The FRONTLINE Interview: Robert Reich
Robert Reich’s friendship with Hillary Clinton dates back to their days as undergraduates, when the two met for a student government summit that Reich now admits was “a pretext for a date.” They remained friends through Yale Law School, where Reich says he introduced Hillary to Bill Clinton. Years after graduation, he would go on to serve as President Clinton’s Labor Secretary from 1993-1997.
As Labor Secretary, Reich had a front-row view of Hillary Clinton’s failed effort to manage the president’s health care reform effort, and later, the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994. Reich says that throughout the controversies that often dogged President Clinton’s political career, Hillary “again and again … was willing and able, emotionally, to step into the breach and protect her husband.”
Today, Reich is a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and a senior fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies. During the Democratic primaries, he initially endorsed Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, but is now a Clinton supporter. In the below interview, he discusses Clinton’s long path from an idealistic college student to Democratic standard bearer.
This is the transcript of a conversation held with FRONTLINE’s Mike Wiser on June 22, 2016. It has been edited for clarity and length.
All right, let’s start with when you first met Hillary Rodham. Where were you, and where was she, and who was she at that time?
Hillary Rodham was the president of her freshman class at Wellesley. I was president of my sophomore class at Dartmouth, and she was very interested in student reform, kind of making these campuses more responsive to students and enabling students to take more courses that they wanted to take. I was doing exactly the same thing at Dartmouth, so I suggested a presidential summit, not quite a date. I mean, maybe it was an excuse, a pretext for a date, and she came up to Dartmouth. I remember we saw [Michelangelo] Antonioni’s Blow-Up. That’s really all I remember about that date, or that particular summit.
But I do remember her as being extraordinarily committed, articulate, a great sense of humor, very warm. But also, she had fire in the belly.
… And of course this is the late ’60s, which is a time of a lot of change for people in that class that you guys were in?
This is the mid-1960s, so it’s really before the great cultural shift in America, before we all grew our hair long and became hippies. Hillary had very thick — I guess it’s a little bit harsh to say, but kind of Coke bottle glasses. But she was really just absolutely lovely, and intelligence radiated in every direction.
And you could tell she was somebody who was headed somewhere.
It was clear. I mean, in those days, we didn’t really think about whether somebody’s headed somewhere. But I was struck by her remarkable ability to state things very, very clearly, cogently, and her passion, and also at the same time her humor and warmth.
But she wasn’t a radical.
Hillary was not in any way, shape or form a radical. In fact, in the mid-60s, there really were not campus radicals. That was before the campus radicals became campus radicals, and it was before the hippies. No, but she was an activist.
And did you stay in touch with her after that date?
I stayed in touch with her informally. That is, we had friends in common, and I came across her at various student conferences. But the next time I saw her was in 1970, I remember, because Bill Clinton and I had just spent a couple of years at Oxford as graduate students. It was the first day at Yale Law School. Bill Clinton and I were sitting next to each other in the cafeteria, and Hillary came up, and she said, “Bob, I’m so pleased you’re here.” And I said, “Hillary, it’s great to see you.” And I remember saying: “Hillary, I want you to meet a friend of mine, Bill Clinton. Bill, this is Hillary. Hillary, this is Bill.” I didn’t realize what I was doing historically. They, for many years, thought they met for the first time in the law library. Actually, that’s not quite right. I know, because I was there the first day of Yale Law School and take full credit.
Do they admit that now?
I remember I tried to persuade them that I was the one who was responsible for introducing them, but I think that it didn’t take when I introduced them.
By the time she gets to Yale, some people have told us there has been a political awakening. She’d once been a Goldwater Girl and in 1968 had even interned with the Republicans in Washington. But by ’68, her own political identity was starting to come together. Was that something that you saw when you saw her again? How had she changed since college?
It was clear that by 1970, she had become much more political, as frankly had most of us. You couldn’t really go through those years … and all the tumult in America, and not be affected by it. And she, like most students at that time at Yale Law School were political, I like to think in the best sense of the term. I mean, reformist. We weren’t burning any buildings down; we were not demonstrating in a kind of irresponsible way. But I think most of us felt that it was possible to change America.
After all, the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam War movement had shown that it was possible to have huge, effective change if you worked very, very hard, if you had good arguments, if you mobilized people, if you organized people behind you, if you’re articulate. Well, that is the world that she entered into in 1968, ’69, 1970.
… And in your class, how many women were there? Was she part of a small group?
There weren’t many women at Yale Law School. They were just starting to enter in larger numbers. It was not a very tiny cohort. It wasn’t as if women were in a kind of besieged minority, but obviously there were more men than women. I remember one class at Yale Law School taught by a wonderful older man named Tommie Emerson. It was on civil and political rights, and Hillary was in the class, and Bill Clinton was in the class, and I was in the class, and Clarence Thomas was in the class. I remember that every time Professor Emerson asked a question, Hillary was the first hand in the air, and when he called on her, she always got the answer exactly right. I was about the second or third hand in the air, and I half the time got the answer right. Bill Clinton missed most of the classes, as I remember; I think he was off doing political work. And Clarence Thomas never said a word … It was sort of a metaphor for where we were all heading and how we all prioritized our lives.
… Let’s talk about Hillary Rodham and Bill Clinton. You introduced them, but it doesn’t hit immediately. But at some point, they do come together as a couple. Do you remember when you first realized that they were together? Did they talk to you about it?
Well, it was very obvious. They really hit it off, and it was I would say about a month or maybe two months into the first year that we were all together at Yale Law School. That was Hillary’s second year. I think it was almost like an explosion. I mean, they really became an absolute team. And it wasn’t kind of an intensive, intellectual, political dynamic. It was more fun. I mean, they had a great deal of fun together. There was a lot of laughter. Bill told fabulous stories. He was a great raconteur. Still is. But, you know, he would put on this old southern-boy Arkansas accent, tell stories from his boyhood.
Hillary also just loved laughing and being part of that quite joyful culture. Now, to be sure, there was a very serious side to both of them. They took politics very, very seriously. Every opportunity they got, they were off helping some candidate or another, usually a House candidate, often in Connecticut. We were at Yale Law School. It was much more convenient, obviously. But it’s that combination of joy and warmth and humor, but also a seriousness about politics and political purpose that I remember most.
Bill Clinton sort of has a reputation as a ladies’ man. But you could tell from the beginning that this was a different type of relationship that he had with Hillary Rodham?
His relationship with Hillary was very, very special right from the beginning. She was a formidable character. I mean, she was a very strong woman. Bill at that time, well, he was certainly an absolutely engaged and strong man, but I think of the two of them, I was more struck — and let me say this as gently as I can, because this is not a criticism of Bill Clinton — but I was more struck by her strength. It was a strength of conviction, of power in terms of her ability to state things and think very, very clearly. And the two of them together, well, the whole was greater than the sum of the parts.
One of the stories that’s been written about was they do a trial competition together, a prize trial competition. Did you see that or see them working together as a team on that?
Yes, we did moot courts. They were called moot courts. They were trial competitions, and Bill and Hillary did one together. They were absolutely brilliant.
And one of the things that people have said about their relationship and about that in particular was that she was the one who was very prepared, knew all of the details, and he was the one who sort of comes in and charms the judges. Is that how you remember it?
Exactly. Hillary was the one who was disciplined. She knew every detail; she knew every argument; she was prepared for every argument. She did her homework absolutely brilliantly and diligently. Bill was the charmer. He articulated the arguments that she had researched, I assume. He knew how to put them in a very powerful, cogent and charming way. And the two of them just blew the judges away.
I mean, it’s amazing that even then they’re coming together as a really powerful team with their sort of different attributes that they’re bringing together.
It was amazing. Even then, it was like two extraordinarily powerful magnets just locking into place: her with her discipline, her care in terms of putting arguments together, her very powerful intellect, doing her homework, working very, very hard and being highly motivated and very ambitious; him with the same high motivation and ambition but also not working quite as hard, not quite as disciplined, but a great deal of charm and ability to just make everybody feel like he was their best friend.
So after law school, she heads to Washington to work on the Watergate Committee. Were you still in touch with her at that point?
I saw her from time to time. …
This would be the place to really be at the center of history, where she was?
It was absolutely at the center of history, and she was there, where history was being made. I never got the impression that she was doing the most important work, because after all, she’s just out of law school. She’s barely got her scars and stripes, but she’s part of American history right from the go.
To be on the Watergate Committee, to be a graduate of Yale Law School, she certainly seems like somebody who, if she had decided to stay in Washington, had a real future there.
Many graduates of Yale Law School in 1972, 1973, went to Washington, and they decided, essentially, that they were going to be inhabitants of Washington. They were going to work through the Washington channels, whether it’s Democrat or Republican. They were going to work their way up through congressional committee staffs. They were going to find opportunities in friendly administrations. They were going to work in Washington law firms and become Washington powerhouses. That was the model that was, in effect, the legacy of the previous generation of Yale Law graduates.
But she faces a decision. As the story is told, Bill Clinton is determined to bring her to Arkansas, to convince her to move from Washington and to join him as he’s starting a political career. Did he ever talk to you about that?
No, he didn’t. I have often, in retrospect, wondered what that conversation must have been like, because she had, in effect, the world at her feet. She could have done anything with her life. She could have been a powerhouse in and of her own self in Washington, D.C. … And yet she makes this very interesting and life-changing decision. She goes to Little Rock, Arkansas, and she is going to be part of Bill Clinton’s political career.
I mean, it had to be love. I don’t believe that she said to herself, “This is the way to become first lady and then to become United States senator and secretary of state and president of the United States.” No. I think she was absolutely crazy about this guy, and she also was entranced by his political power — I mean his political capacities — and she threw in her lot with him.
It may have been love, but she certainly did believe in him. She reportedly told people when she was in Washington, “This guy could be the president of the United States someday.”
She believed in him totally. It’s not that she believed in his career ambitions. I think that is just too cynical and silly. Nobody at the age of what, 25, 26, 27, can anticipate a career leading to being first lady of the White House. And why would you ever do that anyway? That’s ridiculous. No, she threw her lot into Bill Clinton because she just loved the man and she was captivated by him and by his political prowess, by his sense of his own capacities to change political life for the people of Arkansas. I mean, I think that it’s easy to underestimate what that meant. It was a huge undertaking on the part of both of them.
And it’s even more amazing because it’s Arkansas and because she’s come from Illinois and by way of Yale and arrives in a place that seems like a very different culture.
Arkansas is totally different from anything she has known before. Remember, she has been at Yale Law School with people who were all determined to be, if not president, right there at the center of power. And then she goes to Washington, and she’s part of the Watergate Committee. I mean, it’s the biggest thing happening in America. And then what happens? She goes to Arkansas, the backwater of backwaters. I mean, what a shocker.
One of the stories one of her friends told us was [she was] visiting, and it was time for the men to talk politics, and they said: “No, Hillary, you stay here. It’s time for the men to go and talk politics.” What must that have been like for Hillary Clinton, who had come out of Yale and been the commencement speaker, to be in that environment as a woman?
It’s hard to imagine how difficult it must have been for Hillary Clinton to go to Arkansas when women were regarded as, certainly in political circles, second-class citizens. They were not taken seriously. I mean, they weren’t taken seriously even in the power centers of America yet. We talk about a glass ceiling. In Arkansas, it was a glass floor, glass walls. I mean, it was a glass cage. Women really couldn’t do very much. …
And it’s in Arkansas she’s trying to find a way to do what she wants to do. She’s involved in public service issues, and she’s supporting Bill, and she’s also working now as a corporate lawyer, which might have been something that seems unusual given where she’d started out. Why do you think she ended up taking on that role in the family?
I don’t know for sure why she became a corporate lawyer in Little Rock. I suspect it paid pretty well, certainly relative to other things she could have done. The governor was not earning very much money. We’re not talking about big bucks here. We’re just talking about having enough money to have a middle-class income and maybe have a kid.
So the law firm, the Rose Law Firm, was probably the best alternative she had. It also was another avenue into the power structure of Arkansas, because that Rose Law Firm was a very, very prominent political firm. It sort of fit perfectly into Bill Clinton’s political agenda.
And at the same time, after attorney general and he’s finally elected governor, it seems like she’s taking some of the idealism that she had with her from the beginning. And one of the ways that she tries to do that is to keep her own name and to go by Hillary Rodham, which in Arkansas is something that doesn’t go over too well. Does it surprise you that she did that?
It didn’t surprise me at all that she would want to keep her own name, Hillary Rodham, not to make a statement, but just that’s who she was. And it wasn’t unusual for women, prominent young women who had gone to places like Yale Law School, to keep their names. But culturally, while the East Coast and the West Coast, the upper reaches of the establishment and elite universities, those women were keeping their names, in a place like Arkansas, they didn’t get it. They just didn’t understand it. What in the world is she doing keeping her last name? Is she trying to make a statement? Is she trying to push a new culture on us?
It becomes an issue when Governor Clinton loses in that first election. One of the issues that’s out there is who is this first lady who won’t change her name? It seems like it becomes one of the first points in her life when we’re looking back where that partnership and her own identity are sort of coming into conflict, where she wants to be Hillary Rodham, her own person, but has to make the decision about their political future.
Given that she had stirred up a hornet’s nest in Arkansas over something that I don’t think she believed would stir up a hornet’s nest, and it had hurt her husband politically, I don’t think it was that hard a decision for her to adopt his last name. I mean, it was symbolic. I’m sure she had to swallow hard, but it was just not worth trying to keep her last name at the expense of everything they wanted to achieve together.
Did you visit them at that time in between the two terms or talk to them about what it was like to be inside the governor’s mansion, and Chelsea is born there, and then to be out?
I saw them both. I saw Bill a few times when he was attorney general, and then I saw Bill and Hillary and little Chelsea during that era. They looked like they were — when he was governor and she was the first lady of Arkansas, they looked like they were having a ball. I mean, it was really a heady experience. These were young people, and they were the governor and first lady of — now, granted, the state needed a lot of work. It was pretty backward at that time, but that was a challenge, and they seemed to be rising to the challenge.
The defeat, being pushed out of office, was a calamity. It was stunning. They didn’t expect it. I think it was not supposed to happen, and they were determined that it would be reversed, that they’d get back in.
Did she feel responsible, do you know?
I don’t think she felt responsible, no. I think that the defeat was a matter of really overreaching by Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton wanted to do everything. He had a list of priorities, and they were all out there, and I think that it was just too much for the state of Arkansas to swallow.
And one of the things that happens at that point is Hillary becomes much more involved in the campaign, and some people say basically becomes a campaign manager. It sounds a little bit like the moot court team at Yale, that she’s going to keep things on track and organized.
Hillary got very involved in the campaign. For all intents and purposes, she was the campaign manager. They were back at the moot court at Yale. She was diligent; she was doing her homework; she was studying hard; she was very disciplined. Bill was being his charming self and going out and shaking as many hands as possible. Again, we saw the same combination of different kinds of power: the disciplined, intellectual, hardworking power of Hillary Clinton, and also the extraordinary, ambitious political drive and charm of Bill Clinton. And the sum total of both of them together was larger than the sum of the two. They just were like this enormous energy field.
It’s also at this point that somebody you’ll run into in the White House makes an appearance, which is Dick Morris. Did you know that he was around at that time or know what his role was with the Clintons?
I had heard of Dick Morris, usually in hushed tones. Even at that time, he didn’t have the most savory reputation. I have heard — now I don’t know for sure — that Hillary had brought Dick Morris in because he had also a reputation for getting the job done. I mean, if you have to bring in a battering ram or you have to have the right equipment, even though you may have to hold your nose, you’re going to do it. And Dick Morris knew how to do it.
At that time, his reputation was as somebody who would do anything to win or as a strategist?
Dick Morris was still very early in his career, but he already had the beginnings of a reputation of essentially knowing how to win and being willing to do almost anything to win. He was a strategist, but a very, very tough-headed, hardheaded, and some might even say unprincipled strategist. But I’m not going to go that far.
So they do win back the governorship, and they will continue to keep the governorship. During those years, it seems like Hillary Clinton is redefining what does it mean to be the first lady of Arkansas. She’s going to be involved in education, and she’s going to be involved in running some of the day-to-day stuff. Did you see that?
Yes. Hillary completely redefined what it meant to be the first lady of Arkansas. She was not only a policy adviser, not just a political adviser; she had her own territory. I mean, she wanted to reform the aspect of Arkansas public life that really did have to be reformed if Arkansas was going to have half a prayer of making it into the late 20th century, and that was the school systems of Arkansas. And that was a very delicate policy and political challenge. She had to be out there selling educational reform. She had to be selling the legislature on more money for education. She had to be working with the teachers, community by community. … Hillary wanted better teachers, better pay, smaller classrooms. She was a reformer. She was absolutely determined to improve education in Arkansas.
It seemed like a lesson that they would draw from that was that she could be involved in policy and that it could work.
Absolutely. The lesson that they drew from her success … was that it’s possible for a first lady to have a lot of responsibility, to take charge of an entire domain of public policy, to sell it to the public, to sell it to legislators, to negotiate with unions and to get it done. That was a big, big deal.
How was Hillary Clinton, Hillary Rodham, as a mom with Chelsea? How important was Chelsea to her?
Chelsea was always exceedingly important. Chelsea was the number one priority and was a source of incredible joy to both of them. I went down there a few times to Little Rock, and Chelsea was only this high and very bashful and kind of hid behind her mother’s skirts and her father’s pant legs. But they adored Chelsea. They were prepared to do anything for Chelsea.
Did you feel from her that she was trying to find a way to be in this very public role, but also protect the family? How did she adjust to being in the limelight?
She was always very protective of her family. The family came first. Arkansas is a little tiny fishbowl, and Little Rock is right in the middle of the fishbowl. They had a house — it’s not the kind of gigantic mansion that some governors live in. It was a fairly modest house. I think that there must have been some tension there between trying to guard and protect her family and at the same time be a public personage and help her husband. It was a delicate balance then, and it did not get easier after that.
At some point, their attention turns toward the national stage. Maybe one of the first points in 1987 when they’re considering the run for the presidency — this is the Gary Hart year. Were you down there for when there was expected to be an announcement?
Yes. We all expected an announcement. I was of the view that it’s a little bit too early. Bill Clinton had had a very good run as governor, and obviously Hillary had had extraordinary experience as a first lady. But they were still young people, and it just wasn’t absolutely clear that this was the perfect time, although like most friends of Bill and Hillary, I was rooting them on. I wanted them to do what they wanted to do. But ultimately they decided against it.
… Do they tell you why they decided not to run?
No, I never heard exactly why he decided not to run. My assumption was that it was just a political calculation. It wasn’t the time; it wasn’t the year.
But you are there four years later when they do announce that they’re going to run?
Yes. I remember it vividly in 1992. I went down to Little Rock when Bill Clinton announced that he was going to run for president, and Hillary was right with him, holding each other, waving to the crowds. And I remember … looking at them, and I said, “I just hope they know what they’re getting into.”
But very quickly, they campaign in New Hampshire, [and they run] into questions about the draft and the Gennifer Flowers moment. Suddenly, that early on, Hillary Clinton is front and center and very much sort of saving his campaign at that point.
She was absolutely necessary in a way that nobody expected she would be. She had to come forth and say: “Look, this is untrue. I know it, and I would be the first to have anything to say and any outrage if, in fact, my husband was doing what Gennifer Flowers is alleging. I’m not some sort of Tammy Wynette standing by her man. I’m my own woman.” You know the rest. But it was such a powerful statement, and it basically saved Bill Clinton.
I was there … backstage, I was thinking to myself, I can’t believe the two of them [are] going out under these circumstances. I mean, how — they must have nerves of steel to be able to do this. I certainly couldn’t do it. But there they were, under the spotlights, national attention, saying that they deserved the benefit of the doubt.
And it’s not the first time, or it certainly won’t be the last time that in a moment of crisis, Hillary Clinton steps forward into that type of role of really saving what’s a really difficult, emotional situation to be in.
I can’t imagine how difficult emotionally that kind of situation would be. And she was firmly convinced that Bill was innocent of the charges. Or if she wasn’t firmly convinced, she certainly did a very convincing performance of being convinced. Again and again, she was willing and able emotionally to step into the breach and protect her husband.
Did they know what they were going to say when they went out into that interview or talk to you about why they believed that they had to do it in such a high-profile way?
It was clear that they had to do it in a very, very high-profile way because the allegations were beginning to take hold. They were beginning to undermine the credibility of this candidacy, and they had to respond powerfully. They knew they had to do that.
What was her role in that campaign? Did you see up close just on a day-to-day basis what her responsibility was?
The campaign — remember, this is the first time that Bill Clinton had run for president, and Arkansas was just child’s play compared to running a national campaign. But they were very, very clever about who they hired. They found very, very talented people. Bill Clinton by that time had a pretty good idea of national politics, and he had already had a lot of experience, not only as governor of Arkansas but working in political campaigns, as had she. And she was a major political adviser. She was at the meetings. She had her own opinions.
And he becomes the comeback kid after New Hampshire, after surviving those two controversies. But when we’re looking back at it now, and you look at the rest of the campaign, one of the things that happens really for the first time in modern presidential politics is the wife of the candidate becomes a center of controversy. It starts with Whitewater and goes to the “I don’t want to bake cookies” comment. Was it a surprising thing to watch that she was under the spotlight?
It was surprising to those of us who knew both of them that she became such a lightning rod, and it was surprising to her as well. I remember talking to her at several points, and she didn’t understand why she was such a target. I mean, how could she? It was a new generation. She was the first baby-boomer, well-educated, powerful woman who was going to be in a very powerful position, clearly not just a normal first lady — a first lady who was in many ways a political partner to the president. So she attracted all of this venom in society toward the boomers and toward the well-educated boomers and toward a powerful woman, and I think it was a shock to her.
What did she do in response to that? How do you deal with having that type of attack?
It wasn’t clear to her how to respond. I think emotionally she was very hurt by it. Who wouldn’t be in her position? And it’s the worst position to be in because it’s not as if you have authority and power. You’re not actually running for office. You haven’t been elected to office. You’ve been a first lady of a state. All of your authority is basically vicarious, yet you are the target of all of this rage and venom and accusation. How do you under those circumstances respond? Well, I mean, she did the best she could. She denied; she tried to tell the truth as best she understood it. But there was continuously this question in her mind — and I know it because we talked about it — where is this coming from?
And she hadn’t figured it out by that point?
She hadn’t figured it out. None of us had figured it out. Remember, this is before, way before Fox News and way before even Rush Limbaugh. I mean, we hadn’t seen this kind of venom in the United States politics, this personal stuff. I mean, yes, you saw it in the 19th century. Yes, you saw it directed at certain presidential candidates maybe in the ’30s and in the 1920s. But in the modern era, postwar era, we had not seen character assassination in such an orchestrated way.
But it ends in a victory. What was it like inside Little Rock, inside headquarters? What were the expectations of the first boomer president, of the Clintons, of what they were going to be able to accomplish in those days right after the election?
The expectations could not have been higher. There had been 12 years of Republicans in Washington, Ronald Reagan and then the first George Bush. Now you had a younger generation. This was almost metaphorically like John F. Kennedy. In fact, the Kennedy metaphor was used again and again in the campaign of 1992, and here it was: a young, new generation, a young couple. It wasn’t just John F. Kennedy; it was John F. Kennedy, and had Jackie Kennedy been a formidable, powerful person in her own right in terms of public policy, it would have been — it was like that. The excitement was palpable, and so were the fumes of rage and anger on the other side, although we didn’t know it at the time.
And it’s in those weeks that they’re also trying to figure out what is going to be the role of Hillary Clinton, and is she going to be a Cabinet secretary or a chief of staff or where is she going to fit in. You’re putting together the economic team at that point. Are you hearing that discussion about how do we define what her role is going to be?
I didn’t hear any specific and explicit discussion. I think it was sort of an ongoing discussion: What did she want to do, and how could she be most effective? She was very interested in health care, and it was pretty clear, even before they went to Washington, that she was going to be in charge of a major initiative that Bill Clinton and everybody around him knew was going to be a high-stakes game, and that was trying to develop a health care plan.
And when they arrive in Washington, she, in a very unique way, has an office in the West Wing and her own staff, and they’re sort of very transparent and clear that she is not going to be a traditional ceremonial first lady. She’s going to be playing a different role.
She didn’t want to a be a ceremonial first lady. That would be absurd. Given her background, given what she did in Little Rock, given how powerful she was as a person in her own right in terms of policy and politics and law. No, she’s one of the most talented people who were coming into the White House. So if you’re rational, you’re going to give her a substantial role, a substantial position. She’s going to be the, informally, the most important adviser to the president, and she’s going to also have a piece of territory: health care.
But on the organizational chart, you have a new entity that hadn’t existed, which is this powerful or influential policy-oriented first lady, and you’ve got the president’s own advisers and the vice president’s advisers. Did that create a problem?
Inevitably, in any White House, there’s jockeying for power. Who’s going to have the ear of the president? Who’s going to have the most influence for the president? But there was no question right from the start that Hillary Clinton was the most important adviser. She had the biggest role. She was the last person to talk to him at night. She whispered in his ear. He trusted her. And so, while there might have been some bruised feelings, and people thinking, oh, her staff versus our staff, she won hands down. There was no question.
And what was her team like? Who were the people who she chose to be around her?
There was a term used in some mocking fashion, and I assume some people used it in a very denigrating way, Hillaryland, to describe Hillary’s own little power base. There were people who were very loyal to Hillary [who] she had hired and she had worked with, and their loyalty to Hillary was, I suppose, second only to their loyalty to the president. But they were not necessarily loyal to the chief of staff or anybody else.
And then, of course, there was also the health care team, and those two centers of power sometimes didn’t fit easily into the normal White House chain of command. But look, what are you going to do? She’s very talented, very powerful. She’s going to have a significant role.
… Even before the administration begins, there’s a famous, or infamous, Sally Quinn editorial where she says: “To you, the future first lady, don’t get involved in policy. Don’t be in the rooms where decisions are made. You have a role, and if you don’t want this all to backfire, you’ve got to stay in that traditional ceremonial role.” What was the reaction of Washington to Hillary Clinton as first lady in that first year?
Washington was uneasy with a powerful first lady. Washington hadn’t seen a first lady this powerful since Eleanor Roosevelt, and most people in Washington didn’t remember Eleanor Roosevelt. It was a similar unease with the Clintons overall because they were outsiders. They weren’t part of the Washington inside political establishment. They were a new generation. They were baby boomers, for crying out loud. So Washington already had its dander up. And when Hillary Clinton comes in and has a powerful, significant policy role, there are some old-guard people who say: “Listen, gal, you’re overstepping your boundaries here. It’s dangerous. You shouldn’t do this.”
You said in something I read that I found very interesting, which was that the Clintons, when they came into Washington, brought the culture war with them. What does that mean?
When Bill and Hillary came to Washington, they brought the culture war with them that was already beginning to show itself in America: the concerns about powerful women; the concerns about gays, gays in the military, which bubbled up really almost accidentally; the worries about guns and gun regulation; the concerns, really, that this young generation of boomers with their history of sex, drugs, rock and roll, lack of obedience to authority, that they were going to topple the institutional integrity and strength of America; that they represented a fundamental assault on the old values.
Now, it is true: Bill and Hillary were the boomers. They were strong; she was an articulate, powerful woman. And a lot of America was nervous about the boomers and a very articulate, powerful woman. And some people — [they were] educated at Oxford and the Ivy League and Yale Law School, and they didn’t fit in to Washington easily.
So on top of all of this, this generational change and this new role that the first lady has, she takes on one of the biggest policy issues that’s been nagging Washington for decades, which is health care. Why did she take on such a big challenge from the very beginning?
She wanted to do something big. She wanted to take on a piece of territory that was complicated, that needed huge intelligence gathering and careful analysis. She wanted, I think, to make history, and Bill Clinton, although he had some instincts about health care, was more than willing to give this big policy conundrum to her. I think that if you were being very cynical, you could say, well, he’d like her to have it, knew that she would have the smarts and the discipline to be able to do it if anybody could, and maybe it alleviated and relieved him of the burden of that responsibility. But I think genuinely he thought she could do it. He had a great deal of confidence in her.
I think everybody looking back at that time says she had a remarkable grasp of the policy details of how health care worked. But did you worry at all about her understanding of the politics of what it would take to get it done?
I had no doubt that she would master the details. That was the person I know. Hillary did her homework. She knew everything there was to know, or made sure she would know everything there was to know about health care. My concerns came in the political sphere, because Washington politics is a beast unto itself. You’ve got to not only bring people along and give them credit and sort of smooth egos and make people feel like they are the ones who come up with ideas, but you’ve got to be on the lookout for the snipers, the people who want to find weaknesses in what you’re doing and blow those weaknesses up. So it’s a minefield, and I was worried that she might not have been ready for that minefield.
One of the decisions that they make early on is they’re going to keep the process close, that they’re going to figure out sort of a perfect plan and that having too much information out there might be counterproductive. In fact, I gather you don’t even know what the details of the health care plan are as they’re being developed.
No, the health care plan is being developed secretly. … They’re walled off. It’s like the development of the atom bomb. It’s almost in a fortress. …
Why the secrecy?
I think the idea was if you open the process up, you would have so much intense lobbying and jockeying, and you’d never find the right answer. The right answer would be elusive. … You’d be engulfed in special interests and in political mischief, and also the media would play all sorts of games, so you wanted to keep it closed until you had something that was a near-perfect policy design that you could just then launch. … Of course, it doesn’t work that way. This is the conceit of policy wonks and public policy schools where I’ve been teaching for most of my life. You just don’t come up with the perfect plan and then expect the democratic process to say yes.
I gather there’s a moment where you and other members of the economic team have to go above her head to the president to say, “We need to know what’s in this thing.”
The economic team was worried. We knew something very, very big was being developed, and it would have very substantial economic implications, obviously. I mean, health care is 18 percent; then it was about 14 percent of the economy. You couldn’t deliver a health care plan that didn’t have great economic implications.
We worried that without any input, this plan might really run off the rails. We went to the president and said to the president, “We’ve got to be involved.”
And when the plan does come out, it’s incredibly complicated. Did you even understand how the whole plan worked?
I never understood it, quite frankly. I mean, I read it over and over and over. I’m not exactly a slow study. I like to think that I can read stuff and figure it out. But it was complicated. And one of the dangers in Washington, in addition to coming up with so-called perfect plans and then delivering them as a whole to legislators and to the press, is if it’s complicated, if it’s hard for anybody to explain, then it is absolutely susceptible to being mischaracterized. It’s vulnerable to all kinds of attacks. And of course that’s what happened.
And then, just a few months in, the scandals begin — Travelgate, Whitewater is continuing. There’s articles, criticisms launched at Hillary Clinton personally and at the White House. What was that time like?
It was very, very frightening for those of us who cared about Hillary and knew Hillary, because she had already been a target during the election, and now she was being accused of all kinds of nefarious things. And again, we had never seen anything like it, a big machine out there fanning the flames of vitriol and giving bits and pieces of negative news and suspicion to the press, and the press were running with it. There was also more and more right-wing media, and they were exaggerating what was there.
Hillary Clinton was in many ways the target of all of this. It was a mystery. I mean, quite honestly, at that time, we just didn’t know where all of this conspiracy theory — I mean, Whitewater and Vince Foster and all of these things — where this was coming from.
You mentioned Vince Foster. At the same time, her father is ill and dying, and then Vince Foster kills himself. What was that moment like for her?
I could only observe how hurt she was, not only obviously by the attacks but the actual suicide of somebody who she had worked with, and the suspicions. You know, The Wall Street Journal wrote this just bitter and I think completely unfair editorial suggesting that somehow she had something to do with Vince Foster’s suicide. I mean, put yourself in her place. This is somebody you worked with, who gives up everything to come to Washington. You’ve asked him to come to Washington. He commits suicide because he feels like he hasn’t done a very good job protecting you, and you’re being attacked, and he’s being attacked in not just the fringe press, but The Wall Street Journal? It seems so strange; it seems so bizarre. It almost seemed as if somewhere it’s like a black hole in space. Stars are sort of moving into a gravitational pull. There must be something there. The reason she says a vast right-wing conspiracy is because the only way to explain all of this is there must be something coordinated going on about something — somebody who’s feeding all of this and financing all of this and creating this media storm. Otherwise, where would it be coming from?
How does she respond to this growing scandal, scandals, these attacks during that year?
Her instinct is to just keep going, to just keep moving, not let it get her down, not show weakness, not indulge in self-pity, to just keep moving ahead. Privately, again, I saw her. She was very hurt. I think a normal person would be hurt. A normal person would be bitter. A normal person might even consider the hell with it; who needs this? No, she was committed to the health care plan, to the work that she was doing, to the White House, and she just kept moving forward.
At the same time, she’s living sort of in a real bubble inside the White House. I guess she tells you at one point she would sneak off and try to either — I don’t know if it was run or bike?
Yeah, there was this wonderful story she told about — she’d bike on the towpath next to the Potomac River with Secret Service people behind her biking and Secret Service people in front of her biking. She didn’t want to be recognized, so she’d put her hair up in a baseball cap and she’d put sunglasses on, and she got away with it. She had to get out of the White House. I mean, it was a horrible echo chamber.
But at one point, a group of tourists, Japanese tourists, stopped her, and they had cameras. And she thought, oh, this is the end. And they asked her — she stopped. She got off the bike, and they asked her if she’d take their picture. (Laughs.) And she did, and got right back on the bike.
So as we move into 1994, there’s more scandals. There’s the commodities trading scandal. They decide it’s time for her to take a stand and to go out and give a press conference. What was the thinking behind that?
I wasn’t involved in that strategy. I can only guess they felt it was important for her to finally stand up clearly and answer questions that were being raised. Remember how powerful she is. She’s so articulate. She does her homework so thoroughly. Why not get out there and answer these allegations? The answer to why not is that you can fan the flames. I mean, the Washington press corps, when they feel like they’ve got something, they will go after it. And if you answer their allegations, they’ll even come back with more allegations. But nevertheless, there comes a time when you have to face them.
I gather you happened to have dinner with her after that press conference, and she sort of felt like, “I’ve answered the questions; maybe this is all going to go away.”
I had dinner with her after the press conference, and she really believed that she had answered their questions. She had done exactly what any reasonable member of the press would want her to have done. She explained what was true, and she felt that that was enough, that now it would all kind of go away.
You wrote in your book about her at that point, you said: “She’s so intent on seeming strong that she doesn’t realize how much hurt and anger she shows just below the surface. And the press corps are picking up on this.”
I had a sense that even though she’s enormously strong and capable of summoning facts and putting on a great show of strength, that her pain and her hurt just below the surface are evident. Anybody who sees the press conference, who’s there, who is a member of the Washington press corps, who actually is at all sensitive, has to be able to see that pain and that hurt. And, of course, like any bunch of hunters, they see the pain, they see the hurt; that’s their signal to even charge harder.
The other thing she’s accused of a lot is being secretive, especially in this period. Was that something that you saw, or does that sound like the Hillary Clinton that you know from that time?
You have to understand that the press corps and a lot of Republicans and a lot of these kind of right-wing institutions that no one had actually experienced before were something new in terms of the vitriol, the anger, the allegations, the doggedness, the sensationalism. You know, it had not been part of Truman or Eisenhower or John F. Kennedy or Johnson or even Nixon, although Nixon sort of set the groundwork and did create the kind of suspicions that aroused. But we had never seen the degree of suspicion. So the question that kept on coming up [was], how much do you put out there? Because the more you put out there, you’re putting out fires, but you potentially are creating more fires, because there are always more questions that can be asked.
It’s not a choice of being either secret or transparent. It’s a question of how much are you fanning the flames, or how much are you actually dousing them?
Do you think that that was a lesson that she learned at that time, that you have to be careful with what you put out?
Certainly she began to understand that she had to be very careful in terms of what she said in public and also what she revealed, because it could be used in so many different ways. Let’s say you’re out walking on a beautiful summer day through a gorgeous field of marigolds. You don’t have a care in the world. You’re not going to keep anything secret. And then suddenly you step on a landmine, and then there’s another landmine, and then there’s another one. But what are you going to do? You’re going to armor yourself up. You’re going to put on not only more armor; you’re going to be more and more careful about where you step and how you step and what steps you take, because this is not a beautiful field; it’s not a gorgeous summer day. It is a war.
And by that summer, one of the things that had been keeping her going, which is the health care reform, is in real trouble, and there’s been a backlash in the country, [and] when you look back at some of the videos and the bus tour, it feels a little bit like things you see later with the Tea Party. That health care sort of provoked a cultural anger — that must have been surprising.
The anger that the health care plan provoked was also surprising — at the time. I mean, from this day and age, you’re not surprised, because people don’t trust government, and almost anything that government does is seen as an incursion on individual liberties and rights, not just by the extreme right but by a lot of Americans. But in the 1990s, a lot of people wanted the health care system to be better and more efficient and cheaper. There was a lot of demand for health care reform. You’ve got to understand that.
So when that health care plan started to catch flak, there was some surprise. Now, those of us who were worried that you really can’t sell something that is complicated and big and in one big package delivered to the press and to Congress were not all that surprised. But I think everybody was surprised at the degree of suspicion and anger, even from a Democratic Congress. …
Why couldn’t she win them over?
Because they were hearing from business community, from Republicans, from their constituents, from industry: “This is dangerous. Don’t trust this. Don’t touch this.” They were worried about being re-elected or not being re-elected.
… And when it does go down and it becomes clear that health reform is not going to happen, what is the effect on her?
When health care goes down, she is personally, I’m sure, devastated. She has devoted so much time, so much attention. I mean, this is her big project, and it’s repudiated; it’s defeated. This is a gigantic defeat, and it’s dangerous for the administration overall, particularly given all of the other problems, gays in the military and the reaction to the assault weapons ban and the overall cultural reaction to these two baby boomers, powerful baby boomers. And I think that she put the best face she could on it. She always did. But it was very hard.
And then the loss.
And then came the election, the terrible, nightmarish results from the midterm election of , even worse than many of us had feared. I remember going back into the White House the next morning just to see how people were doing, and it was like going into a city that had just been bombed flat. People were dazed. There’s a lot of disbelief, a lot of sense of just total loss, defeat, confusion. What in the world happened? How did we lose the House and the Senate? And what was that administration going to do then? I mean, what were our next steps? The president was disoriented and confused. He didn’t want to be irrelevant. Hillary was also distressed and confused. We all were.
They’d lost an election before in Arkansas, and when they did, they had brought Dick Morris in to help figure out how to get back in the governorship. I gather you might not have known that the same thing was starting to happen over that fall. What were the first hints you had that there was another force?
I remember being in a meeting in the White House. We were talking about the president’s schedule for the upcoming month, and we were talking about him focusing on education and education reform. The secretary of education was there, I as secretary of labor, and others. There was a voice from the back of the room, one of the president’s assistants, saying: “This is all irrelevant. He’s not going to do any of this. You’re just wasting your time.” And I looked around, and I remember saying: “What do you mean? What’s going on?” And there was a kind of a hush. Nobody talked. Obviously somebody knew something was different about the White House, but nobody said anything.
I went down to George Stephanopoulos’ office. He had a little office right next to the Oval Office. And I said, “George, what’s happening?” He signaled me to close the door, and I said, “Just tell me what’s going on.” He looked at me, and he said, “Dick Morris.” It’s all he said, but it was like he had conjured up the Wicked Witch of the West. I vaguely remembered Dick Morris from 1980, and I remember going out in the hallway and thinking, he’s here? He’s actually here? What is he doing?
And as you learn more about the advice that Dick Morris was giving the president, what was it?
Dick Morris was telling the president: “Move to the right. Triangulate. You become relevant again by basically denouncing big government. Don’t be a Democrat anymore. Out-Republican the Republicans on all these issues, on crime and on welfare and almost anything you can find. Just take over the middle.”
Dick Morris was ghastly. I mean, he was absolutely horrible. He was the most arrogant, narcissistic person I had ever met in Washington. And there are a lot of arrogant narcissists in Washington — believe me. But he was beyond the pale. He made an appointment with me to come to the Labor Department. He wanted to find out what we were doing, and he was taking notes. And I was sure he was taking notes. What were we doing that could be stopped or be redirected so that the Republicans would like it? It was really like a one-person takeover of the entire executive branch.
… Why did the president listen to him? And I guess we don’t know what Hillary’s advice was.
Dick Morris had rescued Bill Clinton in Arkansas. Dick Morris knew how to get back into power. And the biggest fear that Bill Clinton had was that he would be irrelevant; that without the House, without the Senate, [with] Newt Gingrich now coronated basically the king of Washington that Bill Clinton and the entire Clinton administration would be sidelined. He needed Dick Morris to both make him relevant and to make sure that he would not lose the election of 1996.
I gather you had come into the administration believing in both of them and believing in the policy and the not just getting elected. What was that like for you when you saw it going in that direction?
I was naturally upset. I mean … here we had a takeover of the White House in the form of Dick Morris, and he was pushing the president to the right. It was distressing, to say the least. …
And where did you see Hillary, either from what you know now looking back or from then? Where was she in this, or what did she learn from this?
It’s a very good question. Hillary, when I approached her about Dick Morris and my concerns about the administration moving so radically to the right, seemed very sympathetic. But I don’t know, honestly. In retrospect, I suspect that she had to have something to do with bringing Dick Morris back. She had brought him into Arkansas in 1980 as the agent to get them back into power, and maybe she had done it again. …
One of the other things that we know now was that one of the things that Dick Morris came in with were polls, and the polls said the American people don’t like a strong first lady; they don’t like her leading health care. They want her to go back to the East Wing, and her role changes. What happens after that election?
Dick Morris had polls. I mean, he had polls about everything. He would do polls overnight. I think he must have polled his family. I don’t know how he did it. But the president had confidence in the polls. And one poll — in fact a number of polls — showed that the public apparently didn’t want a strong first lady, didn’t trust Hillary Clinton to be that kind of very, very powerful first lady. As a result, she was not exactly exiled, but she was taken out of the West Wing. She had a different office. She was taken out of the limelight with regard to policy. She didn’t even any longer sit in on major policy discussions with the president.
I’m sure she was still in those discussions on a private one-on-one basis, but to the extent that they were public, to the extent that there were cameras, no, she was no longer there.
And it must have been hard for her, but she goes along with it.
It must have been very hard for her. But she did go along with it. Again, she was not only loyal to her husband, but she was loyal to the administration. She wanted Bill Clinton to be re-elected, and that became the number one objective. …
She doesn’t disappear completely. She goes around the world and speaks about women’s issues. I guess some people say it’s the first time that they discover that her popularity goes up when she’s not involved in politics; that she’s a public figure, but if she’s not in a partisan battle, people seem to be more drawn to her.
Hillary Clinton at this time becomes much more like Eleanor Roosevelt. She’s a goodwill ambassador. She’s going around the world speaking about human rights and children’s issues, and the public is much more comfortable with that kind of first lady. Still a very powerful voice, still a very powerful first lady, but not involved in policymaking. That, apparently, according to the polls, Dick Morris’ polls, was where the public was concerned.
And then Monica. When do you first hear about the scandal that’s growing?
I had already left the administration. I had met Monica Lewinsky in passing. She was an intern. I had said hello. Honestly, that was it. But when I first heard the allegations, I just said to myself: “Baloney. This is just another in an endless stream of allegations coming from the right, and it’s part of this coordinated — if you want to call it a vast right-wing conspiracy, OK, but it certainly is well coordinated. And there’s nothing to this.” And when Bill Clinton said, “I did not have sex with that woman,” I believed it.
And this is the moment where she says “vast right-wing conspiracy.” She goes on the Today show after he’s assured her that it’s not true and uses that phrase.
By this time, after going through all of these allegations and all of these manufactured — and they really were manufactured — scandals, you know, Whitewater and Travelgate and so on, and none of them had actually produced any smoking gun at all. Those of us on the inside knew that they were fabricated, completely fabricated. It was pretty clear that Monica Lewinsky and the allegations surrounding her were also fabricated. So when Hillary Clinton says “vast right-wing conspiracy,” that’s exactly the way it felt.
But then the president has to backtrack and admit that there was something there. It’s hard to imagine what that would be like.
I can’t. I can’t imagine. … I watched the videotape and the painful videotape of the president when he’s talking to the grand jury, the videotape that went to the grand jury in which he kind of ducks and bobs and weaves with regard to the questions. But it’s pretty clear that there had been something going on, and I was quite shocked. I mean, maybe I was the last person in America, other than Hillary, but it seemed to me — I couldn’t believe that he had — I mean, here he is, the president of the United States, and he has an intern — I mean, a little girl — and he’s risking his entire administration? That seemed to me absolutely impossible. I never would have believed it. And I’m sure if I was shocked, Hillary Clinton must have been absolutely beside herself. I mean, the president had personally assured her that there had been nothing to this.
What’s sort of amazing as a political story is her response in the months and years after that where she, as things moved down into the impeachment, she’s the same Hillary Rodham from the Yale Law School managing things, keeping things on track, very involved with defending him.
It’s absolutely amazing. The first news footage after that all comes out is them going out to the plane, and she clearly is not going to hold his hand. Both of them are holding the two hands of Chelsea. She’s obviously furious. I didn’t talk to her at that time, but there’s no question she’s shaken deeply. Anybody would be. But she somehow manages to find it in herself not only to forgive her husband enough that they can get back together and be a team, but she actually begins to manage the defense of her husband in the impeachment trial. I mean, it’s utterly extraordinary.
I guess she’d been on the Watergate Committee and was a lawyer and one of his strongest defenders.
Yeah. She had been on the Watergate Committee. She was a lawyer. She understood the impeachment process. She had been through it before with regard to Richard Nixon. But this is her husband. This is about the most intimate of transgressions. This is not Richard Nixon’s abuse of public authority. This is personal, as personal as you can get in terms of marriage and something that goes awry in a marriage. Can you imagine how — I can’t — how she must have pulled herself together and found the inner strength to do this?
And what’s also amazing is on the day that he’s being acquitted, she is starting to talk about running for Senate in New York and gathering people and pulling them together. Why would she go back into politics, into the same institution that impeached her husband?
Well, no, the House impeached Bill Clinton; the Senate did not. You have to have the Senate take the bill of impeachment and actually vote for that bill, and the Senate wouldn’t. So essentially, Bill Clinton is acquitted, and Hillary Clinton announces that she’s going to run for Senate, for Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s old seat in New York state. You know, the only way I can explain it is that she is absolutely determined not to be knocked down. She’s not going to allow whether you call it this vast right-wing conspiracy or you call it this personal tragedy in terms of their relationship, or whatever it is, she is not going to let it stop her. She is going to face that beast, that political beast again. She’s going to face it right directly, and she’s going to dive in.
I don’t know how closely you watched that campaign, but who do you see when you see her campaigning in New York and traveling around? There’s the famous listening tour. Is she finally running as her own person?
In that famous listening tour in which she ran for Senate from New York state, she really for the first time is a public person on her own. She is selling herself. Interestingly, it’s a listening tour. It’s not selling herself. She finds a way of presenting herself to the voters of New York state that is humble and eager to hear from them. …
And when she arrives in the Senate, it’s a similar story. Some of the senators said they thought she was going to come in and be a showboat and the cameras were going to follow her around. But her aims, it seems, in this first year, were relatively modest, and she’s even reaching out to some of the people who prosecuted her husband.
I think she learned that she had to be understated; she had to show humility. She couldn’t try to be the smartest person in the room or the strongest person in the room. She couldn’t try to outshine anybody. If she really wanted to develop a base of power that was hers, she had to do it in her own way based on what she had learned the hard way as first lady, and that was to let other people take the credit, to collaborate, to even reach out to Republicans.
And she’s still the same Hillary Rodham from Yale who’s completely prepared and prepped when she goes to hearings?
She’s absolutely prepared; she’s prepped. She goes to hearings; she does her homework. I don’t think in my experience, there are not many political players, either in the White House or in the Senate or in the House, who read those three-ring binders that the staff prepares. … But she did her homework over and over. She was always prepared. She was the best prepared of anyone.
Were you surprised by the Iraq vote?
I was perplexed by the Iraq vote, but I wasn’t surprised by it. … At that time, given Colin Powell’s speech in the U.N., given The New York Times’ lead stories that were promoting the Bush administration’s strategy, the consensus seemed to be in the direction of Iraq, of voting in favor of an invasion of Iraq.
There were some very courageous members of the Senate who voted against it, and in retrospect I’m sure she wishes she had.
It will become an issue when she runs for president. She announces in 2007 that she’s going to run for 2008. What did you think as you heard her make that announcement?
I thought that she might be a little bit premature. … But, you know, she had proven herself to be an extraordinary campaigner. I mean, that listening tour in New York was a feat of extraordinary stamina and discipline.
But she’ll famously say a few years later, “I’m not a natural politician like my husband or like Barack Obama.” And in that 2008 campaign, a lot of the friends of Hillary say she was getting bad advice about how to present herself, that said don’t sell yourself as the first woman candidate. Was that something that you saw? Or what did you see when you watched her campaign?
It is extraordinarily difficult for a woman to put herself up before the public as a political leader — hard for the Senate, much, much harder for the presidency because we are all, to some extent, conditioned to think of women as people who don’t take that kind of leadership position. I think that it’s a deep bias that is built in to our culture. I don’t think it’s built in to our genes; I think it is our culture. So how does a woman, the first woman who’s running for president, actually present herself? There’s no formula. There’s absolutely no playbook. Do you try to be masculine? Do you try to be feminine? Do you try to be a masculine form of feminine? You have to be yourself.
I think the bad advice she was getting was not to be who she really is, to be somebody else. I think that she was trying out different kinds of — it was almost an experiment. She was trying out different roles, and it just didn’t seem to work.
Probably the biggest factor, for sure, in that election is Barack Obama, who comes in saying, “I’m going to change Washington.” Hillary Clinton finds herself, who had entered Washington back in 1993 and going back further, she was the voice of change and of moving things forward. And she finds herself warning Barack Obama, “It’s not going to be as easy as you say.” She sells herself as: “I’ve been through the partisan battles, and I know how tough it is. It’s not going to be as easy as you have it.” What was that like? You came in with them in ’93, and then to see her during that election in that position?
It was understandable in 2008 she is saying to Barack Obama, “It’s not going to be as easy as you think it is. You know, I have the scars to prove it.” But to the American public who wants to elect a president who exudes hope and aspiration … Hillary started to sound like the old guard, the voice of caution, the establishment, something very different from what she was in 1992 when she and Bill Clinton were the new guard. They were the boomers; they were the voice of change. And it was a fundamentally different role.
It didn’t stir the public. Now, granted, Barack Obama not only had enormous oratorical powers, but he promised America something that she couldn’t. She could say that she’s going to be the first woman president, but he’s going to be the first black president of the United States, the first African American. And there’s something about that, given our history, given our history of racial discrimination, the Civil War going all the way back to the founding of the republic, that stirs the soul in a way that, well, obviously the first woman, that’s a big, big deal. But the first black? Wow.
And he had begun his political career with there’s no red America and blue America and we can transcend partisanship. And as you said, she had become a lightning rod for that kind of partisanship.
Hillary had become a lightning rod for partisanship. For years she was seen as the target; the vast right-wing conspiracy was out to get her. And it was a vast right-wing conspiracy. So when Barack Obama says, “I’m transcending partisanship,” that becomes a very attractive proposition to a lot of people. And Hillary Clinton is in a very difficult position. She can’t say, “I’m transcending partisanship,” because she’s been there. She’s been in the middle of the war. She’s endured the worst forms of partisanship.
Did you feel let down by that campaign personally or talk to her about the way they had framed themselves and how different it was from back then?
No, I didn’t. I thought that when she says she’s not a natural politician, I think what she’s saying is that she doesn’t have the gift that her husband and Barack Obama have for pulling people in, for exuding the kind of warmth and charm that make people feel like Bill Clinton or Barack Obama is only looking at you, that you are really important. Hillary is a hugely disciplined politician. She knows how to connect with people; she remembers names and personal anecdotes. She can make people feel wonderful, but she doesn’t have that extra ingredient that almost nobody has, that Bill Clinton certainly had and Barack Obama to a large extent also. …
By this cycle, she finds herself sort of a representative, a figure of the establishment in a year of, on both sides, both political parties, outsiders who are challenging things, who are saying things need to change. Is that a strange position for her to be in?
It’s totally strange. One of the greatest ironies of the 2016 presidential election is Hillary Clinton is running for president at a time when the big division in America is no longer really between establishment Democrats and establishment Republicans. The biggest division is between the outsiders, the antiestablishment and the establishment. You have this great wave of populism that finds expression on the right in authoritarian populism, Donald Trump, and on the left with the kind of reformed Democratic populism of Bernie Sanders. Both of them find themselves with huge followings and great enthusiasm. And here’s Hillary Clinton, the person who came to Washington in 1992 as the antithesis of the establishment, she now becomes the establishment candidate.
And when you’re making the decisions not to endorse her in the primary, has she changed?
I don’t think Hillary Clinton has changed; I think the country has changed. That is, there is such deep suspicion of government and the overwhelming power of money in politics, a suspicion that the game is rigged against average people. … Inequality was growing in the 1990s, but nowhere near as wide as it is today. The political power of big corporations, Wall Street, billionaires, was there in the 1990s, but nowhere near as significant as it is today.
So the brand of politics that Bill Clinton practiced in the 1990s and Hillary Clinton was part of, while absolutely tuned to the time — and I’m talking about Dick Morris’ triangulation and trying to find the middle — is irrelevant when it’s not a matter of left or right; it’s a matter of outside versus inside, when you have to, if you are really honest with the people, you’ve got to admit that the game really is, in fact, rigged. You’ve got to get big money out of politics. That’s the only way you can get anything done anymore.
Because we started by talking about you meeting her in New Hampshire and going up until now. How, as you look at her from that Hillary Rodham, who you knew in those days as the reformer of the student government, to now and all that she’s been through, through Arkansas and through the crucible of the 1990s, how different is she? What has she learned? Is she the same person?
Well, none of us is the same person, you know. It’s been a long run. I mean, I met her almost 50 years ago. I can’t believe I’m that old, or for that matter that she is. Of course we change; the country changes; the circumstances change. We learn. We learn from experience. She is as extraordinarily disciplined and intelligent and hardworking as ever. She is as articulate as ever. She is as ambitious as ever and wants to do the right thing — I’m absolutely sure of it — as ever.
The question, though, is given what we now find ourselves in in terms of wide inequality of income and wealth and political power, where so many people are so deeply suspicious, for good reasons, of our political economic system, and most people are not getting ahead — half of the country is worse off than they were in 2000 — those qualities I just listed may not be enough. You also need the courage to take on the vested interests, the courage to take on the powerful and the privileged. Now, maybe she does have that courage. I hope she does.