The FRONTLINE Interview: Nancy Bekavac
Hillary Clinton and Nancy Bekavac were in a small cadre of women attending Yale Law School in the early 1970s. Visiting Clinton in Arkansas in 1974, Bekavac was taken aback by the role women played in public life — while men talked politics, women stayed “at the table with the Jell-O,” she says. Bekavac, who went on to be the first woman president of Scripps College, recalls that the women in their class at Yale “thought we could do anything. … [Hillary] was part of that era. I don’t think we had any idea of how complicated or costly that would be.”
In her interview, Bekavac discusses what it was like to be part of a trailblazing group of women at Yale Law School, her long friendship with Hillary, and the price she says Clinton has paid for being a pioneer.
This is the transcript of a conversation with FRONTLINE’s Gabrielle Schonder held on June 17, 2016. It has been edited for clarity and length.
I want to talk first about your memories of that time period at Yale Law School. You knew Bill before you knew Hillary?
Bill and I came in in the same class, and first years take all their classes together, so you tend to know the people in your class best. Bill showed up at school in November and came up to me in the hall and asked to borrow notes, and I said, “For what?” He said, “For all your classes.” I said, “Why?” He said, “Well, I’m in all your classes.” I said, “No you aren’t.” He said: “Well, I’ve been busy. I was running Joe Duffy for the Senate and he just lost, so I need to borrow your notes.” And I said, “Well, I have to go through them first.” He said, “Why, do you have love letters in there?” I said, “No, I have really bad poetry, and I’m not going to let you see it.” He said, “Well, you could.” I said: “No. I’ll see you tomorrow at lunch.”
So I gave him the notes at lunch. We went through the lunch line, and the thing I realized was that he had been there not even a week and he knew the names of all the servers in the line. I knew the name of the lady at the end who took payment. He knew all their names. They were mostly black, male and female. [He] called them all by name, talked to them all. And I remember thinking, this is different. This has got to be the only law student at Yale who knows everybody’s name.
I didn’t meet Hillary until the spring. I think partly that’s because that fall she was mostly taking courses at the Gesell Institute. When Hillary came to Yale, she decided she wanted to get a master’s degree in child development, and to do that you took a year of courses in the psychology department. There was a specific institute that studies children. It’s very well known. That fall she was mostly there, because I don’t remember seeing her until spring semester.
You would have met Hillary about what time in this year?
January or February. Certainly it was second semester. I don’t specifically recall meeting her, but I remember asking Bob Reich if he knew this person, and he said: “Well, yeah, she is famous. She gave the big speech at Wellesley when she took on Sen. [Edward] Brooke [R-Mass.].” I said, “How do you know that?” And he said: “Hillary and I worked together on the McCarthy campaign up in New Hampshire. She came up with a bunch of Wellesley girls, and I’ve known her since then.” I said: “Oh. Well, that’s cool. What is she like?” And he said, “Well, she is pretty good.”
I came to know her that spring. I didn’t know her very well that spring, although I think we were in the same constitutional law class.
Do you remember whether you saw her in Life magazine or whether you had heard about the commencement address at Wellesley at this point?
I didn’t remember that, but I was graduating at the same time. I had a traveling fellowship, so I was pretty wrapped up — as most 21-year-olds, I was pretty wrapped up in myself. I might have read it, but I didn’t recall it, and Bob told me the whole story when we were at law school.
The decision for women to attend law school, can you tell me a little bit about what this time was like?
I came from Swarthmore, which is very academic, and mostly I had applied to graduate schools. I took the law boards on a whim. One of my friends said: “Why don’t you take law boards? I don’t want to be the only woman taking them.” I said, “Oh sure.” So I went in, and we took them in Philadelphia. Other than the proctors we were the only two women in a room of 200, 300 guys. I remember looking around and thinking, this is really strange. And I said to Margie, “Where should I send them?” She said: “Send them to Yale. That’s the best law school in the country.” I said, “OK.” So I did.
I went up to visit friends in New Haven. I went over to the law school and looked around and thought, maybe this is a possibility. So I filled out the application. But I was mostly focused on going to graduate school in philosophy.
… I had a traveling fellowship, and I sent my papers in to go to graduate school in philosophy, but I mailed them from Italy, so they were lost in a postal strike, and they didn’t get there until June. [Fast]-forward many months; I get to India, and there is a letter from my mom saying: “Where are you? Princeton wrote and said they got your letter late, and Yale Law School wrote and said are you coming, so I sent them $50.” And I thought, well, all right, I’ve got someplace to go.
From India I went to South Vietnam. I was a stringer reporter in South Vietnam, and one of the things everybody I interviewed would say, “What are you doing here?” And I would say, “Well, I’m going back to the United States; I’m going to go to law school,” which sounded like a really credible and serious thing to be doing. I was interviewing two Marine lieutenants in a place called Arizona Territory. They were getting ready to go out into the bush. They were both from Texas; they had both gone to University of Texas. They said, “What are you going to do?” And I said, “I’m going to go to law school.” They said, “Where are you going?” I said, “I’m going to go to Yale Law School.” And they said: “You have to go. That’s the best law school in the country. If we could, that’s where we would go.” I said, “Why?” They said, “Because if you go to Yale Law School, people will take you seriously, and you can make sure we never have another war.”
That’s when I took it seriously. I know this sounds stupid, [but] I hadn’t really thought that much about it. When I came back I showed up at Yale Law School, and I expected to see a lot of women. I was wrong. We were one-eighth of the class. We had been one-eighth of the class for the prior two classes, so sometime that year we had a demonstration at the dean’s office, and we said, “We want to protest the quota.” And he said, “There is no quota.” I pointed out it had been 12.8 percent, 12.5 percent, 12.6 percent. I said, “If you’re that good with numbers, you should take the endowment to Las Vegas and play craps, if you’re that good at numbers and there is no quota.”
He said, “But there is no quota.” And I said, “If we’re smart enough to be here, we’re smart enough to figure out there is a quota.” There were a lot of women in the office at the time. My memory is that we were sitting on his desk. He was not a happy man. He was a very nice man, but he was not happy with us.
That all calmed down, and I think the next year there were like 13.5 percent, and of course it has gone up quite a bit.
You asked about women at Yale Law School. We had gotten there by all different means. Some were political activists. Some were accidental. Some were very technical, clearly knew they wanted to be lawyers. They even knew what lawyers did. Half of us didn’t. We were an interesting group, and of course we all fell in with one another.
From my class, very few are still practicing law. One is a gerontologist. She went right to medical school. At least two family therapists, many law professors and deans, educators, all sorts of things. It was an interesting time. We knew we were at the edge of something. That was very clear. Yale undergraduate had gone coed only a few years before. The law school had always had women, a few, a very few. So we sort of went in there and made ourselves felt.
Two years ahead of us, a group of women law students had helped in a project to write an article that supported the Equal Rights Amendment, so we knew we were in the right place, though we had no idea what was ahead of us.
Did you know you were trailblazers? Did you have a sense of how much was riding on your shoulders?
We had that in two ways. We were the edge of the baby boom. We had been the edge of political change. Almost everybody had been involved in the antiwar movement, and it was the beginning of the women’s movement. Everybody was interested in women’s rights, and lots of people talked to the women in the Law Center down here in Washington. I’m not sure that we had so much a sense that we were trailblazers, but we certainly knew we were going to be first at lots of things. We talked about how to do that, what it meant. And I think there was a fairly strong sense of solidarity among us, but people’s interests were very different. Some people were interested in health law; some were interested in poverty law, criminal law.
What was interesting was, we were advised — and I’m trying to remember — it was a sense, both from upper-class men, because there were mostly men, and from some faculty members, people would say: “Now, when you go to practice law, make sure you don’t go into women’s issues. Don’t do family law. Don’t do divorce law. Don’t do estates and trust. You’ll get sidelined. People will not take you seriously as a lawyer if you do basically women’s things.” And Hillary resolutely paid no attention. She cared about kids. She cared about mothers and children. She got the degree in child development. She paid no attention to that.
People say to me, “Well, but she is so ambitious,” to which I would say: “You don’t wander into Yale Law School. And if you do wander into Yale Law School and you’re not ambitious, why would you stay?” Not that it was particularly cutthroat or competitive, but everybody there was fairly special and knew it and had real goals. But of all the people, and certainly of all the women there, she was the one most focused on women and children, never varied. People took all sorts of directions, went to corporate firms, tried this, tried that. One had the sense that Hillary was the one person that you could say: “I know what she is going to do. She is going to go work on women and children.” So no one was surprised when she went to work for the Children’s Defense Fund. She had worked for them almost every summer. That’s what she cared about.
Not that she was unapologetic — she was just very clear. And the rest of us were vague as fog banks. Certainly I was. I mean, I had no idea.
What do you think drew her to women’s and children’s issues? Do you remember her telling you about some of those motivations?
One of her friends from Wellesley told me [that] Marian Wright Edelman had come to Wellesley and given a talk, and it was like bingo, that’s it. So [Hillary] had worked at the Children’s Defense Fund before she came to law school. She was organized, and I remember thinking, that’s so amazing that anyone really has this single linear arc to the story. But she did, and never, never wavered.
Let me go back a little bit in time, but pretty early on [in] the relationship between Bill and Hillary, your two friends, do you remember their dynamic?
You go from first term, you’re in all the same classes with all the same people. Second semester you scatter to do all sorts of things, so I didn’t see nearly as much of Bill in the second semester. There was one class — I’m fairly certain that was second semester — and both Bill and Hillary were in it, and it was inescapable that they were, from my point of view, suddenly a couple, and he was —
What do you mean by that? Help me understand that.
There weren’t a lot of couples because there weren’t a lot of women. They were always together, and it was clear that there was a romantic relationship, not just a buddy relationship. That’s what I mean. And I knew that by spring break — and by that time I was in this house off campus, and Bob [Reich] was in that. Bob and Bill Clinton had been friends at Oxford; they were Rhodes [scholars] together. I had sort of seen it, and then Bob said, “Yes, that’s what is happening.” And I said, “Whoa.”
Why did you say, “Whoa”?
Because I can’t think of anyone else who had paired up first year. People had relationships, but they were off campus. They were with people they knew from college or whatever. That was the first that I remember of a relationship inside the law school.
You knew Bill; you knew what kind of student he was. He wasn’t necessarily going to class a lot. And suddenly he is with Hillary.
He started going to class a little more, started showing up. That was a good sign. We were in classes all the way through, and having Bill in a class was always fun. Interesting questions, interesting sort of pockets of knowledge, points of view, and a genial, “We can make this happen,” “If it’s too boring, let me tell you a story” sort of thing. So being in class with Bill was one experience. Being in class with Hillary was she had done the reading. You didn’t worry about that. She wasn’t reticent. Some — I would say a lot of people at Yale, especially in those days, I think, just sat back and let it flow. She was attentive. She was one of the active members of the class.
I remember a bizarre round of discussions in one of my constitutional classes, and I know that Hillary was very active in it, and it went on long after class. We went out in the hall, and we were at it for, I don’t know, half an hour. And a professor came by and said, “Are you still talking about class?” And I said, “Yeah, we’re going to get it right.” And he said: “Well, you know, we’ve been at this for 200 years. It may take you a little longer than half an hour to figure it out.” It was some constitutional conundrum thing.
… How was Hillary fitting into the Yale Law atmosphere?
In every class there are people you listen to and people you don’t listen to. She was more active than the average law student in terms of class discussion — smart, reasonable, interesting. She played an important role. People liked her. She was very popular. She was very visible. Most people knew about the Wellesley speech. And because she had started a class ahead of us, she had a lot of friends in that class and our class as well through Bill, so she was extremely well known.
I’ll just give you an example. In the third year of law school, she and Bill were in the moot [court], in the Barristers’ Union Prize Trial. That is where students play the role of lawyers, and someone writes a script, and you’ve got witnesses, and a real judge presides. It was extremely well attended, more than the average prize trial.
You’re in the room?
Tell me about that. What is the room? What does it look like?
It’s one of the large classrooms at Yale. There is a dais, and where the teacher usually sits it looks like a bench. They sit a chair up a bit, so there is a witness box; there are two tables. It looks very much like a courtroom. And it’s paneled. It looks serious. And there is a real judge on the bench. I was late getting there, and I ran into Professor Burke Marshall. Burke Marshall had been the [head of the] civil rights division under President Kennedy and then Johnson, and I think he was associate dean or something like that, clearly one of the most popular and revered people at the law school. He was physically a rather slight man with a reedy voice, very self-effacing. And I remember thinking, if you cast a hero of the civil rights era, it would be a bit like if you could imagine a shy Dustin Hoffman, which you can’t imagine, but here is this small, shy fellow who is just a giant to all of us. And he came over to me, and he said, “Well, Ms. Bekavac, do you know what is going on here?” I said, “Oh, it’s the prize trial, and it’s based on Casablanca, so this is about the –” “What?” [he asked.] “The movie Casablanca. This is about the letters of transit that have been stolen and the murdered couriers.” I was trying to give a kind of quick preset to this giant of the civil rights era.
We stood in the back of the room and watched, and it was priceless. Bill is doing what became Matlock the character; that is, he is doing the Southern, charming, shaggy courtroom lawyer bit, and Hillary is trying to pay attention to the details, and she makes all of the objections, which are very technical, and Bill is waving his arms. It was fabulous. It was totally enjoyable. It really was. I’m trying to remember the two guys on the other side who were trying to deal with this. It was like corralling an elephant in the room. [Bill] would just wander off on topics, and it was wonderful. It was totally enjoyable. And she was holding him in check and doing all the — not that she was boring in any way, but you could see her sort of desperately trying to control the situation.
Everyone in the room is grinning. Everyone is having a wonderful time. The people who were witnesses are hamming it up entirely. It was fabulous.
What about that moment teaches you everything you need to know about them?
It shows you their strengths, that they are very complementary. They’re both incredibly smart. He has emotional intelligence that is off the scale. He was charming this federal judge while he was obliterating the laws of evidence. It was a great thing to see. She was both enjoying the performance and trying to balance him out and get to the point of the Barristers’ Union Trial. She was organized, disciplined, resilient, unflappable. I think that expresses it.
That intellect, that focus, that drive sounds like the kind of partner that is pulling Bill into going back to class.
I wouldn’t say no to that. I don’t mean to make her sound grim, because I can see her sitting there grinning at him while he is doing this, and I can see her saying to herself, we went over this; we’re not supposed to do this.
I remember thinking it showed an incredible amount of strength in their relationship to do something as important as a Barristers’ Union Trial together. Most couples wouldn’t try that, and they did. And it was wonderful.
Did they win?
I’m trying to remember who won. If they didn’t it was because Bill had pretty much trampled the laws of evidence. But as theater it was priceless.
Do you remember what you thought of Hillary at that point in time?
She was someone who projected and had real self-confidence, not the marked characteristic of most 21-year-old law students, even at Yale. The clarity of her focus, the clarity of how she thought of herself in the world, that was different for her. It is very hard to lead a room full of alphas. While most people at Yale would not have said they were alphas, they all considered themselves alphas. Everybody who tried to assert leadership by running for various things, it was sort of, “He really doesn’t get it, does he?” Hillary wasn’t that kind of put herself forward. She simply was. She was someone you talked to, you went to, you paid attention to what she was doing. If she was doing something, it was almost certainly worthwhile doing, so other people did it.
… She projected self-confidence and assurance, not arrogance but assurance, and there wasn’t a great deal of quiet self-assurance going around in those days. There was a lot of loud posturing, but not a lot of quiet self-assurance.
A Clinton biographer noted that almost anyone in these two classes could have been a U.S. senator, but the question was, if you scratched deep enough, the ambition was there, but was the dedication, the ambition channeled in the way that Hillary channels it?
One of the members of the class ahead of us described Yale as a place full of people waiting to be appointed senator, and clearly what he meant was very few people are willing to put themselves out there through the electoral process, and of the many in our classes who have run for office, I am hard-pressed to think of another woman. I think the cost, the personal cost, the psychic cost of running for office is so high. Running for office as a woman it’s higher still. There might have been in all the millions of lines of prose written about Bill Clinton 10 lines about his hair, 50 lines about his waistline, zero lines about his ankles, maybe 10 lines about his ties. If you just did hairdos, you would probably fill a volume for Hillary. That is so demeaning. That is so life-sapping, that kind of stuff, [and] it’s a burden women bear everywhere.
I was president of a women’s college, and I knew that how I dressed was important. I am not normally someone given to caring about how I dressed. When I was in law school I wore the same set of blue work shirts and blue jeans, mostly awful bellbottoms, for three years. I remember once showing up in a dress, and one of my professors stopped me and said: “Are you all right? What has happened? Why are you in a dress?” And I said: “The washer broke. I’ve got no blue jeans to wear.” And he said, “That’s a good thing.” And I remember thinking, oh, they notice. But that’s the tiniest part of the kind of burden she has had to bear.
People feel entitled to comment on your social engagements, family arrangements.
I remember reading about your uniform, try and place me into Hillary’s uniform around this time as well if you remember.
The Yale Law School women law students’ uniform, except for days when you were interviewing for a job, was pretty much blue jeans or corduroys, some shirt, in the winter some jacket, sometimes a scarf, but that would be a really ugly knitted wool one to keep you warm. Somewhere I read a quote that the essence of a Southern woman is the ability to accessorize, and if you had asked me what were the accessories de jour I would have said pens. Everybody had pens, yellow legal tablet, that would have been in it. That’s all I can think of — sometimes tennis shoes, sometimes boots. It was not a sartorial splendor.
Was it a question of assimilation, or did it just not matter?
It didn’t matter. I do remember graduation day was; it was so funny, less for the women than for the men. I had never seen any of the men dressed up, and there they were. Mostly their families had come and made them put on suits and ties, and it was suddenly you could imagine them as lawyers. It even happens to me. I have no idea why putting on a navy blue suit makes you a lawyer, but suddenly we looked like lawyers.
Let me ask you a little bit about Bill and Hillary’s life together on, in the apartment that they shared. Do you remember visiting them at that place?
I don’t think I was ever in their apartment. I know they came to things at our house, which was a bigger house. There was more open space.
Can you tell me a story of them coming over to your place? You had a house with an orange door, right?
Our place with the orange door. I just remember them coming in to a party. We had a big living room and a front bedroom that we opened up, so it was big enough, and it all went into the kitchen. We had a backyard, so we could spill into the backyard. I just remember them being there as part of the scene.
One of my housemates was in the drama school. It’s always easier to remember the drama school attendees. My view is that all law students were wearing the same thing, basically some shirt, some blue jeans, and the drama school people would arrive in costume. I mean, they would arrive in colors. They would have combed their hair. Helen Keller could have divided the two groups and said who was who.
Do you remember hanging out with them?
I remember the sort of endless lunch table stuff. In January of 1973, it must have been January 20, there was a counter-inaugural. It was Nixon’s second inauguration. It was part of the set of antiwar demonstrations that had been called for [in] Washington. Two carloads of people came down from New Haven to be in the counter-inaugural. … Then we were all supposed to show up at the Lincoln Memorial the morning of the counter-inaugural.
My memory is that we were monitors or legal observers, something like that, so if something went wrong, we would have a little credibility. I seem to remember putting on some kind of armband. But what I remember clearly was we were all meeting at the Lincoln Memorial, and as we climbed up the steps when we got up to the interior place where the statue is, it was covered with trash. It was really upsetting. Someone had burned some papers, and there were ashes around. And [one of our friends], who probably is 6’2” or 6’3”, walked up to one of the very disapproving Rangers, Park Rangers, and said, “Do you know where we can get some brooms so we can clean this up?” He said, “What?” He said: “We want to clean this up. This is terrible.” And he walked us over to one of the columns. At the base of one of the columns there is a broom closet. This little door just opened up, and [our friend] went in and pulled out a big trashcan and a bunch of push brooms, you know, with the brushes about this wide.
And I have a clear memory of [us] using push brooms to clean up the Lincoln Memorial. And I, somewhere I thought I saw a picture, certainly of [another friend] and Hillary, maybe me, the three of us, no doubt in blue jeans, pushing garbage in front of the statute of Lincoln toward the trashcan.
… Do you remain in pretty good touch with Hillary when she is graduating and when she plans the move to Washington?
… The next time I saw her after graduation was I was here when she came to Washington to be on the Impeachment Committee. … I had four or five classmates on the Impeachment Committee, and we used to meet for dinner at the Hawk and the Dove. … So, we would get together. [Hillary] never said a word about anything. [She] said they were working really hard and they had lots of things to do. It was remarkable. They were remarkably close-mouthed.
Take me there. What year is this? Where?
It’s the spring of 1974, the early spring. Impeachment is hanging like a cloud. I mean, the whole Watergate thing is absorbing some vast amount of energy here in D.C. My then-boyfriend and I were both trying to figure out where we were going to go practice law, were we going to practice law. I was talking to some committees on the Hill, [about] being a Senate staffer. I was asking Hillary what it was like to be a staffer, and she said: “Well, it’s so different, because we’re sort of closed off. We don’t really talk to any congressmen. We’re just internally focused.” So she said, “I don’t think it’s a very good example of what it would be like.” And they were working for John Doar, who is this incredibly competent, quiet [person, and] that would be very different from most things on the Hill. She said, “We’re pretty much all buddies, and we’re all the same age, and we’re all not yet launched into our careers, so it’s a very different thing.”
I had thought she would be able to tell me what it was like, and she said, “It’s just not like that at all.”
… She was beginning to make noises about maybe teaching law in Arkansas, at which point I said, “You must be kidding.” She said, “No, I mean, I could.” I said, “Why would you do that?” And she looked at me, and I said, “Oh, aha — really?” She said, “Yeah, maybe.” And I said, “Wouldn’t that be difficult?” She said, “Well, maybe; I don’t know.” I said, “What would you teach?” She said, “Well, they’re not going to let me teach constitutional law,” which is pretty much all we ever took at Yale. And I said, “Well, you could teach torts; you could do that.” So that was the conversation.
… I’m there with a boyfriend, so it’s not as intimate as it would have been if he hadn’t been there. And we came away. I said, “Well, what did you think?,” and he said, “Well, she could be pretty intimidating.” I said, “What?” And he said, “She could be pretty intimidating.” I said, “You’d better get used to that.” He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “We’re all like that,” or something like that. He sort of looked at me, and he said, “Well, maybe all of you at Yale are like that.” And I said, “No, we’re all like that,” meaning all of us of that generation, which was one of the little clues I had that this perhaps was not going to be the relationship for the ages.
Did she seem to have inner conflict around this time about what would be the right path, what the options were for her?
Everybody was conflicted at the time. The options were here she was, doing an impeachment inquiry, which had nothing except in the most general sense to do with women and children. It wasn’t the Children’s Defense Fund, and she is thinking about maybe she will teach law as a way to go to Arkansas. But of course we’re standing at the edge of an abyss. Nobody knows what is going to happen in Washington, and if it goes to impeachment, she could be there right through to December. Nobody had a timeframe. Nobody knew what this was. We were all trying to figure out what the timeframe would be.
There were rumors of coups. It was an intense time. At least the two of us were conflicted about how you balance what you want with a potential relationship, with geography, with legal employment, how do you do all those things.
She is also having this conversation with you when she is working on Doar’s committee, which is, I imagine, a very secretive and very isolating experience for her.
That’s what she said. She said, “We talk to each other.” And I said, “Of course.” We were talking about journalism, and she said, “We’re constantly being approached, including by people we used to know when.” I said, “You just can’t talk about it.” I was very pleased my boyfriend didn’t even try. He said: “You just can’t. If there is a leak, it will kill everything.” And they knew that. So they were this close-knit, inward-looking, it seemed to me mostly my class at Yale Law School, group of people who were doing something utterly unprecedented for 100 years — the impeachment of a president — which everybody knew was desperately serious and yet sort of unreal at the same time.
… When did you hear from her again?
I saw her next in November 1974. I was driving up. I had taken the bar. … I had bought my first car, and I was driving out to California, very zig-zaggy, seeing friends. I went to Nashville, and then I drove down to Fayetteville, because Bill had just run for Congress and lost, like three days before I got there, and Hillary was teaching. So I got hold of her. She was living with her brother, and he was housesitting for someone, this really cool, very modern house.
And I remember driving in to Fayetteville and driving up this winding road, and there is this huge billboard with Bill’s picture on it. It says “Clinton for Congress,” and I almost went off the road. I had never seen one of my classmates 12 feet high before. I went, “Oh, oh.” I drove in and went to see Hillary and saw Bill, and we went to a political dinner, like in a church hall, and I have one of his little Clinton for Congress stickers on my old backpack, which I will never throw away.
We go to this dinner, and we’re sitting there talking and jabbering, and my memory is I’m sitting next to Hillary, and Bill is right across. It’s a political dinner. Everybody is talking to everybody. You have got chicken; you have got Jell-O. It’s the standard stuff. Bill gets up to leave the table, and he says, “Well, we’re going to go talk politics.” So I get up, and Hillary says, “Sit down.” And I said, “What?” She said, “The men go to talk politics.” I said, “What?” … And I looked around, and everyone left at the table were women, and I’m thinking, oh, oh, this is really bad. I said, “Hillary, this is not good.”
So it finished, and Bill dropped us off, and we went back to Hillary’s place. I can still see her. She was sitting on this little bench. She had one of those dressing tables with the skirt and a mirror, and it’s like, wow, it’s like a movie set. She is sitting there facing me, and I said, “Hillary, what do you mean you’re not going to the guys to talk politics?” She said, “Well, that’s how they do it here.” And I said: “You can’t do this. You can’t stay here. This is like 1956 in Australia. You can’t do this.” She said, “Well, you know, it will have to change.” I said: “It will have to change, but why should you be the one that has to change everything? And you can’t live with him.” She said, “Absolutely not.” I said, “Are you allowed to be his girlfriend?” And she sort of laughed and said, “Yeah, but I’m a Northerner and –” I said: “You can’t do this. You have got to get out of here. You just can’t. This is too much.”
I can see her nodding her head, and she said, “But I love him.” I said, “Oh, God, this is horrible.” Full of wisdom as I was, right, I said: “I just don’t see how you can make this work. I mean, even if you marry him, you’re still going to be sitting at the table with the Jell-O.” I said, “What’s he going to do now?” And she said, “Well, he’s going to go back to teaching law at the law school, and we’ll figure it out.” And I said: “Come see me. I’ll get some kind of apartment in L.A., and when you decide you’ve had enough, just come see me.”
I remember driving out of Fayetteville and thinking, wow, that is really hard; that is really hard. I think the next time I saw them was in Los Angeles —
Let me stop you there, because when you’re having this conversation, you’re really holding her accountable as her friend. How was she processing what is happening around her?
I didn’t think I was holding her accountable. I think I was expressing my horror. One of the reasons I didn’t go back to my little town was because, although it was a little more forward than that, I didn’t want to fight those battles. I wanted to go to a city where the battles had been fought. And seeing your friend facing the battle, I knew she was capable of so much. I thought of her as like me, wanting to do good and get forward in the world, and not going to the political meetings was not the way she should be spending her time. I thought it would be decades before that moved forward. When you go hiking in the snow, somebody has to break the trail, and that’s the hardest job, so nobody does it all the time. You take turns breaking the trail, and so far as I could see, she was the only one in Arkansas, and I didn’t want my friend to be the one who had to break the trail.
Because it takes too much out of you. The person who breaks the trail the longest isn’t usually the first one on the summit, because they have left too much on the trail getting there. You don’t want your friends to suffer. And that’s what I thought it would be.
You were sad for her.
I felt she was trapped. She clearly felt this relationship was worth it, and when you saw them together it was, of course. Here they are, Bill and Hillary, but I hadn’t thought about the cost until that experience. I hadn’t thought about the cost to her.
What was the cost to her?
Dealing with it every day, dressing a particular way, speaking a particular way, all of that social-conformity stuff. There is always a cost when you move into a new role and a new society. First you have to learn the rules. Then you have to figure out how to abide by them and which you will not abide by. Everybody does that. It just seemed to me she had a whole lot more rules and more limitations. We all did. We all do. Every law student who takes a legal job has to learn to be different. I couldn’t wear blue jeans anymore, to my everlasting regret. All sorts of things I had to learn, but not nearly as many and not nearly as constraining as hers.
You are visiting them just a few days after his first congressional loss. How are they processing that loss, and how much is Hillary talking about what comes next?
What I remember of it, it was typical Bill. He explains to me the history of Arkansas and how the northwest corner of Arkansas was union sympathizers and the southeast corner was the real heart of the confederacy, so this was a different kind of congressional district, and you had to run this way, and he was doing real well until, my memory is — I may have this wrong — Orval Faubus very late in the race came out for Bill’s opponent, and Bill thought that had turned the tide. It was a complete Clinton: “Here is the history; here is the analytics; this what we know; I think this is where it happened; that’s not going to happen to me again.”
I knew he was going to wind up in Washington. The only question was how. I had made a bet with a guy I clerked with that Bill would be in Washington within 20 years of graduation. I thought he might be there sooner, that he would be a senator in 10. [In] 1993 I ran into this guy at the inaugural. I said, “Do you remember?” He said, “Wait.” And he pulls out a 20 and hands it to me. He said, “We both thought he was going to be a senator first.” I said, “Well, you know, sometimes you get lucky.”
… Did she confide in you about the challenges she was facing at this period of time and being a lawyer?
We talked about getting along in the firm. We talked about business getting or not, about how you deal with senior partners; about when you walk into a room, a deposition, there is the stenographer and you, and you’re the only two women there.
… I told her how the first time I went to trial I showed up, and I walked up, and they called the case, and they said, “You can call your attorney now.” I said, “I am the attorney.” She said, “No, the attorney for the trial.” I said, “That’s me.” And she looked at me, she said, “Oh.” And I remember thinking, this is not a high point.
I remember reading that when Hillary walks in to her job at Rose [Law Firm in Arkansas] that secretaries wanted to give her a makeover. What was it like being a woman in law for Hillary?
In my law firm I walked in, and my secretary quit, because she said: “I’m not going to work for a woman. The way secretarial salaries are set, your lawyer goes in and argues for you, and you’re just going to lose.” I said: “Wow, thanks. Thanks for that. I didn’t know that.” So I got the low secretary on the totem pole, and we struggled along together.
Once Hillary has Chelsea and she is a working mom in Little Rock at Rose, is she talking to you about that?
I had a client, an organ of the Mexican government who gets sued in Little Rock. They called me up, and they say, “Well, we don’t even know where this is.” I said: “Don’t worry. I can help you here. I know a lawyer. We’ll be fine, and we’ll get this case dismissed for jurisdictional reasons.” … I pick up the phone. I call Hillary. I say, “Hi, Hillary.” She said, “Oh, how are you?” I said, “I’ve got this lawsuit in Little Rock, and I would like to hire you as local counsel.” She said, “Well, what is the lawsuit?” So I tell her. She said, “Have you seen the complaint yet?” I said, “No, they’re going to send it to me.” She said: “Well, I think that’s our lawsuit. I think that is Vince Foster’s case.” And I said, “Oh.” I said, “That makes for a conflict.” And she said, “But you can hire Bill.” I said, “What?” She said, “Yeah, he has gone to this law firm.”
And this was right after he had lost, so this is January, February; he had lost in November. I said: “Absolutely. OK, lickity-split. I’ll call him.” So I called up Bill, and he said, “Wow.” He said, “A client.” I said, “More or less.”
I believe to this day I’m the only classmate to have hired him as a lawyer. I get the complaint, and sure enough it’s the Rose Law Firm and Vince Foster plaintiffs. So I call him up; I do the papers; I send the papers in; I fly to Little Rock. Bill picks me up at the airport. I had been through it before, but I had no idea how small it was, Little Rock. “Hello, Governor. Hello, Governor. Hello.” And I’m thinking, oh, this is going to be interesting. So we drove to their little house. Vince Foster brought [Hillary] home, because the car was in the shop. It was the first time I met Chelsea. I’m at their round oak table, and Vince Foster comes in — tall, handsome guy — and Hillary, and we hug, and Vince says, “I’m not sure you’re supposed to hug opposing counsel.” I say: “Yes, you are. You’re just a fuddy-duddy.” So we all sat down and chatted. Bill and I went out to dinner to sort of talk over the case.
We’re out to dinner, and we’re getting the fish-eye from everybody, and I’m going, “Oh, this is really not good.” Next morning we have a preliminary hearing. I get into the cab, go to the courthouse, and the guy looks and said, “You the one here to see Gov. Clinton?” I said, “What?” He said, “You the lady here to see Gov. Clinton?” I said, “I’m his classmate; I hired him.” He said, “Why?” I said, “I’m a lawyer.” He said, “You?” I said: “Thanks for the vote of confidence. Yes, me.” He said, “Oh.” I said, “How the hell did you know?” He said, “Oh, everybody knows.”
… How is Hillary fitting into this life? Is she a Rodham at this point? Is she a Clinton? Do you remember her name?
They had just lost. This is 1981. It had been a horrible campaign for her. I knew this because I had other clients who were from Tennessee who had watched this, and they would say, “Well, your buddy is going to lose, and he’s going to lose because his wife won’t change her name.” I said, “What are you talking [about]?” So they filled me in. We didn’t have the Internet, I couldn’t go on and check the Arkansas Gazette, so I sort of followed this. I knew she is a new mom; she is getting beat up for this. It was awful. I was so happy to see her. I was so happy to see her with the baby.
And how is she doing?
She is doing all right. [It’s] hard balancing the time with Chelsea and the rest of it. And she didn’t talk about it, but she said, “You know, Bill is really not comfortable practicing law.” I said: “Really? This is not his destiny, right? This is not.” Right. I got that. I said: “But I also knew that the governor’s term was only two years, so he gets out of office, he goes around, mends fences, raises money, wins the next time.”
… ’92 was very, very, very difficult. [The Gennifer Flowers story breaks.] As her friend, as his friend, when you watched them on 60 Minutes —
I’m sure I either chewed a pencil or my finger, and a lot of wiggling. I remember I didn’t want to watch it with friends. I wanted to sort of face it. It was excruciating.
Every marriage is a puzzle, even to the people in it, and to have on top of everything else, to have that laid out there. And did I know that he had been unfaithful in his marriage? Yes. He is a great flirt. We’ll leave it at that.
You weren’t surprised?
No, I was not surprised. Nobody who knew him, nobody who knew them, was surprised. That’s not the only marriage like that. I am very old. I have a lot of friends. Marriages are complicated.
Were you worried about Hillary?
Yes. I thought it was humiliating and embarrassing. I have always had great faith in her resilience. She has a capacity to concentrate, to focus and get through more than almost anyone I know.
That attention on her, it never really subsides.
It’s really constant for the next four years.
… Since 1980 she has been one of the most exposed people in American politics, exposed to the slings and arrows of everyone, second-guessing by every woman in America. “Well, I wouldn’t wear that. Well, I wouldn’t stay with him. Well, I wouldn’t say that.” Fine. You’re not her.
For me, feminism is about letting women make their own choices. She is an adult woman. She made her choice — not your choice, her choice. So shut up already. Thank you.
… How did the Hillary you know, your friend, make sense of the controversy that she seemed to always be the center of at this period of time?
First of all, I think she was puzzled. We her friends were puzzled. Sometimes you could see — the cookie thing, all right, not a great move, but she said, “You know, I’m so sorry about that error.” I said, “That’s great, because I have in my own life never made any mistake at all.” I said: “I make 12 mistakes a day. The difference is I don’t have CNN following me everywhere.”
How does she make sense of it? I think she understands that this is the price she pays to do the things she does. If she didn’t run for office they wouldn’t be after her. If she hadn’t married Bill they wouldn’t be after her. If she didn’t speak out they wouldn’t be after her. If she had stayed home and baked cookies nobody would be interviewing her. You wouldn’t be interviewing me. Her willingness to pay that price is the thing that inspires my admiration. At some point you just say, “That’s the last bad picture, bad interview, horrific set of comments from my one-time colleagues in the Senate I’m going to live with.” But she seems to swallow and go forward.
… Do you see that same bravery today in this, in this campaign?
… Do you recognize the same trend?
What do you see?
… She is looking at this storm, chaos, whatever that is on the Republican side, and she knows that she is going to face rhetorical onslaught from a candidate who knows no boundaries of decency, no boundaries of manners, no boundaries of rhetoric, and she goes straight forward into it. She deserves a lot of credit for that. And people say, “Well, she is blindly ambitious.” I said: “No, she is ambitious, and her eyes are wide open. Why would she do that? Because she thinks she can make a difference, and she is willing to pay this horrific price to make that difference.” I think that is admirable. I don’t think she is required to explain her decisions in her marriage, in her clothing or in her hair to anybody. She is just required to explain what she will do and how she will make a difference.
Around the time that you’re graduating from law school, are you talking with her or with other women in the class about — I don’t know if you called it a glass ceiling then. What were the limits that seemed [to be] in front of you?
We were so young and so arrogant, we had no idea there were limits. Just because somebody hadn’t done it first didn’t mean that it wouldn’t be done. I thought there would be a woman president in my lifetime. I didn’t know that I would know her, but I thought there might be a chance. And I knew women I thought could be president, should be president. Did we talk about it? No, we didn’t. It was part of what we were about.
My class at Yale Law School thought we could do anything, and we would do most things. That’s what we thought. She was part of that era. I don’t think we had any idea of how complicated or costly that would be, but most of the women in my law school class have done absolutely remarkable things. She is just one of them. Maybe we’re a little prouder of her than some others, but she is just one of them.
Is there anything else we perhaps didn’t ask you that you want to tell us?
Everybody thinks that she is this robotic automaton. In fact, she is one of the funniest people in the world. Given all the years of exposure and attack, she has an almost physical flinching when she is in public, when she is under public scrutiny, when she is being interviewed. I have seen her physically change when she is about to face the press. … It would be wrong to think that the only person that is inside that pants suit is the public policy wonk. She is a mom. She is a good friend. She is a very brave and resilient woman. That’s who she is.