get trapped by the need for categorization, and he just said she’s all these things, and sometimes they’re in contradiction with each other. Like most people, she’s a jumble of things that don’t always fit neatly.
And I’ve always felt that about her. It’s really hard to sum her up. She’s a complicated person. She’s obviously mentally accomplished and brilliant. And then she has this whole evolution of her being on the cutting edge of so much change that then influences a lot of how she’s perceived and probably how she’s behaved. So it’s not easy to summarize her.
Tell me the story of applying for a job as a speech writer.
I was a journalist and a lifelong Democrat who really hadn’t thought about going into government, but I was restless as a journalist, and I grew up in a very activist family. I thought I was sort of tired of the pretense of objectivity and nonpartisanship being a journalist. So Bill Clinton gets elected. I think, oh, my God, a Democrat, and I’m the tail end of the baby-boom generation; maybe this is my one shot. I thought, you know, what can I do? I could be in the press office. Don’t really want to do that. That seemed like too big of a switch.
But then I thought maybe I can write speeches, because at least I’m a writer. I’d been at the Washington Post for a long time. So I found the name of the guy who was the chief speechwriter, and this was a few weeks before Bill Clinton was inaugurated in January of ’93. I found the guy’s name, and I wrote him a very short letter, and it just said: “I’ve never written a speech. I didn’t give a dime to the Clintons,” because I was a journalist. “I have no political mentors. But I think I could help, because whatever.”
And he immediately wrote back and said: “We have no openings. Bill Clinton is reducing the size of the federal government by 25 percent, that includes us.” Done. About a month later I hear back from this chief speechwriter, and he says, “Actually, we’re going to create a position that’s half-time for the first lady and half-time for the president. Would you be interested?” And I said, “Sure.” And he said, “OK, write a trial speech.” So I write a trial speech. And then he says, “Write another trial speech,” so I write another trial speech.
Then I find out I’m pregnant, so I called him back, and I said: “Look, I get it. You guys may only have four years unless everything works out really well. You probably don’t need somebody coming on board who’s going to be pregnant and then giving birth just at the height of health care reform,” which was going to be the first lady’s signature issue. “So I am just going to pull out because it sounds too complicated.” And he said, “Well, actually, do you mind staying in the mix, because we want to see the whole pool?” So I said sure.
So more trial speeches and so on. … I’m getting bigger and bigger, and the pool of candidates is getting smaller and smaller. And then I find out I’m having twins. So I call him back again, and I’m sure this is it. My career as a speechwriter is going to end before it’s ever started. At this point, Hillary’s chief of staff, Maggie Williams, was also on the call. So I tell them this new development, and there’s one of these silences that feels like it’s five minutes, but it’s probably five seconds, and they say nothing. And then finally they just said, “We’ll get back to you.”
I was convinced that I wasn’t going to get the job. It was not horrible because I was about to have these twins, and it all seemed a bit overwhelming. About a week later they called and offered me the job. I started, and I had to take an extended maternity leave, and then I had these two little kids.
The reason I like to tell the story is that it was two or three years later in a random conversation that I was having with Maggie, Hillary’s chief of staff, the subject of my hiring came up. Only then did I learn that there had been something of an internal debate over whether to hire me because of being pregnant with twins.
Hillary overheard the conversation and said: “Time out. We are hiring the person that we think is best for this job. I don’t care if that person has one kid, two kids or 10 kids. If this is the person we want, we’re going to hire them, and then we’re going to make it work, because if we can’t make it work for women or men in the White House who have children, how can we expect employers elsewhere in the country to make it work for people in this situation? If this is the person, hire her, and make it work.”
Of course they made it work, because I never felt any pressure about it. It’s so telling, isn’t it? That was a small thing on the side behind the scenes, and it made an incredible difference to me. But it also allowed me to contribute in a way that I could responsibly to both my family and to my very demanding job. People say: “Why do you still work for her? Why do you love her so much?” Well, that’s one reason right there. I mean, that’s the kind of person she is.
When they [the Clintons] first come to Washington, I read a Sally Quinn thing that basically said–
“Watch out. We didn’t elect a two for one, we elected Bill Clinton president.” Do you remember this at all?
I remember a lot of antagonistic treatment of them and also dismissal of them as being sort of culturally inferior because they came from Arkansas. You know, they didn’t go to the Kennedy Center and sit in the box all the time. Well, yeah, they had a 13-year-old kid, so they weren’t going out every night to the Kennedy Center.
What was Washington’s response to Hillary Clinton when you were just starting the job? It reads back like a horrific set of experiences for her, a misunderstanding about who she is. But tell me what your perception was.
… Washington is built on status, built on access, built on the perception of power. And if the president and first lady are not providing that to Washington, Washington gets a little annoyed.
So here was this couple from Arkansas with a child who they were very mindful of bringing up now in the White House. … I think people were not very accepting that they had their life; they were not part of Washington, and they were here to do a job. … They didn’t view that part of their job was to elevate — and maybe this was a mistake — but that it wasn’t to elevate and affirm and contribute to the status seekers, to their own notions of themselves and their own notions of their importance.
So I think that rankled. You would see it in these press accounts; you would see it in conversations at dinner parties in Georgetown or little snickers and whispers. The fact that they didn’t go to the Kennedy Center on a regular basis and sit in the presidential box all the time was dismissed as their being culturally inferior, not appreciating the opera, not appreciating the theater. They just like movies, and he likes to play the saxophone.
That was the sort of treatment that they were subjected to, which was massively unfair, and, by the way, really insensitive to what their situation was and what they were trying to do and what their family needs were at that moment.
But I don’t remember her being completely undone by it. I remember her doing what she usually does when she’s getting a lot of incoming fire, which is just kind of put her nose to the grindstone and go straight ahead and try to ignore it.
When the Clintons move in to the White House, Hillary has made it clear that she is going to be a different type of first lady, and she herself becomes the focus of a lot of press. What was it like being part of the staff in Hillaryland?
Suite 100 in the Old Executive Office Building was like this little universe unto itself, and that was Hillaryland.
… The most important thing about her that I think is missing, and I think this is what people did not get at the beginning: She’s not in this for herself. She never has been motivated by her own achievements or by a goal for herself other than some cause. It’s always cause-driven.
When she got here and she was the first professional woman and she was going to take on health care policy, and she was a young, very accomplished lawyer and obviously very smart, there was a lot of eye rolling, like: “Wait, who do you think you are? Why are you so great?” And there’s a notion that there must be a huge amount of arrogance in a person like that to think they could do that, to step into that role that’s never been there before. … Over the last 25 years, the relentless, constant, nasty, vitriolic attacks on her that never end, that are designed to create a different narrative about her, that are designed to undermine her, that are designed to weaken her, that are designed to stop her, those take a toll, right? Because that’s hard for anybody to withstand.
But I think at the beginning, it was more like: “I’m just trying to do a job here. I’m trying to get health care reform for the 40 million people who don’t have health care insurance, or whatever it was, 27 million, and I’m just going to put my nose to the grindstone and do it, and my staff is here with me helping me.” There was a tremendous sense of collaboration and cohesion among her staff. I’ve never worked with a group like that. I’ve never experienced that degree of complete immersion into something that we all cared about that was bigger than any of us and that we all believe was bigger than her.
None of us thought we were doing this to help Hillary Clinton. We all knew she was the vessel, she was the messenger, she was the platform; but she was not the reason we were doing it.
And I think that started with her. I think that’s why we all felt that. So I think that became her defense, in a way, and even her motivation or maybe her support as these attacks kept coming.
What happens when somebody does that? We see or hear about things happening, Bill doesn’t want to say no to anybody. But there’s always got to be a bad cop inside the West Wing, as you’ve learned, and as we all know from watching it from the outside. And often, it fell to her, by the way people tell us, because nobody else was doing it.
… She was a person who was so visible in a new role in a way that no woman had ever been. She says she was a Rorschach test for the American public, which is sort of true. … Women had to play out their own insecurities, their own anxieties about their own decisions, their own feelings about what they should or shouldn’t be doing and what’s right as we’re all trying to move through this time of transition about gender roles.
She becomes the lightning rod. She becomes, “Oh, my God, yes, I’m inspired by what she’s doing,” or, “Oh, my gosh, she makes me feel bad about what I’m doing,” or, “She makes me feel guilty,” or, “She makes me feel inadequate” — not on purpose, but just by virtue of being such a public figure in these new spaces.
… Melanne [Verveer] and I had a raging debate with her throughout her time as first lady about why she would not use the symbolic power of her office more. I remember walking around the South Lawn with her once saying: “You need to use the symbolic power of your office. You are one of the most visible women in the world. You are the first lady of the United States. You’ve transformed this role. You have a lot of power just in the symbolism of that.” And she looked at me like I was nuts and said: “Why would I do that if it’s not going to produce an actual result? It’s not going to change the system to do that.”
What did you want her to do?
If you take the Beijing speech, which of course was a triumphant, an incredible moment for everyone and especially for hundreds of millions of women around the world, I probably would have said: “Wow, that speech did the trick. Great, we’re done.” And she was all about: “The speech is a speech. It’s just a speech. What is the platform for action going to say that comes out of this conference? What is our country going to do? What is the next meeting where we show what we do? What are other countries going to do? And unless we all really do something, that speech is meaningless.” I felt the speech wasn’t meaningless. I felt the speech on its own was something. I mean, she thought the speech was great and it had an impact, but it wasn’t enough by itself.
She gives a speech in Austin when her dad is dying and gets pilloried in the press. … The reaction is, “Who does she think she is lecturing us?” Is that a counterbalance to your argument for the symbolic?
The thing about that politics of meaning speech that has always rankled me and bothered me is that nobody looked at the context in which she gave that speech, which was that her father was dying. They had just gotten to the White House. Her father was about to die. I believe she came right from the hospital to Austin. … She wrote that speech herself on the plane. It was from the heart, and it was in a moment of deep reflection, because she was going through a very personal milestone.
She does believe in the politics of meaning. She does believe in the art of the possible, all the way back to Wellesley and her commencement speech there in 1969. And if anybody had taken the time to try to appreciate what she was getting at both in the context of that moment for her, but also in the context of her work on politics, her work in advocacy, I think it would have all made sense.
Now, you’re right that it didn’t do anything. It had no impact except to get her criticized in the press. So maybe that’s a good argument against the symbolic, but by then she’d also only been first lady for a few years. We were having this argument with her a few years after that, after she’d been to Beijing and she was an iconic figure around the world at that point.
… I know some reporters have asked her about this, even in this campaign, and she says: “Well, I certainly appreciate the symbolic position I’m in now. I’m going to be the first woman nominee of a major party, and that does carry weight.” So she will now allow for that.
But there’s another example. We were in Slovakia after the fall of communism in Central and Eastern Europe, and we were going to support these emerging democracies. We went to the Czech Republic with Vaclav Havel, and then we went to Slovakia. The prime minister of Slovakia at that point was an old apparatchik who hadn’t gotten the democracy memo, and he was doing a lot to suppress NGOs [non-governmental organizations]. So she had a meeting set up with him, but there was also a conference of NGOs going on in Bratislava.
She went to meet with the NGOs before going to her official meeting with him. You don’t think that sent a message? That sent a big message. That was a symbolic act based on her position. So I still make the argument.
Let’s talk about health care. Are there things you remember where it was especially instructive about how she tackled this task and bumped into all the problems associated with it?
… She had a very, at that point, well-developed technique, I guess you could say, for how to go about policy. In Arkansas she took on the teachers’ unions; she also did a lot for maternal and child care. She started the first microfinance operation, one of the first in the United States. She’s a listener. She gathers people. She’s wonderful at convening. She listens; she takes it all in. Of course she’s got this extraordinary mind that can just make connections faster than anything.
With health care reform, there was a lot of that. Remember, she went around the country; she listened. They had town halls. And then she assembled people she thought were really, really smart. The forces arrayed against her and her projects were enormous, I suspect greatly underestimated by her. … I think anybody who met with her on Capitol Hill who was an expert on this was blown away by her mastery of the detail, by her understanding of the nuances. I mean, it’s just such an incredible feat in itself to have been able to do that. But then how do you translate that into a narrative when you’ve got Harry and Louise and hundreds of millions of dollars being spent to create a different narrative that’s completely easy to digest?
Did you write anything during this time for her to try to do that?
The thing I’m proudest of was the opening statement to Congress when she testified before the House Ways and Means Committee. She testified in front of five committees, as I recall, two or three on one day and then two on the next day. Then she had another speech someplace, maybe New York, that second night. Anyway, it was like nonstop. I was at home because I was very [pregnant].
I remember knowing that there were going to be so many cameras trained on her. This is the first time a first lady was going to testify in a major way on a major policy issue. Rosalynn Carter had done it on some mental health things, but not with this kind of magnitude. And you knew that every word was going to be parsed, and everything was going to be digested and dissected and deconstructed. I just wanted the opening to be good. And it was one of those things that almost came to me in the shower kind of things. It wasn’t like I was sitting down massaging and massaging.
I remember watching, and she presented it, and then a lot of the networks that night led with that clip, and I was just like yes, this is great, because it was the human dimension of it. It wasn’t the policy. It wasn’t the arcana. It was, “This is why I care about this.”
… The opening — can you remember what you said?
The essence of it was: “I am here as a mother, as a sister, as a daughter, as a wife. And that’s who I am; that’s why I’m doing this. I’m not here as the raging ambitious first lady who just wants to do something powerful. I’m here because I feel a responsibility about health care in all the dimensions of my own life, in all the ways that I live and with all the people I live with, just like everybody out there. We all have these concerns and anxieties about the health of ourselves, our loved ones, our relatives, let alone our friends and neighbors.” I set it up that way, and it was very personal, and I think it really worked.
… Do you have a sort of internal dial that helps you know what it is she likes and what it is she doesn’t like in a speech?
I think people always say, “Oh, my God, you must be able to write well for her because you’re a woman.” I’m sort of roughly the same generation; I’m a little bit younger than her, but we kind of grew up with some of the same things, and we both are mothers and so on and so forth. Some of it is that. … It’s also the way she thinks, and I really do think that writing speeches for someone, you have to sort of know how they think. How do they prepare and make a case or an argument? And what is their kind of narrative arc that they like to follow? So it’s all of those things combined. So over time, I did get to know very well all of those things about her, and a lot of it was because I was in very close proximity to her a lot of the time, which is much harder as she’s had jobs that were more demanding where she’s at a higher level, where the responsibility on her is greater, where the cost of what she says could be greater if something’s wrong. Secretary of State, you don’t want to start an international incident by saying the wrong thing.
How much is politics in the equation of the do’s and don’ts that you run down when you’re writing? Are you listening to polls? Are you careful about political posturing and positioning, or is that not something she even cares about?
You have to be aware of the politics. However, the danger is when the politics overtake who she really is. In other words, you have to be able to interpret what’s happening politically; you have to be able to interpret what’s happening in the polls; you have to be interpreting what’s happening in the media and so on. But if you allow that to become the script divorced from how she really talks, the words she really likes to use, how she feels and conveys herself, then it’s self-defeating, to me. That’s my view.
I think that the greatest thing you can do for her in the positions that I’ve had for her, which has mostly been writing speeches for her, is to always get to the essence of who she is. Who is this person? What makes her tick? What is it that’s consistent about her in her life that means in this speech at this moment to this audience it’s all going to be credible, compelling, authentic to her? Because if it’s not, what’s the point?
… Let me jump forward in the chronology based on what we’re talking about right here. In 2008, a lot of people say, “Run as a woman; run as the authentic Hillary Clinton.” But people we talked to say [chief strategist and pollster] Mark Penn is sitting there saying, “Run as a man, run as a man, run as a man.” And they say that the authentic Hillary is not actually running in 2008 until the last speech, the “18 million cracks” speech.
… I think ’08 is a really good example of trying to create a narrative that wasn’t entirely authentic to her. … Here was the first woman running who had been an advocate most of her adult life, who had cared deeply about issues of social justice, of democracy, of alleviating poverty, of giving people a chance, of expanding the circle of opportunity. Those had been the driving motivations for her in every job she had had since college.
And to me, that was not a story that most of America knew. … To me, it was time to reintroduce her. I felt like her campaign was historic. I felt like she is best when it’s always about something bigger than her. If she could convey what that was and make it a movement, it could have been a movement campaign just as much as Barack Obama’s campaign was historic and a movement campaign.
Their backgrounds were not that off from each other in terms of how they got to politics. They both had been advocates of one sort or another. They both cared deeply about many of the same issues. They both were breaking huge barriers. Why did that not come out with her when it became the most appealing and compelling part of President Obama’s campaign?
What’s the answer to that question? Why? Why didn’t she play that card?
I think there were people advising her who were afraid of that, who had a weirdly antiquated view of this. I mean, who would have said that Barack Obama, a black man with a Muslim-ish middle name, Hussein, and a father from Kenya could be president? Nobody. I mean, everybody’s like, “Oh, my God, this is a long shot.” OK, well, she’s a woman, so the theory was: “Oh, my gosh, she may not seem tough enough. She’s going to have to be commander in chief. What will people think if a woman is commander in chief?” It was sort of playing into somewhat, at that point, dated stereotypes, sexist stereotypes.
So the idea was to sort of make her this tough, relentless woman who could be commander in chief and who was going to steamroll her political machine right through the opposition. Guess what? What was the one thing that everybody in America knew about Hillary Clinton, like her or not? That she’s tough. Nobody doubts that she’s tough. Nobody doubts that she can take a hit. Nobody doubts that she will get back up.
But what they didn’t know was, my gosh, here’s this 35-, 40-year arc of this woman’s life that has been all about these other things that are way bigger than her, that have propelled her and motivated her and inspired her to do all these different jobs and eventually got her into politics. Nobody knew that. That was the narrative that never got told, never.
So here’s the question about her, of course: Why did she let them do that to her? She had succeeded in New York state. She turned the narrative around on herself. Why did she give up Hillary Rodham and go back to Hillary Clinton?
Oh, boy. It’s a hard question to answer. I think first of all, let us not forget that she was relentlessly attacked and vilified for much of that time, even as she was doing well. I mean, the attacks never let up. When she said there’s a “vast right-wing conspiracy,” she turned out to be right, and it never has abated, really.
So I think you become a little gun-shy, maybe, and there were maybe people around her who were more focused on the sort of quantitative aspects of campaigning — you know, the polls. What do the polls say, and what should the script say, and what words should you say? And [she] did lose sight of who she is and what was authentic to her.
… But you were asking why did she let that happen. There’s so much coming at you if you’re her. You’re trying to juggle zillions of people giving you advice. All of your 5,000 best friends are emailing you all day long saying, “Do this, do this, do this.” Your consultants are saying this; your campaign daily operations people are saying that. It’s hard. It’s hard to kind of keep yourself in the reality zone of “OK, this is what I really need to do.” You’re trying to weigh everything as it comes in.
… I want to go back now to the early years in the White House leading up to ’94. Health care sinks for lots of reasons. Republicans win in the 1994 elections. There are scandals and controversies. Her dad dies. Bill’s mom dies.
Vince Foster commits suicide.
Vince Foster dies.
Which was a real blow because they were great friends, and I think she felt that they had brought him to Washington, and here was this lovely, gentle gentleman, Southern gentleman, lovely man who just got consumed by the toxicity of Washington and didn’t have the defenses to guard against it. Then it came out that he obviously had been suffering from depression and so on.
I think her feelings of if not guilt just deep distress and sadness that a human being would be subjected to what he had been subjected to in trying to come to Washington and be a public servant to the point where he would take his own life was just deeply upsetting and sort of the most tangible and horrifying cost of politics in Washington.
When you say toxicity, Lissa, what do you mean?
All the investigations, the travel office investigation, the Whitewater investigation, the questions about the commodities trading, all of these things that immediately were coming up — everything that they had done in their personal lives being under a microscope.
You know, it’s a lot. I think for somebody who’s a gentle person like Vince Foster, who also felt responsible for making sure those things went smoothly and trying to get them through those things, it’s toxic. It’s a toxic environment to be in with a relentless press scrutiny and the sort of desire to find things that are wrong and blame people. It’s hard.
It sounded like being in Washington changed their relationship, and they weren’t able to be as close anymore. In his notes he starts to refer to her as “the client.”
I think that those things were all very, very hard. Health care reform — she made obviously a Herculean effort and a sincere effort and took on a project that no president had succeeded in however many, six or seven, had tried before Bill Clinton. And it failed. The midterm elections were a disaster in ’94, and I do think she felt the brunt of that. She was viewed, I think, slightly radioactively by some people in the West Wing and on the president’s staff. And there was a big question about, OK, what next? What is she going to do?
What do you mean “radioactively”?
Well, that because she was associated with health care reform, they wouldn’t want her going out and speaking on the budget or on something else that would come down the pike; that she would have to stay a little more hidden because they didn’t want the health care reform failure to which she was connected, they didn’t want [that] to then transplant in to any other big agenda items for the president.
… There’s a press conference in 1994 that becomes known as the “pink press conference” because she is wearing a —
Pink outfit. And she goes before the cameras and answers every question that the press has. She basically says, “Bring it on.” … Did you recognize that Hillary Clinton?
… As I remember it, I think we were all like, “Yes, way to go.” There have been quite a number of times with her where she’s about to do something in public with a lot of pressure on her, and I always have this little piece of me that’s worried, like, “Oh, my God, how is she going to get through this?” Even having now seen it happen successfully so many times, I still have that little piece of worry. And that would have been one of the early times where it’s like, “Oh, my God, I cannot believe she has to go do this,” and, “Oh, my God, she did so well.”
And every time she manages to pull it off. I mean, Benghazi is the most recent example of just “You’ve got to be kidding me — 11 hours?” Most of us would be jumping over the table with a shoe in our hand beating the people asking those questions. I think that was one of the first times that I had that pit of worry and then was just both relieved and elated that she did so well.
… Why did she feel she had to do it?
She was misunderstood. There was a view of her and a perception of her that didn’t really match the intentions, the motivations or hopes for what she was doing. This had now morphed into a lot of different stories about her. You have to tell your own story at some point to get the record straight, and that was going to be the best way to do it.
What were the stakes for Hillary Clinton at that moment?
With that much scrutiny, the stakes are always that you say one wrong thing, or something that isn’t exactly the way you intended, [and] that becomes the story instead of what it is that you’re trying to convey. So the stakes are high. It’s a lot of pressure, and you don’t necessarily know what’s going to come at you. You have some idea in a press conference, right? You know some of the questions, but there’s always some potentially oddball question or somebody frames something in a way that you haven’t thought about, and you’re extemporizing to a degree. And there’s always a risk. You say something you didn’t mean to; it comes out the wrong way. It’s not easy.
… Do you have anything else in this territory?
Did you want to know more about that ’94 period after the elections?
… She was bearing the brunt of that period, between the failure of health care reform and the defeat in the midterms, and a lot of people were blaming her, rightly or wrongly. There was a really moving moment for everyone who worked for her, at least for a group of us. We would meet periodically. I think we were meeting about once a week, or once every two weeks, this group we called the Chix, that were about seven or eight of us that were close advisers to her. We would meet in the meeting room of her suite of offices, and sometimes she would come, and sometimes she wouldn’t. We were having a meeting, and it was the day that she was supposed to go to George Washington University and speak on a panel, I believe, about first ladies.
It was kind of a somber time, because it was sort of, OK, what’s she going to do next? We knew she was feeling the brunt of what had gone wrong. We knew that people in the West Wing were pointing a lot of fingers at her. So we had this meeting of the Chix, and she came. [It] was one of the only times I can really remember seeing her being pretty down in the dumps. She sort of just talked about how she just didn’t think she should go out there. She wasn’t sure she really wanted to do the event that night. It was just too much, because people were feeling so uneasy about her.
It was really saddening to me to see this person who was such an emblem for so many people and who was really carrying the water for so many of us, for many, many, many, many women, for many Americans, albeit having not succeeded at health care reform, who wasn’t being appreciated for what she could and for the impact she could have.
I was very bothered, so I just piped up, and I said: “You have to go. You have to go to this event tonight. People are counting on you. So many people are counting on you. They look up to you. They look to you for inspiration. They look to you for a sign that they can do things in their own lives. You just can’t not be there. You can’t not be there.”
It was sort of cathartic for me, I guess, but I’d like to think it had an impact on her. In any case, she did go that night, and she went out on that stage, and we were all there. And she just blew everyone away. She was so passionate and so formidable in her beliefs and in the pursuit of what she believed needed to be done in the world, especially for women and others. It was kind of this crazy breakthrough moment, where she had almost not wanted to go, and then she did go, and it helped her power through a very difficult time and find her footing a little bit.
I always look back on that as just having your little kind of sisterhood right there with you to kind of say: “Buck up. We’re going for it. We’re not giving up. We’re in there with you. Go for it.” And she did. She did have the wherewithal to do it, and that sort of helped propel her forward. It was a very interesting moment.
One of the great questions about her that we’re wrestling with is her penchant for secrecy. What do you chalk the secrecy up to, and did she become more and more secretive? Or is she not actually secretive?
I don’t think of her as secretive. I think of her — and I certainly thought of her staff and all of us — as discreet, careful, judicious about what we chose to share or not. If you are going to always be attacked for pretty much anything you say or do, you get to be a little more discreet about what you say to people in public, or what you want your staff to be talking about.
We’re there at the behest of her and her husband. We are only there because they have appointed us to these positions. If they can’t trust us to retain their confidences, if they can’t trust us to know that if something goes wrong or they want to let their hair down and say something or fly off the cuff or make an un-thought-out comment, if they can’t trust us to understand, “OK, whatever, I’m never going to repeat that; I’m here at their service,” frankly, why do we accept these jobs?
I get really annoyed with the sort of people who immediately leave and sign the book contract. … I think the people around Hillary just felt a deep sense of almost duty and responsibility that you’re being entrusted to be in this person’s presence who’s under a microscope at all times, and you’re not there to peer into the microscope; you’re there to help them get through to the next thing.
I don’t think of it as secrecy as much as discretion, because I don’t think it’s so reflexive as much as it’s just almost conditional, if that makes sense. … It’s conditioned by this crazy set of events and this crazy world you’re inhabiting where rules don’t always apply. So you’re discreet about what you do and what you say.
… I’m thinking about those things all the time when I’m trying to figure out how does she become so secretive personally.
What is it? You said the word “guarded”?
She is very good at compartmentalizing by necessity. She will keep her one part of herself focused entirely on the policy or on the job that she’s doing, the public role that she’s in, and she will be very focused with another part of herself on her family, her personal life. So, for example, look at how brilliantly she was a mother in this fishbowl, how she protected her daughter, how she had very clear rules with the press about Chelsea, and how she was so able to navigate that by being very clear that that is separate.
… There’s a tendency and probably a need to be guarded if every time you open your mouth, somebody runs away with it and either misinterprets it — and by the way, in the age of social media, you have no control, and once it’s out, there’s no dialing it back.
It even accentuates whatever discretion you may feel is accentuated in an age where literally things are being transmitted in 140 characters, and once they’re out there to tens of millions of people, and that’s it. It’s not a really good answer to your question, but it’s a hard question to answer.
Let me use the word “obsession.” It’s guarded, for sure. Is it an obsession with privacy by now?
… I think the word “obsession” applies much more to the people who are arrayed against her and perhaps the news media who are obsessed with her. So I think the obsession is not with her; the obsession is with the cottage industry of right-wing Hillary haters and people who have spent millions, tens of millions, probably hundreds of millions of dollars over now several decades to try to weaken her and to defeat her and to undermine her and to humiliate her. That’s the obsession, to me. And I think the press has been mildly obsessed with her.
Now, you know, she’s fascinating. If you’re a reporter, she’s a pretty interesting person to try to figure out, so I get that. But the obsession is people obsessed with her, I think more than her being obsessed about anything else. I really do.
… How did she react to the media at that time in 1993? Later she would talk about the “vast right-wing conspiracy,” but when the attacks are first happening, what did she think was going on?
… She called it the “politics of personal destruction.” … That was not so much directed at the press as to her political opponents, but I think it was sort of accepted as the way of the world. The world they were inhabiting at that point involved intense media scrutiny. It involved reporters digging around and trying to come up with something on Whitewater, involved bizarre theories about Vince Foster. Attempts to create stories where there may perhaps not have been one were par for the course, giving voice and news space and ink to critics, which is to be expected, but that’s par for the course.
Do you think once the Monica stuff hit, she — this sounds crass and forgive me– gets a kind of positive bounce out of it. Everybody feels really sorry for Hillary that such a thing happens. Is that the way it felt?
… The entire country was waiting to see how she handled it — not just the press, everybody, because gosh almighty, who had ever had to be in that position before, and how was she going to handle it?
And you know what? She handled it so amazingly well that I think people just went, “Oh, my gosh.” Whether they liked her or not, there was at least grudging respect, and if not grudging respect from people like me and others who really love her and felt for her and were hurting for her, it was like, “Boy, I wish I had that kind of grace and dignity in the face of this very public adversity.”
Where did it come from inside her, do you think?
She just is able to distill down to the essence of what every situation is presenting her and know what is important about it. I think she knew she had the personal piece to deal with in her family, and she also had a very serious threat being leveled to the presidency — not just to the president, to the institution of the presidency. And she was not going to let this situation destroy the institution of the presidency.
Do you think it was a reset to say, “I’m going to run for the Senate.”? Did you view it as Hillary’s hitting the road and going to go be that [the other] Hillary?
I think the Senate race was something she labored over and deliberated over, just as she did for Secretary of State, just as she did for whether to run for president in 2016. It was not made casually; it was not something she had planned on. I remember being with her up in the upstairs office in the residence working on something with her during that period, and the phone kept ringing, because people would be calling her, begging her to run, people from New York, members of Congress, politicians and so on. We kept having to stop because another person was calling saying, “Please, you should do it; you should do it.” She had to study it. She had to really, really think about it.
And people always say to me, “Oh, she definitely wanted to,” or, “She definitely didn’t want to.” And I always say to people, “When you have a really tough decision in your life, do you just decide suddenly you’re going to do this or you’re going to do the other? No, you go back and forth.” I know what I do. I wake up one day and go, “OK, I’m definitely going to do that,” and by the evening I’m like: “Nope. You know what? I’m not so sure about that now.” And then the next morning like, “Ah, maybe, maybe not.” Of course she’s a human being; she did the same thing. She went back and forth. She had to hear from a lot of people. I’m sure she meandered through until she came to some clarity for herself.
So it wasn’t something that was planned or intentional. I think it was thrown at her as an option, and she suddenly went, “OK.” But it was kind of farfetched; let’s face it. To do it took a lot of guts, because it was pretty farfetched in a lot of ways.
She was called a carpetbagger.
You’ve never been in politics. You’re the wife of a president. There’s a lot not to recommend it. She weighed it all, and I think, again, she felt like this was a place she could have a big impact. I think she felt like, OK, this is actually a place where here are the issues I care about; I can actually have an impact on these issues.
Are you dealing with her much during the Senate time?
I was working on Living History with her for the first few years, so yeah, a lot.
You were watching her?
Once you work for Hillary, you always work for Hillary. I mean that in a good way.
Why is that?
We all believe she is about something bigger that we all care about. She’s in this incredible position of being able to make change and make progress both as a symbol and as an active player, and we get to help with it. So it’s pretty cool.
… When she’s trying to make the decision about whether to do the Secretary of State, are you around for any of that?
She talked to lots and lots and lots and lots of people and in the close group of people who had known her for a long time. I think different people had different views of what she ought to do. I thought she should do it. I felt pretty strongly she should do it; I told her that. Of course, then she turned around and asked me to come and work for her there, which I hadn’t counted on that being part of the equation.
But no, I felt she should do it. I thought that [if] her option was to go back to the Senate, she would be one of 100. She would not immediately have a position of seniority that would allow her to have a huge amount of influence.
But more than any of that, what I really worried about was after that campaign, everything she did in the Senate was going to be seen by the press and many other people as a measure of her devotion to or antipathy toward Barack Obama; that everything was going to be seen through the lens of the campaign and their competition and that it would be very hard to escape that and that that would be pretty oppressive and possibly even hinder what she could get done.
Maybe that was selling her short, but it wasn’t really about her. It was more about the dynamics of that campaign being so fraught and so competitive and again having so much symbolism. I just didn’t see the narrative escaping that. Secondly, I felt like she had had such an extraordinary impact around the world. I traveled with her to, I don’t know, 60-some countries. The impact she had especially on women, on people fighting for democracy, on human rights activists around the world, not to mention her knowing so many prominent world leaders and being respected by so many prominent world leaders, was just something she could build on.
What were you all thinking Obama’s motivations and plans were for her if she was Secretary of State?
I’m not sure how useful it is to try to ascribe to him motivations that I think he might have had, but I think we all know he’s a fan of Lincoln and [the Doris Kearns Goodwin book] Team of Rivals, which worked out pretty well for Lincoln, and it’s not a bad model to put everything in the past, keep it in the past and move to a higher state, a more elevated state of trying to govern. I think that was an admirable thing, and I think we all felt that was probably very real to him.
He would maybe be influenced by feeling that she’s a tough competitor. You’d rather have her on your side than against you. … And I think lastly, he was impressed with her. He knew she was tough; she was smart; she was experienced. Look what he just said to her when he endorsed her for the presidency: most qualified person ever to seek the presidency. I think he had some notion of that even before she became Secretary of State.
Tell me about the writing of the “18 million cracks” speech.
… The “18 million cracks” came from a guy named Jim Kennedy who has been around for a long time, and he is the master of the poignant, funny one-liner. If I could write one of those in my career, I’d be happy. He writes them all the time.
… So whether you wrote it or not, it was a hell of a speech.
The truth about that speech is that Hillary Clinton wrote most of it herself, staying up until 4:30 in the morning the night before and getting it the way she wanted it. Her speechwriter Sarah Hurwitz is [a] fantastic speechwriter. But that speech became — boy, talk about being a venue for litigation from competing points of view. Everybody was weighing in — how strong should she go on Obama, and should she just only talk about Obama, and back and forth and back and forth. Poor Sarah was caught in the middle of arrows being flung in every direction, and she’s in the middle, and she did a masterful job of navigating it.
But what ended up happening was that Hillary took it and she had a really nice party for the campaign staff at her house on the Friday afternoon. The speech was on Saturday, so Friday, June 6. We were all there. It was sweltering[ly] hot. We were all in the backyard. Then it ended in the late afternoon, and she took the speech, and she kind of pondered it, and she talked to [a number] of us. I mean, she talked to me independently; I’m sure she talked to others independently. … She was trying to figure out what she wanted to do with it, and then she stayed up all night writing it, reworking it.
And in some ways, it’s a valedictory of where she’d been. Whether she was ever going to run again, it was the Hillary Clinton valedictory speech for her whole life, it feels like.
I felt that the real challenge of that speech was to be credible in her support of Obama, which many people doubted and frankly, many of her most rabid supporters didn’t want to hear. So how do you make it clear that you’re going to be supporting Obama, that it’s going to be a unified effort, a unified campaign and she’s going to be out there? How do you make that credible to people? Obama people didn’t believe it; the press didn’t believe it; a lot of Hillary’s people didn’t want to believe it. So that was one challenge.
The other challenge was not to turn your back on those 18 million cracks, not to be so “Wow, this is going to be a unity ticket; we’re marching forward,” so much so that you look like you’re abandoning the people who supported you, for whom this was a very, very emotional, very difficult campaign; you know, that you were still there for them, but you were also supporting him.
That to me was the challenge of both the June 7 speech and then possibly even more so, actually, for the Denver speech, which was the official nomination speech that ended up getting a lot of attention just because that’s the launch of the real campaign.
What was your goal on that speech?
The Denver convention speech had the similar goal of needing to persuade people that she was truly, truly, genuinely, authentically supporting Obama, because even with the couple of months that had passed from the June 7 speech, and then the president and she had been in Unity, New Hampshire, and she had been out on the trail for him, there were still a lot of people who didn’t believe it. They just thought she’s going through the motions or she doesn’t really believe this or she just has to do this. Somehow we had to find a way, what I call the “duh moment,” where people go: “Oh, duh, of course she’s supporting Barack Obama. How could I ever think she would ever do anything different?” That was the challenge of that speech.
What’s the line where you know that she says it and you just go, “okay.”
That was not in the speech about 18 hours before it, and we did actually show her a draft in the wee hours of the morning going into the night that she had to give it. I knew the speech was not great yet, and I knew nothing short of great was going to be acceptable for this particular occasion. The challenge was so present and so important. … We were in this senior staff suites in the hotel where we were staying in Denver, and I just went into this staff room, and I was racking my brain to try to think, how could we get this speech to the next level? How, how, how? It’s 2:00 in the morning; it’s 3:00 in the morning; it’s 4:00 in the morning; it’s 5:00 in the morning. The speech is at 8:00 tonight; something’s got to happen.
I just sat in the corner, literally closed my eyes, put my head in my hands and just thought, what is it about Hillary Clinton? What is it about this woman’s life? What is it in her history that is going to make people appreciate that she truly, genuinely is supporting Barack Obama? And I just went back again to the essence of who she is. Then I threw a couple lines on the top of the speech, something to the effect of: “I haven’t spent the last 35 years working for this and that and that to have a Republican in the White House. I haven’t spent the last 35 years of my life to not have a Democrat pursuing these things that I care so deeply about.”
Then there was another little trick in the speech where there were anecdotes about people she had met, and we switched that to be rhetorical questions: You didn’t support me to support me; you supported me to support Mrs. Jones, who can’t get health insurance. You supported me so we could help Joe Blow get his vet benefits, or whatever it was. And if you go back through that speech, you’ll see those devices that were so important to helping, again, go back to what was true about her, that matched this campaign, that matched what Obama was going to do.
And by the way, that made it not about Barack Obama and not about Hillary Clinton, [but] about something bigger than both of them. That was the other important thing for that speech to do, not to make it about her, not to make it about him — make it about something we call care about, that goes so far beyond any politician and any president.
Tell me about Beijing.
Beijing is interesting because it comes off of this period just following the midterm elections, and it’s sort of what is Hillary going to do now, and how can she have the most impact, how can she affect these issues and causes she cares so deeply about, that we all care deeply about? People don’t really remember this, but Vice President Gore was supposed to go to a conference on social development in the spring in Copenhagen, spring of ’95. He was going to go speak at it, and I think it was going to have a lot of her kinds of issues, but she hadn’t really immersed herself in a public way in these issues. For whatever reason, he couldn’t go at the last minute, and they asked her to go.
So she went to Copenhagen. She gave the main speech. The press reports, if you go back and look at the press reports from around the world, they’re unbelievable. People were just enthralled by her, mesmerized by her, impressed that she had such command of these issues, that she was so passionate about them, so forceful, so articulate.
It gave her a place to start thinking about, hey, social development is something I really care about; maybe this is where I can start having more of an impact. In the meantime, the U.N. Conference on Women was going to be coming up in Beijing in September, and she also took a trip to South Asia during this period where she got to take the theoretical discussion of development that happened at the U.N. conference in Copenhagen in the spring, go to South Asia and really see it in people’s lives, right? She went to Bangladesh and met with [entrepreneur and Nobel Peace Prize winner] Muhammad Yunus. She was in India and Bangladesh and Pakistan, so she had this wonderful kind of combination of really thinking about this in a policy-theoretical way at one level, but then really seeing what it looked like in people’s lives around the world.
That was a tremendous foundation for Beijing. Then the U.N. Secretary General asked if she would be the keynote speaker in Beijing, and she, of course, very much wanted to do that. And we were all like: “Yes, this is great. Wow, awesome.” And then what happens is [human rights activist] Harry Wu was arrested in June. The Chinese arrest him; they throw him in prison; they were going to put him on trial. Her whole trip gets thrown into question. And again, very strange bedfellows emerge on this issue. Conservatives don’t want her to go, first of all, because they just think the conference is going to be a bunch of radical feminists spouting what they say are anti-family propaganda. Then human rights people don’t want her to go because wow, they’ve got Harry Wu. Why would we condone their behavior and show that we don’t care? And Mrs. Wu didn’t want Hillary to go for the same reason. It became this crazy thing.
And very quietly, we start working on the speech. So I would say mid- to late July, we were busy working away on it, and it was a very small group of us: Maggie Williams, Melanne Verveer, [senior campaign adviser] Ann Lewis and I were pretty much the ones working on it. We didn’t even really have a draft; we were just trying to conceive it and figure out what she could say.
The other interesting thing is the West Wing didn’t want her to go. The State Department didn’t want her to go. West Wing didn’t want her to go because they were going to have these really serious budget negotiations with [Speaker of the House] Newt Gingrich [R-Ga.] right after Beijing. The State Department was nervous about Sino-American relations: very fragile, very delicate. I always joke, yeah, … [she], the president and her staff were pretty much the only people that wanted her to go. But she was pretty determined. I mean, she really wanted to.
Then it sort of became a game of chicken between the Chinese and us where finally I think they realized they were just emerging. They wanted to be big players. They were hosting this big U.N. conference for the first time. They really want to show their chops as an international player, and if Hillary Clinton isn’t coming to their conference, their conference is not going to amount to much.
They finally realize that, so they convict Harry Wu and then deport him, which then paved the way for Hillary to go. But it’s not like people were dying for her to go other than this little group of people around her. And it’s funny. I joke with Mike McCurry, who became the president’s press secretary, was at the State Department, and he says: “Oh, my God, we were so against it. We were tamping everybody’s notions of it down.” And in fact, they were telling the press: “She’s not going to say anything. Don’t worry. She’s not going to rock the boat. She’s not going to say anything; she’s not going to be newsworthy. You don’t have to really pay too much attention.” Everybody was so nervous about it.
We went, and we had this very closely held draft. I mean, it really worked because we were not going to let it get diluted. We were not going to have it so vetted that it became nothingness. We had a draft ready to go and she and the president, they had been vacationing in Wyoming, and then we were meeting them in Hawaii. He had V-J Day events.
The first draft got to her in Hawaii, and we knew it was pretty good already. We had really worked on it a lot, and we kept massaging it and refining it. The president read it, and he really liked it. Then we flew to Beijing with a stop in Guam, and what I remember so much, people say, “Why do you work for this woman?” This is why, and this also gets to [the idea that] it’s always about something bigger.
We’re on the plane, the last leg. It’s the middle of the night. Everybody’s asleep. Speechwriters never sleep. Speechwriters are always laboring away. It’s a horribly lonely feeling. I’m there under my little light with my little computer, and I finish the draft, and of course she knew the draft quite well at that point, but I had to take it up to her for one final review. So I take it to her, and I will never forget this, ever. It’s one of the most vivid memories I have and sort of one of the deepest memories I have. I handed her the draft, and she took it. She didn’t say anything. She just looked at me silently for several moments, and then she said, “I just want to push the envelope as far as I can on women’s rights and human rights.” And I just couldn’t believe it. I thought, that’s why I do this, because here is this person who with all of the static over this trip, who is having to dance through a political and diplomatic minefield to make this trip in the first place, let alone to give this speech in China to the world’s women with all eyes on her, is willing to go for it. She is willing to go for it. She really cares that deeply. She believes in this. Wow, that’s why I do this. That’s why I’m willing to sit in front of a blank screen on an airplane in the middle of the night. It was amazing. It was just amazing to hear her say that.
What was it like to watch her deliver it?
We were very confident of the speech. We thought it was really strong and powerful and very clear. Melanne Verveer and I were standing on the side of the stage when she went to give it. It’s this hall with, I don’t know, 1,500 people or so, many of them dressed in their regional attire. She started giving it, and it was an awkward lectern, actually. I remember the podium. She had to stand on something. Anyway, it was a little bit awkward. We could see that from the side, that being what it may, it wasn’t a big deal.
But she started giving the speech, and Melanne and I were standing at the edge of the stage. We were so excited, and she starts giving it, and there’s no response from the audience. They are like statues. They’re sitting there in complete robotic silence to the point where we start truly freaking out. We’re like, “Oh, my God, did we misread the situation entirely?” I mean, we were panicked. We’re thinking, there is so much riding on this. The risks are so high; so many people didn’t want her to do this. If this is off or wrong, this is going to be a disaster.
And then she went on for a while. And finally, finally they erupted in cheers, and we looked at each other, and we’re like: “My God, we are so dumb. They’re all listening to simultaneous translations in all these different languages so they weren’t at the same points necessarily in the speech, so nobody was willing to kind of start clapping until there was some women’s rights or human rights line.” But we had, I mean, minutes, minutes of feeling like we had just done one of the worst things we could possibly do.
It’s the great memorable line, “women’s rights are human rights.”
“Human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights,” yeah.
Why is that so important?
That line, “human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights,” was not a line we expected to have the endurance that it’s had over now decades. We thought it was a great line, but it seems so obvious. You know, we’re sort of like, “That’s obvious, but we should just throw it in there.” It’s not obvious, as it turns out, to many, many, many people in many parts of the world. And it became this mantra, and when we would travel in years subsequent, even as Secretary of State many years later, women would come up to her, clutching a copy of that speech, clutching, like “This is it. This is the manifesto,” and saying, “Human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights.” It was obvious to us, but it’s not obvious. It’s not even always obvious now. We can see in other ways. So it was just a tremendous affirmation and validation of a very important but very simple idea.
So that Hillary is running in 2016, not the 2008 Hillary. Yes, bits and pieces of her have been running forever, but is that Hillary at the heart of 2016?
I think there’s a lot of that Hillary running in 2016, a lot of it. And forgive me for saying this, but it’s sort of the badass Hillary. It’s the Hillary who will get up at a commencement speech when her classmates have voted for her to give the speech, and she labors over the speech the night before to make sure she’s representing her class, and then a sitting U.S. senator gets up and talks about the Vietnam War in ways that are really not reflective of the feelings of her generation, and she tosses her speech and takes on the U.S. senator.
It’s the Hillary who sits for 11 hours of an inquisition on the Benghazi question, 11 hours of being interrogated by people whose sole purpose is to eviscerate her and humiliate her. And by the end of the 11 hours, she’s got them tied in knots, red-faced and she’s just kind of, “OK, next?” And it’s the Hillary who’s willing to go to Beijing and who says to me, “I just want to push the envelope on human rights and women’s rights.”
… When she concedes in 2008, I think I read somewhere that you had said that you were heartbroken.
Oh, God, that’s an understatement.
Can you tell us a little bit about that?
… This was a big one. This was a really big one with a woman who was really qualified, and for her not to make it, I think, was a defeat for everybody. As much as we might celebrate the other accomplishment of Barack Obama, which was equally historic and important, on a personal level, for women who had had to navigate the prism of gender dynamics in their professions or in their educations or in whatever they do in life, or maybe even in their families, there was a lot of hope attached to it. I don’t blame her for that not working out, but I’m just saying it felt like a collective setback, in a way.
… When Lena Dunham and others complain about her, women who have inherited the results of many of the breakthroughs that she was the vanguard party on, what do you think?
It’s sort of a good news/bad news situation when women who are younger maybe don’t see what Hillary’s trajectory has meant and what her evolution has meant, because on the one hand, look, everybody’s sort of wringing their hands about millennial women and many of them supporting Bernie. But here’s the deal: They grew up with many more women in public office, certainly more women in the United States Senate and the House of Representatives than there were even 20 or 30 years ago. They’ve had three women secretaries of state. We see all these famous women as CEOs now. Is it enough? No. Is it anywhere close? No.
But, you know, their context is different, and they haven’t come up against the kind of little challenges and barriers and even indignities sometimes that women who are older have had to deal with. So you can’t blame them, but I do think that once they get apprised of the history and they see that Hillary attacks these problems not just as gender issues … Hillary does not come to women’s issues just as women’s issues. She never has. She never has looked at women’s issues just as women’s issues. She looks at them in all their complexity. How much is related to poverty? How much is related to lack of educational opportunity? How much is related to an absence of health care? How much of it is of legal and other kinds of rights? How much is cultural norms?
You have to combine all these things. It’s called intersectionalism. She’s the most intersectional person when it comes to these issues of anybody, so it’s sort of ironic that she sometimes gets criticized for just focusing on women, because that’s never been solely the case. She sees it in its most holistic sense.
Younger women just need to appreciate that about her to really fully understand her and what her role has meant over lots of decades in which they weren’t alive. How would they know?
There is a thing I read somewhere about Midwestern, Methodist —
Oh yeah, I’ve said that.
You want to say it?
To really understand Hillary, you have to remember that she is a Midwesterner, born in the middle of the 20th century and is a Methodist. What I mean by that is she’s got the kind of roll-up-your-sleeves, get-the-job-done, don’t-have-to-be-frilly-and-fancy traits of a Midwesterner. She was born in the middle of the 20th century, so she was on the edge, on the cutting edge of a lot of social change — civil rights, women’s rights, activism and advocacy — which has deeply been a part of her experience and her story.
Then lastly, probably the part that’s least known about her, but very, very important, is her Methodist roots, which explain a lot of the way she was brought up, the tenets of her faith, what her mother instilled in her, the influence of her youth pastor. It’s all about helping the world. It’s the great John Wesley quote that I will probably mangle, but “Do all the good you can in all the ways you can in every place you can at every time you can,” et cetera. That’s her. That’s Hillary.