WATCH: For Hillary in Arkansas, First Came Rejection. Then Came Rebranding.
Back in 1979, when Hillary Rodham became first lady of Arkansas and was asked if she had political ambitions of her own, the answer she gave was a traditional one for the time.
“I don’t have any, except for my husband, who I think is a terrific politician and a wonderful man,” she told a Little Rock TV reporter in footage that appears in FRONTLINE’s Sept. 27 documentary, The Choice 2016.
But to many people in Arkansas back then, nothing else about Governor Bill Clinton’s wife – who had kept her maiden name, and had her own career as a corporate lawyer — was viewed as conventional.
“She didn’t want women to be accessories to their husband, and that is usually what a political wife is, is an accessory to her husband. And it didn’t fit well,” her childhood friend Jim Blair tells FRONTLINE in the above excerpt from The Choice 2016, filmmaker Michael Kirk’s highly anticipated dual biography of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
As the documentary explores, Rodham faced a litany of public criticism: “You’re not a native,” a TV interviewer says to Rodham in footage that appears in The Choice 2016. “You’ve been educated in liberal, eastern universities, you’re less than 40, you don’t have any children, you don’t use your husband’s name. You practice law. Does it concern you that maybe other people feel that you don’t fit the image that we have created for the governor’s wife in Arkansas?”
Rodham stood her ground: “No, because each person should be assessed and judged on, you know, that person’s own merits,” she responded.
But then, two years later, her husband Bill lost his reelection campaign. As The Choice 2016 explores, it was a humiliating defeat for the couple — and many people pointed to the public’s discomfort with her as a reason for the loss.
It would lead Rodham to make the decision that taking control of, and reshaping, her image was a matter of survival.
“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,” Robert Reich, a longtime friend of the Clintons, tells FRONTLINE.
She even adopted a slight Southern drawl.
“When she had to begin to change her appearance, dye her hair, lose a lot of weight, get rid of her glasses, not speak up, not be as… much of who she was, that hurt all of us,” her childhood friend Nancy Wanderer tells FRONTLINE. “We all felt bad about that… It was hard on us. It was hard on her.”
But it worked. Ultimately, Hillary Rodham Clinton — who then forged an alliance with the controversial political consultant Dick Morris — helped to engineer a comeback that returned her husband to the governorship and eventually catapulted her into the national spotlight.
Go inside Clinton’s transformation in The Choice 2016, airing the day after the first presidential debate. Drawing on dozens of interviews with people close to the candidates, the documentary tells the in-depth story of what makes both Trump and his opponent, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, tick — from their childhoods and school experiences, to their tumultuous careers in the public eye.
And it dives deep into how Clinton became the polarizing politician she is today — a road that began back in Little Rock.
“I think it only intensified and began a lot of the characteristics that you saw from then on — that the ends justify the means, that we’ll do what we have to do to win, turn to the dark arts of politics to survive,” The Washington Post’s David Maraniss tells FRONTLINE.
Since 1988, FRONTLINE’s acclaimed election-year series The Choice has brought viewers in-depth, interwoven biographies of the two major-party U.S. presidential candidates. The Choice 2016 premieres Tues., Sept. 27 at 9 p.m. EST/8 p.m. CST on PBS and online. Check your local PBS listings.