The FRONTLINE Interview: Melanne Verveer
As First Lady Hillary Clinton’s deputy chief of staff and later chief of staff, Melanne Verveer recalls that Washington did not know what to do with a professional woman as first lady. The advice Clinton received was, “be a traditional first lady. Take a single issue and let that just be your issue,'” says Verveer. “And that wasn’t Hillary Clinton. There was too much she cared about.” Months after losing the bruising battle over health care reform, Clinton delivered a speech to the United Nations Conference on Women in Beijing that Verveer remembers as Clinton’s “finest moment ever in terms of standing up for America’s core values.” In 2009, Verveer was appointed the first United States Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues, working in the State Department under Secretary Clinton.
In her interview, Verveer reflects on the highs and lows of the White House years from Hillary Clinton’s perspective, recalls the vitriol directed at Clinton during health care reform, and describes how Clinton reacted to the pressure.
This is the transcript of a conversation with FRONTLINE’s Michael Kirk held on May 26, 2016. It has been edited for clarity and length.
Who was Hillary Clinton when you met her?
When I met her, she was the wife of Gov. Clinton in Arkansas. She was the chair of the Children’s Defense Fund Board, and she had come to Washington for a meeting. Her husband had been saying to me over many years — I knew him better and longer — he had been saying to me, “You have to meet Hillary.” And one day, we finally did meet. We had a conversation over lunch in a restaurant that easily went two hours, and we could have talked for two days.
We really shared a lot of values and a lot of issue concerns, and the focus was also significantly on children, what was happening to children in the United States and the quality of civic engagement in this country.
How would you describe her?
Caring. She’s fun to be with. When I went to work with her in the White House, we had a very close-knit staff. We spent much time together. I traveled with her across the United States, and I’ve lost count of how many countries overseas. Never [tired] of our conversations. Always interested in one’s family, who was sick, what could she do; wanting to know what was happening to people she knew. A very caring person, a very public-spirited person, very much motivated by public service and focused on what difference one could make.
People often ask me to tell them something about Hillary that they don’t know. I always say: “Did you know she was a star by the time she got to Yale Law School? She was in Life magazine. She was at the forefront of the young women’s movement.” They’re always surprised. Are you surprised by that?
Well, I’m not at all surprised by it. I think the qualities that we see today sprang from someplace, and obviously she has a deep intelligence. But what she manifested in those early years, whether it was her introduction into the civil rights movement, the life of migrant workers by her then very close youth minister, who I remember well because even during the White House years he was someone who would come by and talk about those years and what they represented. But her time at Wellesley, where she came into her own in a significant way, the challenge to Sen. [Edward] Brooke [R-Mass.] during the commencement exercises, really taking issue with what the commencement speaker had said, whether in terms of poverty in the United States or in terms of the Vietnam War that was going on, so she was even then very engaged in the issues of her time, clearly exhibiting a degree of intellectual firepower that may not always be obvious when one is young, but I think most importantly really showing a passion for wanting to make a difference already, for purpose, for looking at those bigger things in life.
Tell me about Reverend [Don] Jones. It’s great that you met him. Tell us about what he did at that moment in her life when she says, “I was a Goldwater girl, and then I was changing–” how he introduced her to Martin Luther King, Jr., those moments?
Well, here was a girl living in pretty comfortable suburbs of Chicago, but her family was not by any means a wealthy family. She went to public school; she did well, from all accounts; and she’s introduced through her activism in her church. She was a very and continues to be a very strongly motivated Methodist. And this youth minister [Rev. Jones] begins to take these kids from their fairly isolated, in some way, surroundings and introduces them to other parts of life in the United States, and in particular the burgeoning civil rights movement and what Martin Luther King stood for, going and hearing him. This opened her eyes.
… [Rev. Jones] tells them there’s far more that is required of them than merely going to church on Sunday.
It was very clear to me the more I got to know her that she is strongly motivated by her faith tradition and that Wesleyan code of the founder: do all the good you can in all the ways you can for all the years you can. In many ways, that really does say a great deal about who she is and what motivates her.
She was scheduled to speak at her graduation from Wellesley College. She has a speech prepared, but then she decides to give an impromptu speech reacting to the commencement speaker, Sen. Brooke of Massachusetts. What happened?
She is listening to Sen. Brooke, who was an African American senator from Massachusetts, and she does not feel that he is addressing the issues that are critical issues of her time.
And I find this rather extraordinary, personally, that she would then follow him, throw away whatever she planned to say, and in an impromptu way really go into challenging him on some of the critical issues, whether they had to do with the state of poverty in the United States or had to do with the war at the time.
But [she was] obviously an engaged college student, someone who passionately cared about her society, what was happening in the world, and however imperfect a way you see that as a college student, and wanting to have some impact on it.
Because of that speech, she speaks to the League of Women Voters; she’s in Life magazine. What does that do to somebody her age and her gender in 1969?
Well, I don’t know what all of the attention to her did to her. What she said at that moment was something she deeply felt, because she went on to law school. She spent her last year and then the year after working with children, taking on some of the tough issues through the Children’s Defense Fund. Canvassing on the state of whether or not there was integrated education going on in parts of the country was a very brave thing to do, and looking at other aspects of the quality of life for kids who were living more on the margins, frankly. [She] got really, really interested in the rights of children and how they’re treated. … She had this deep, deep commitment to what we owed our children and the kinds of lives they should be able to lead and to be able to have their potential tapped.
A lot of other women from her class at Wellesley especially, and also at Yale, say that they were all being told to head into corporate law, stay away from children’s issues, stay away from female issues; climb the ladder. But Hillary, uniquely, went into that territory.
It was deep inside, what she felt, and that’s how she saw herself, trying to make that difference in an area that she thought she as a future lawyer could address the injustice of what was happening and found that avenue with which to express that. But it was consistent to her in all the years that I have known her. What happened in that early period, that incubation period, has turned out to be a guidepost for where she took her life.
It was with a constant attention to these kinds of issues: economic injustice, poverty, the state of the quality of our children’s lives, our posture in the world, peace. This is still the stuff of who she is in many ways.
She worked on the Watergate investigation, which was a plum assignment, but she also has a guy named Bill Clinton that she’s reportedly crazy about. At some point she has to make a decision: Do I climb this ladder, or do I go to Arkansas with this fella? What is it about Bill Clinton that captures her fancy?
I first met Bill Clinton in college, and I can see how he can be attractive, because there he was, kind of an “Aw, shucks” guy from the South with many of us here in the nation’s capital at Georgetown University. He would constantly have a bevy of fellow students around him.
… One can never adequately get to the bottom of why people are attracted to each other. But he was a very attractive, up-and-coming young man with enormous potential. Obviously they met in law school, and as the story, the lore now, describes that, he was constantly staring at her, and she said something like, “Well, if you’re going to stare at me, tell me who you are; introduce yourself.” She used to say that he constantly was talking about this great state of Arkansas and how extraordinary it was and how they produce the largest watermelons of any place in the world.
There was a relationship that developed, and it was not an easy choice, as she tells it, between wanting to go and deeply immerse herself in the work that she had begun and move to Arkansas.
Why did she do it?
For her heart. I don’t know if you’ve interviewed Sara Ehrman?
Sara was the one who drove her to Arkansas, [and] much of the trip she kept saying to her: “Hillary, you’re throwing your life away. Let’s turn around.” And she went because there was this guy she was really in love with.
How much do you figure it hurt her when they lose the re-election in Arkansas, and [political consultant] Dick Morris says, “You’ve got to change your hair; you’ve got to get rid of those Coke-bottle glasses; and you’ve got to be called Mrs. Clinton.”
What she has learned is there are a lot of adjustments that have to be made, and we’re not always able to do exactly what we want to do. She cared deeply about her husband and his abilities and what he could do for the state and after that loss didn’t want to contribute to a future loss, and did change her name. I remember an opponent of his apparently was flashing in a political ad, “Hillary Rodham, Hillary Rodham, Hillary Rodham,” saying to any viewer in Arkansas: “Who is this strange person? She won’t even take her husband’s name?” We may look back today all of these years later and say to ourselves, “Well, that may be a little odd,” but she did what she needed to do, or at least she felt she needed to do to help him.
This feels like the first time that there’s a real pointing at her, not an issue, but it’s [her.] What do you think she learns from that?
… The political environment in which she found herself was one where she was pummeled in many ways. That may have been one of those earliest moments when she was being criticized for his loss and wanted to do what she could to rectify that. But she would only discover that she would be on the receiving end of a great deal of criticism for years and years to come.
How does that feel to your friend and future employer?
It’s no fun to be criticized in ways that certainly you feel are unfair, and so many of the charges that have been leveled against her over time have never resulted in anything. But they have created this environment around her that somehow she has done wrong or she has been engaged in some sort of inappropriate ways, and that really hurts.
I remember one day we were riding in the back of the car. She’s first lady, reading about some of these charges without basis, and she says to me, “You know, I wouldn’t like that person they’re describing there, either,” except that person wasn’t really the person who she is. And she came to say you need the skin of a rhinoceros, as Eleanor Roosevelt discovered, in this business because it could just destroy you. You have to really find ways deep inside of you with people around you in your own way to be able to keep going when so much is thrown at you that is so unfair.
That moment where she’s sitting with Bill on 60 Minutes after the Gennifer Flowers thing, and she says, “I’m not Tammy Wynette,” or something like that. Can you imagine what that was like?
No. I try to put myself in those situations. It’s very hard. And that’s why I think you do have to tap whatever resilience and strength you have deep inside of you with whatever power of conviction and commitment to keep going, because it is not easy. And you have to stay focused. I will say this about her: that in many of those times in the White House that were difficult times, it was she who rallied many of the staff, certainly our own staff, and reminded us why we were there, not to get sidetracked in all of the kinds of charges and countercharges that were swirling, but to keep our eyes on the prize, to stay focused, to remind us that we were there but for a short time, and during that short time, we could make a difference for the country, we could help people, and to be reminded of that as opposed to just wallowing in everything that was happening around us.
After the inauguration, the Clintons move in to the White House, but they’re not embraced with open arms by Washington. Why did that happen, do you think?
I don’t know why the receptivity was not what you would expect it to be when they arrived in Washington. There was a certain wonderment, I guess, about these folks from Arkansas. … There were judgments made without basis about what Hillary would care about. She was more issues-focused than she was focused on some of the things that others might care more about, although she went on to be both an extraordinary first lady, in my view, in terms of the way that she presented the White House and showcased it and welcomed others to it, and certainly did everything that was always expected of a first lady.
But yet, there was always this judgment being made, and I think, obviously, very unfairly. I was part of Washington. I had come here to college, I had not left. I was involved throughout the community. And it was painful at times. I think I was probably not confronted with it just because people felt they didn’t want to be nasty to me to my face, but there was always that kind of, “Who are these people anyway?” And yet they were down-to-earth, as American as you can be, certainly normal folks.
They’d go into any restaurant in any part of America and feel as much at home as any regular person would, yet there was something about not meeting the standards of Washington, whatever those standards were.
They’re doing it all with camera crews and press. It seems like it wasn’t something they were used to.
… She doesn’t relish it, and she has always thought she could keep a zone of privacy around her. But oftentimes, you realize you can’t. You are in the glare of the public eye no matter where you are, and that takes getting used to.
It’s the gilded cage syndrome, right? Now, you’re never private.
In those days in the White House, we didn’t have our iPhones, and we didn’t have our state-of-the-art communication. We had these beepers. And one Sunday afternoon, I get a beep that says, “Call White House operator 2.” And I thought, oh, jeez. So I get on the phone, and it’s the first lady calling. The operator puts me through. And she says, “What are you doing?” I said, “Well, I’m grocery shopping.” And she said, “Oh, what I would give to be able to do that again.” And I thought to myself, I was feeling burdened grocery shopping, frankly, and she’s saying, “I would just relish the opportunity to be a normal person.”
You can’t do it in that space. It’s what you give up. You ultimately get used to it as best as you can, but I don’t think you ever really get used to it. And it is something always to think about, the price that is paid, especially today, for public service.
She’s a first lady who wants to work. She has issues on her agenda, [but what is appropriate for her to do?] Sally Quinn writes an article advising or warning her, don’t stand over his shoulder. Don’t be there when he’s working. Don’t be in the Cabinet room. Give a party; represent charities. It’s a dichotomy for a woman of her intelligence and experience that would have been hard to deal with it seems.
The job of first lady is a position without a job description. There is no roadmap for what you do. Everybody in America thinks they know what the first lady should do, and they all disagree about what it is. She posed a real dilemma in many ways for journalists at the time because the common way to cover a first lady was on the social pages, the style section, and here was someone who was engaged in many of the issues. There was this back-and-forth: Do we put her in the style section? Do we put her in the national news section?
She was the first professional woman to occupy that position, which you’re only in by virtue of the fact that your husband is the president. So it’s a very, very difficult position, and I think that is something that’s not understood either; that if you try to forge a path that hasn’t been forged in the past by virtue of the fact that you’re a lawyer, you’re well-educated, you’ve been involved in the causes of your time, you want to help your president at this pivotal moment to do what you can to make a difference for the country, and you realize that everybody has an opinion about whether you belong or don’t belong in that space.
It sounds like the first few months of the presidency were crazy. There were lingering attacks carrying over from the 1992 campaign. Hillary’s father dies. What was that time like?
The attacks on the Clintons really were predicated on what happened in the campaign, because in many ways it was a continuation of some of those attacks, many of those attacks. And I think it’s important to understand that none of this resulted in any of the dire predictions about guilt that certain parties really wanted to lob on both of them.
But here you are, trying to do a job, and very early on Hillary was confronted as life brings it, with her father’s grave illness, … and it’s a profoundly difficult time. She’s at his bedside where she stayed. And at one point, she wants to keep a commitment that she had made to Liz Carpenter in Texas to give a speech at the University of Texas, I think it was. I remember calling her and saying, “Do you want me to prepare anything?” She said, “No, don’t worry about it.” So on the plane, I wasn’t with her; nobody was at her side giving her anything with ideas. And clearly she was deeply inside the moment of what is the meaning of life. She’s got a father who is dying; she’s going through the early putdowns that seem to come with alacrity to the territory of the White House. And she’s really thinking about, what are we all about? She made a speech where she talked about the politics of meaning and how in the end, all this nastiness is for naught. We should be being better to each other, essentially.
At that moment she spoke from her heart. She talked about what mattered in life; she talked about what public service should be. And she’s almost immediately misinterpreted by some in the press who say, “Who is she to become the moral preacher?” Not that many weeks after this evolves, she’s on the cover of the New York Times Magazine. Innocently she had put on a white dress for the photo shoot. And we were talking in the plane after another speech where: “Oh, I have to go do this photo shoot. What should I wear?” And somebody said, “Oh, why don’t you wear that nice white dress?”
Well, the cover of the magazine that comes out of this photo shoot is Saint Hillary, as though she were elevating herself to a degree of sainthood and judgment over others when that wasn’t her intention at all. She was somebody who was mulling over, what are we about? What does politics really mean? What should we be doing to each other? And then [she] gets into this tremendous backlash for what she said. Frankly, it astounded me, and it certainly was not one of those moments where you want to jump up for joy at this reaction.
Did she ever talk to you about it?
We talked about it a lot, because we all felt what she said — I mean, I believe as much today as when she said it all of those years ago. It’s the kind of speech I think most people would agree with. We do deserve doing better to each other. We should pause and think about what are we doing to each other. We should understand what causes meaning in life, what gives us purpose. What difference can we make? That’s what it was about. It was no attempt to preach to the country.
Does she get angry?
I wouldn’t say angry, but it’s painful. It’s painful that you can be so misinterpreted.
Health care becomes grist for the mill. People criticize the process for being too secretive, too closed. People ask, “Who does she think she is?” What does she feel about that? Why did she do what she did?
… There was never any malevolent intent to make a process a secret process. And then all these accusations began to fly, and the credibility began to be questioned. So the whole effort, which was about enabling the American people to have access to quality health care for themselves and their children, all of a sudden was not even what it was about. It began to be a discussion about all of these other things that somehow took the upper hand in what went on to be certainly a difficult undertaking that didn’t turn out to have achieved its ultimate goal.
I think reforming health care in and of itself is not an easy process. If one were to do it over again, would it be done in that way? Probably not. But her determination was to fulfill the hopes of her president, who happened to be her husband, that we, the Clinton administration, would try to really do something that has been tried back to Nixon to really do better by the American people at a time when costs were escalating and more and more people were falling through the cracks. The stories that we heard just, you know, took your heart and plucked it out of you. It was so painful to hear as she crisscrossed the country what people were up against.
When it crashes, how does she take it?
Well, it wasn’t that it crashed like a plane falling out of the sky.
A dirigible, right.
It was a process that one could see was having its difficulties, to put it mildly. And over time, that accelerated. For example, we were at one point trying to launch a real sort of campaign, last effort, to get this thing off the ground, and all of the plans that were developed were blowing up.
… Just as an example, I remember one of the early parts of this last effort was where we started in northwest United States, in Seattle, and I got a call from the Secret Service agents who were with us who said: “Don’t bring Mrs. Clinton down here. … Just stay in the hotel room.” What had happened is, she was supposed to go down into this very public space and make a speech. … There were reports of some very antagonistic people who didn’t want to see the speech take place, and there was tremendous worry on the part of the Secret Service that they actually might do something terrible.
The flames had been fanned through radio commentators who were saying, “She’s going to be there. Get out. You tell her how it is,” etc. And afterward, our agents told me that they confiscated guns; they confiscated knives. This is not something to laugh about or to misunderstand just how zealous the opponents were.
She finally did give the speech. They had to re-choreograph the site, move it to a different place. But what I remember as though it were yesterday was as her car was leaving, there were such angry faces pushing as best they could in sort of a mob attack on the windshield and screaming at her for, you know, what is it she’s trying to do? And that takes you back to the worst that we can be as a people, to instances in history that we read about in the history books that should never have happened.
This brought out some of the most vociferous kinds of reactions from people who were against health care as it was presented going forward. She was hung in effigy. She was attacked in so many ways. One guy was yelling at her one day saying: “You know, Mrs. Clinton, you keep your hands off of our health care. The government should not be involved in this.” And she turned, and she said, “Well, sir, what kind of health care do you have?” And he said, “Medicare, and don’t interfere with it.” Well, of course it was a government program. But this is the kind of thing you deal with, both the crazy parts and the parts that are just scary.
She’s the face of health care at this point.
She was the face of health care reform even though many, many, many people were involved in it. The good and the bad that that represented, all stuck on her.
When the Republicans win in the 1994 midterm elections, even though there have been lots of other things going on, Hillary reportedly says to herself: “I’m the reason the Republicans won. I’m the face of it. The health care failure is the reason.” Do you think she really felt that?
It was a difficult time. And there were some very positive things that she put forward in that transition period that I think are worth pointing out. For example, [Newt] Gingrich [R-Ga.] comes to the White House as the new speaker with this majority-Republican House, and he is negotiating about how this Clinton White House is going to work with him as speaker and his members.
And she pleaded for, despite our differences, for coverage for children. … And ultimately, the Republican Congress and the Clinton administration came together, and CHIP [Children’s Health Insurance Program], as it came to be called, became a reality. … There were these kinds of constant behind-the-scenes efforts. I remember the pediatric labeling event when the president leaned over to her — of course he was presiding over the event and announcing the new regulation — and he leans over, and he says: “Boy, this is really good stuff. Who made this happen?” Well, she was involved in all of these things in a very, very significant way.
At the same time, it’s a very tough time, because you now have a majority of the other party and the perceived breaks on so much of what this still-new administration wants to do. She did feel in some ways that what she attempted to do with health care, for reasons that everybody’s got an opinion on, didn’t produce the outcome that was hoped for and that maybe, maybe somehow, she should do things a little differently.
And everybody came in with advice. And it is very frustrating when you think or at least feel partially that perhaps you had something to do with that outcome. Even if the perceptions of what happened and what you did were far from reality much of the time, you’re still looking at how you conducted yourself and worrying about, you know, how do you move forward.
She is the lightning rod, whether she wants it or not.
It was tough. It was a time of personal reflection. How do I go forward? How do I continue to try to make that difference I have always tried to make in my life, and do it in this fishbowl-and-worse existence that I’m now part of? And there was advice pouring in under the transom and over the transom and [from] anybody who wanted her to know how they thought she should conduct herself going forward. And a lot of the advice was: “Oh, just be a traditional first lady. Take a single issue, and let that just be your issue.”
And that wasn’t Hillary Clinton. There was too much she cared about. … She didn’t exactly do what I think the press said she did at that point — I know she didn’t — and that was disengage. She disengaged from a major issue because it was over, the big health care reform with all of the focus that that had from the media and everybody else, and began to work as hard as ever on all of those other ways she could have impact.
It is an extraordinary record of achievement. I have a binder full, still, of all of the kinds of steps that she took from that point in the Clinton presidency onward to the end of that presidency, whether it was in domestic efforts or whether it was in international efforts. And she slowly, then, did get into the international side of things. Some viewed it as an escape, and I think the reality is that there was a plea for her to become more engaged, and there was a particular moment in 1995 when there was a U.N. meeting taking place in Denmark. It was the social development conference. There were many disappointed people who had invested so much in America’s leadership on human development issues and said, “Here, we’re having a leadership meeting, and the United States will not be represented by the president.” It wasn’t clear that even the vice president would go, and there was this pleading, could the first lady go?
I remember going to the NSC [National Security Council] at the time and asking, and at first it was, “Well, we’re not sure this is the best idea.” And that changed over several weeks [to], “You know, it probably would be good if she went.” The issues that were discussed were very much the kinds of things she had focused on in the United States, but are lessons without borders: education, issues having to do with the quality of life for women and what they’re up against in terms of their health needs, issues having to do with small amounts of credit, microcredit that can lift the poor, whether they’re here or in the developing world.
She gave a speech focusing on the issues that she knew and the commitment of the United States that she knew. The head of that conference told me a couple of years later, he said: “You know, we didn’t know what to expect. And we saw the first lady of the United States mount the rostrum, and by the time she finished and came down, she was a world figure that we would all know and have as our champion for years to come.”
As she was continuing her work domestically, she was beginning to move in the international sphere. And it was not that many months later that she made her first solo trip to South Asia to five countries, and then we moved into September of 1995 and the fourth U.N. World Conference on Women, and the rest is history.
When she goes to Beijing, against the greatest odds, with no expectations, with all kinds of prophetic statements about how she’s either going to destroy our relationship with China or she’s going to somehow destroy the family, which was where the right wing was, and it would be some kind of a disaster for the United States, it was perhaps her finest moment ever in terms of standing up for America’s core values, speaking truth to power, about how truly human rights are women’s rights, women are human, and women’s rights are human rights. And looking at all of those violations against women the world over, whether it’s killing a girl baby just because she’s born a girl, whether it’s human trafficking, whether it’s domestic violence, whether it’s rape as a tool of war, whatever it is, and it goes on, she goes through each of those violations and punctuates each one by saying this is a violation of human rights.
By the time she finished, it didn’t matter where you were on the political spectrum. The cheering went on and on and on, because this powerful woman from the most powerful nation on earth comes and says the reality that so many were dealing with on the ground, in the trenches, struggling every day to bring about change, and she lifts all of that work up by saying these are violations of human rights, and we need to address these violations.
And, of course, women’s rights are now chiseled into international law, all of the improvements that have been made during that conference in terms of the blueprint for action that was adopted. What we’ve seen come out of that in terms of the catalyzing of a movement that continues to this day, women are on the front lines of change everywhere trying to improve their lives, their children’s lives, their society’s lives. She had a lot to do with that.
And then the strange tragedy of Hillary Clinton’s White House experience: Monica comes along. And wham, suddenly she’s back in the headlines, but in a completely different way. Suddenly, people feel sorry for Hillary Clinton.
It was a very painful time, and you just empathized with her and what she had to be going through, and going through in a very public way. I think [she] drew great admiration even from her detractors because she held her head high. She could have groveled in “woe is me” given how terribly painful this was. Instead, she kept us all focused, to be honest, reminding the White House staff that yes, there was much to deal with, but remember why you’re here. It was this call to keep your mind on your work as distracting as that might be.
I think it was, one, she believed that deeply. Secondly, she did not want to see her husband’s administration and all that work that had gone into taking those progressive steps be somehow marginalized, destroyed, not fulfilling the hopes and aspirations of so many around the country.
It fell to her in many ways to keep things going, not as a president but as that person who constantly was reminding us, let’s understand what’s really at stake.
You were with her in New York at the Waldorf heading to her interview on the Today Show. Can you take us there, tell us what that was all like?
The night before was almost surreal because you know, we just felt this personal pain that she was experiencing. There wasn’t a whole lot of conversation. And it wasn’t clear exactly what she intended to say when she was on the set of the Today Show speaking the first time. Now, there are those who say that she went and did that in a way that was calculated. She was always, as I remember, scheduled to be on the Today Show, so she kept that commitment. It just so happened that when she made the agreement to participate, all of these things went swirling around her, and now she had to contend with them because she would be asked about them.
When you’re with her in the hotel and you get down into the car, what’s happening with her?
She was not tremendously expressive. When somebody is feeling personal pain and having to cope in a public way with it, it’s not a time to say, “Here’s the talking points you should use,” or, “Let’s laugh at some joke.” I’m pretty good at making talk if I have to, but there are times when you’re mostly needing to be quiet. And I think that was the best thing to do at that point. It really wasn’t until she was on the set and engaged in that conversation that we really knew what she was going to say.
What did she say?
She talked about the fact that it was personally painful. It was there that she expressed those words about the great “right-wing conspiracy,” and I think people put that down and said, well, you know, blaming other people for the problems. But the reality was the Clintons have been dogged by these opponents who are as present today as they were yesterday. You have a feeling that it is significantly organized. Whatever the reality is, that’s certainly the feeling one gets.
When you watch her there, your friend and close colleague, what are you thinking?
I felt deep pain. I felt anger at the president. I was feeling very personally pained for her, and you want this moment just to vanish, but it’s not going to vanish. So you do whatever you can to be supportive. The best way we could all be supportive was to try to stay, difficult as it is, focused on our work, and the fact that the rewards of that would somehow even in very tough times keep everybody going.
We’ve talked to some people who thought it was over, that Bill Clinton was going to be gone in a week. Did you have that feeling?
I don’t think anybody knew exactly what was going to happen. If you woke up every morning and listened to the latest news, you probably gave yourself more angina than you might otherwise have. But it was stirring all the time. It was this was going to happen and that was going to happen, and you really didn’t know.
Given what she was going through, going up and talking to the Democrats in the House who were also feeling for her and listening to her say, “Look, as tough as this is for me, let’s not do something that, first of all, never has met the threshold for impeachment in this country; and secondly, we know where it comes from; and thirdly, let us think about what we all care about in terms of America and what it stands for,” she was the rallying individual who worked so hard. And remember, that was an off-year election. It was in the cycle of a congressional election coming up in ’98. There were great expectations that the Democrats would be wiped out; the party in power usually loses rather significant numbers of seats. That didn’t happen. She crisscrossed the country for the Democrats, for the candidates, those who might be imperiled and those who might be particularly nervous, and did not stop. And the president said, as he was watching the election returns that night, “Hillary made a huge difference.”
Do you think she did it for him in any way, or was it really for the country?
I think it was in many ways about them also. They had struggled to have an opportunity to be change makers for the United States. She understood she was a part of that effort, that there was so much at stake, and it was the right thing to do. But I think it was also the personal redemptive thing to do in some ways for the Clinton administration, for his presidency, that she had been so much a part of. I don’t think she could imagine that this would be the end of something that could matter so much. But to say that she wasn’t suffering and feeling the pain of it all and that was just how she was, that’s not true. It was very hard.
Did you ever see her cry?
I’ve never seen her cry. I’ve seen her be on the verge in the most emotional way because I wanted to cry at times because the emotion of what you’re going through is so hard to sustain as an individual, as a person. This is not easy, and you need more than the skin of a rhinoceros. You need a deep inner strength, and she really did, being the practicing Methodist that she was, she really was faith-supported. There were so many people praying for her. She had prayer groups everywhere, it seemed. She was given a book by a friend during that period called Gratitude by a European theologian, and it was all about that when life gives you some of the terrible things that we have to sustain, that we should still be grateful for all of that good in our life. And she really tried as best she could to internalize those lessons. So that was a big part of what kept her going.
And at this time she’s preparing to go to New York to run for Senate. When did you get wind that she was on her way to greener pastures?
There were many people who mentioned it to her, and I remember some members of Congress raised the issue about, “Hillary, really, why don’t you consider running?” I am not sure she ever really considered running for elected office herself because she had always felt there was so much you could do without being in the fray.
We were in New York for the kinds of events that she did from time to time, and this one was to really cheer on young women who were going through their own situations in life but moving forward. When she got in the room, [there] was [a] very big, bold banner over the stage that said, “Dare to Compete.” You couldn’t escape it, because at that moment she was going through this should I or shouldn’t I? And there you walk into the room, and it says, “Dare to compete.”
The banner itself didn’t do it, but I think that at a moment you make the best decision you can, and she did decide that she would go for it. And it wasn’t going to be easy. I remember getting so many calls from reporters saying: “This is really crazy. How does she think she’s going to win?” She’s going around in a big black limousine, and she’s got Secret Service pushing the crowds away. How is this going to work?
Well, she tried in every conceivable way possible to make it work without the accoutrement that go with being a still-sitting first lady and moving into new space. One of the first things she did — and it was mocked in some way — was the so-called listening tour which was to go through many parts of New York and sit with regular people who would tell her what it was like. I, for the first week, got permission from the counsel’s office to travel with her just so I could figure out how were we going to lead our public work in the White House, continuing it while she was the candidate, because that would all be separate, and the two could not mingle.
I remember we stayed with people in their homes; we didn’t stay in hotels. Just those very limited experiences that I had where they would sit at the kitchen table where they’re drinking coffee and say: “You know, Mrs. Clinton, upstate New York, you’ve got to do something. Our children are leaving. There’s nothing for them to do here. There are no jobs,” and think of community after community where people are sitting down with her and telling her what’s going on.
Officials, non-officials, people in business, people in academia. She took notes. And you can say all kinds of things about Hillary Clinton, true and untrue, but [the] absolute truth of it is she listens, and she does not forget. She took copious notes. They were not a charade. They were serious.
By the time she had finished that listening tour and crisscrossed the state of New York, she knew more about what was happening in New York than probably any other politician or anybody who thought that they were an expert on what people in New York were feeling.
I think that enabled her to really come into her own in ways that she was always comfortable with, listening to the people, sitting with them, understanding what their lives are like, what they’re up against, what they need in terms of a hand up from the government; what we could do together, how do we forge communities, how do we bring people around the table. It was not an easy race. It was a tough race. It was not clear whether she was going to pull it out, but in the end, she did quite handily.
Was she running for president in the back of her mind as soon as she heads for New York state?
Oh, I don’t think so at all. … When she was elected senator, she really got into her own. She was there legitimately, She was not there because she was the wife of the president. All of these things that had been thrown at her — who are you?, you’re not elected. Well, she was elected, by God.. … She was elected on her own, and she really got into the stuff of that work. She was a good colleague. She was not the showoff so much as she was the person who rolled up her sleeves and just got it done. People expected the showboat. They expected she was going to be followed by cameras all the time, and she’d always be posturing and putting out those statements. That’s not what happened. She became that person who really worked hard at every level of the Senate whether in her committee assignments, whether in her constituent services, whether in going back to New York over and over again, and forging relationships with the Republicans, with her counterparts on the other side of the aisle.
I’ve talked to several of the Republicans at the time and since, and they won’t tell you this in the heat of the political campaign now, but what they all said is: “You know, it was a wonderful surprise for us. We worked together well. We actually did achieve the kinds of things that we could agree on, working in a collaborative way.”
… Over the years, is she reading a lot of the criticism about her? Is she watching the stories when she first is arriving in Washington?
Initially you couldn’t avoid, and you still can’t avoid, a lot of the criticisms. But over time, Hillary learned not to watch a lot of the shows, not to read a lot of the attacks, because you would grind yourself up. You would not be a human being if that didn’t affect you. And I think she found a way to make it as — not that you ever completely succeed, but to make it as less negatively impacting her as she could.