In her only British newspaper interview, Hillary Clinton admits she has had to take ‘a long, hard look at her marriage, my husband and myself’. Does that mean she is now ready to run for President? She talks to Nigel Farndale
On a humid June morning in Washington DC, Hillary Rodham Clinton barrels into the hotel suite where I’ve been asked to wait for her, starts pumping my hand and says, somewhat unnecessarily, “Hi, I’m Hillary Clinton, howareya?”
She is wearing a pastel-green trouser suit, a stars and stripes lapel pin, and a fixed, politician’s smile. As she shakes my hand, she beams, then she shakes my hand some more.
The 55-year-old Senator of New York, former First Lady, and (as of last Monday, when her autobiography, Living History, broke all records for first-day sales of non-fiction) best-selling author, is much more hokey than I had imagined. More animated, too. But not nearly so, um, airbrushed as she is in photographs.
She sits down on a sofa, takes a sip of iced tea and raises her eyebrows, two fiercely plucked arcs. As she talks, crisply, articulately, unspooling long sentences that contain clause after clause, it becomes apparent that she has two distinct, all-purpose facial expressions, both involving her piercing blue eyes.
She either widens them, almost flirtatiously, when she wants to emphasise a point, or she half closes them, a slightly peeved pout playing on her lips. This is her serious face – really quite sultry, or haughty, I can’t decide which.
After her eyes, and her swollen cheekbones, her most striking feature is her bottle-blonde hair. Her ever-changing hairstyles are a running joke in her book, a metaphor for her inability to work out her political identity over the years. Now that she is a senator, I ask, will this be her final hairstyle, or is there room for more personal growth?
The eyes widen. “This is going to be one of the final ones. My hair presents me with enormous opportunities because it is the only part of my body I can change at will. You don’t have to go to a plastic surgeon. You don’t have to exercise and diet. You just go change your hair.”
I ask about what has already become the most famous passage in her memoirs, the one in which she describes her dramatic reaction to being told by her tearful husband that he had, after all, had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky (having lied to her that he hadn’t, eight months earlier): “I could hardly breathe. Gulping for air, I started crying and yelling at him . . .” and so on.
What surprises me, I say, is that she was surprised, given that, by then, Bill Clinton had already confessed in a court deposition that he had had an affair with Gennifer Flowers (though Hillary doesn’t mention this in her book). She was in denial, right?
Serious face. Half closed eyes. Manicured fingers crooked neatly in lap. “Well, there were many reasons I had believed my husband, including the experiences I had personally had since being in the White House.
“There had been so many accusations against me which were totally false and yet there they were on the front pages of the newspapers. So by January 1998 [when her husband lied to her about Lewinsky] I was quite accustomed to these outrageous stories being hurled against either one, or both, of us. When he told me it wasn’t true I just thought it was one in a continuing series of efforts by Ken Starr [Special Counsel] to try and end his presidency.”
By December of that year, Bill Clinton faced impeachment, charged with perjury and obstruction of justice in connection with the cover-up of his relationship with Lewinsky. It was the culmination of a long-running Federal investigation into the various Clinton sleaze scandals, from the Whitewater land deal to all those gates – Troopergate, Travelgate, Filegate, Zippergate.
The investigation was intended to show that Clinton was morally unfit to hold office. He was later acquitted, though his serial philandering was never in doubt. So, I put it to his wife again, was she in denial?
A taut, lapidary smile. “Well, I didn’t read the newspapers. I didn’t watch the television coverage because to do so would have been so debilitating. I wouldn’t have been able to go on from day to day doing the work I thought I was there to do. So when he told me months later I was . . .” She pauses.
“Shocked. Shocked because I couldn’t believe he had done it. And I couldn’t believe that he had misled me, and everyone else, for all those months.”
Her version doesn’t quite tally with those of other people, such as her friend Sidney Blumenthal (author of The Clinton Wars). Was it not the case that she had been given clear intimations by her lawyers that her husband really had had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky before he confessed it to her?
“The night before Bill told me, one of my lawyers [Bob Barnett], who is also my friend, said ‘What if you find out there is more to it?’ And I just said I wouldn’t believe it. I don’t believe it. Because I couldn’t imagine that Bill wouldn’t have levelled with me. That was why I was shocked. Bill will have to talk in his own book about what was going through his mind at the time.”
Yet in her book she describes how, when it first surfaced, she questioned her husband “over and over” about the story; so, clearly, at the time she was deeply suspicious.
“Yes I did question him,” she says, nodding, wide-eyed. “I didn’t want to just ignore the accusation. I wanted reassurance and what he described to me was perfectly plausible.
“He is a very charismatic human being and he provokes very strong feelings in people and I’ve watched that ever since we were law students. And I had enough first-hand knowledge of people who loved or hated him, and lived out all kinds of dreams and expectations through him, to believe that that was what this [the Lewinsky story] was all about.”
I say to her that, reading between the lines, she seems to have been hurt and angered as much by her husband’s lying as by the act of infidelity itself.
“I don’t know that you can separate it out. It’s very hard to parse it, especially in the moment. Obviously it was very personal. Very painful.
“But it was forced into the public domain and so I had to write about it. To ignore it would have been totally inappropriate for a memoir about our eight years in the White House. So I tried to convey the immediacy and shock of the moment – and I wasn’t very rational about what percentage was anger at the lying and what at the infidelity.”
Has she completely forgiven him now?
The hooded eyes. “I have. I have. It wasn’t easy and I don’t pretend to be any kind of example of forgiveness. I think we all do things to people, sometimes deliberately, sometimes inadvertently, that cause pain”. She pauses.
“It was a very long process for me.” A longer pause. A wan stare out of window. “I can only speak to my perspective, having gone through it, which is that a wrenching personal problem like that can really derail your life. It can make a person bitter, angry and fearful.
“You can either go down that road or you can ask yourself, what is it that I want to achieve, and be, at the end of this process? Do I want to stay married? That is why we went into counselling and why we worked at it. I take marriage very seriously, as does my husband. I highly recommend forgiveness.”
Theirs is certainly an enigmatic marriage: closeness for them these days, it is said, means trying to be in the same city once a week.
Hillary says she still loves Bill, partly because he makes her laugh, partly because he has been a good father to their daughter Chelsea, and partly because, as progressive liberals, they share an intellectual bond. Also, you suspect, they still need each other politically; he is a great fund-raiser, while her loyalty to him, despite everything, makes him look less of a cad.
Does she, I ask, blame herself at all for Bill’s infidelity?
“You know, I think I’ll keep that to myself, except to say that in a marriage it is always two people. Not one. It’s very hard work because we all come with insecurities and fears and senses of inadequacy. I had to not only take a hard look at my marriage and my husband: I also had to take a long hard look at myself.”
There were all manner of rumours about her, most notably in relation to Vince Foster, the White House lawyer who shot himself in 1993 in the midst of the Whitewater land-deal scandal. Was she ever tempted to stray in her marriage? “No.” Raised eyebrows. Short, ambiguous laugh. “No.”
It could be that she is telling the truth. She and her two younger brothers were, after all, brought up by a frugal, highly moral, disciplinarian father (in Chicago; he owned a fabric store). And in her book she describes how her mother had suffered from her parents’ divorce and so she, Hillary, had been determined to “marry for life”.
One of the most telling admissions in the book is that, for some of her time at the White House, she felt lonely and even, on one occasion, racked with self-doubt. Is it true, I ask her, that she doesn’t even take her close friends into her confidence?
“Before the White House I thought I had lived a normal life. I had friends who I confided in and kidded with and had wonderful times with. Then, all of a sudden, our lives became this political target range. It was very disconcerting. I quickly learned that nothing was off limits to the Special Counsel and his [Ken Starr’s] relentless, partisan investigation.
“Friends of many years standing were being pursued and asked intrusive questions in order to find anything that would discredit Bill and me. And I was advised by my lawyers early on that the only people I could talk to were them and my husband.
“That was one of the most painful aspects of those years. I could stand on the sidelines and see people I loved being abused and mistreated . . . It was a very sad sight. And it was for nothing.”
She has referred on a number of occasions to a “vast right-wing conspiracy”. Surely it can’t have been a conspiracy because it was completely open and overt?
“Well, yes, you are 100 per cent right. I have to admit ‘conspiracy’ was not the right word because there was a well-organised, well-financed, open agenda being pursued by the radical right. It became a conventional wisdom. ‘We aren’t sure what she has done but she must have done something.’
“That became really frustrating to me. Investigation after investigation proved there was no wrongdoing: yet there we were with decent people on the outside looking in saying, ‘Well, my gosh, why would this be happening if there wasn’t something?’ ”
Did she become paranoid?
“I tried to fight against paranoia because it is no way to live. It wouldn’t do me any good if I was, all of a sudden, in effect, trapped inside this machine that they [the radical right] were creating. But there were many moments when I would just slap my forehead and utter, er, [she laughs, her eyes widen] some words of amazement at their lies.”
Lies such as? “There was one absurd claim that I knew the mother of this young man who worked in the White House, and I had hired him to obtain FBI files which he used to do something nefarious to our political enemies [what became known as ‘Filegate’]. It was a totally made-up story . . . but it became a cottage industry resulting in investigations and lawsuits.
“And then I discovered to my horror that these rogue FBI agents were literally making up evidence and sticking it in FBI files. That scared me. I thought, wait a minute, how far will these people go? What is this really about?”
What was it really about?
“What it all came down to, as Shakespeare knew, was power. How to attain it and use it. A lot of the people were out to delegitimise the Clinton presidency. It became a very Shakespearian drama.”
Surely she, more than anyone, appreciates what an addiction to power means?
“Yes, and that is why you have to be careful and self-aware about the means not justifying the ends. In a democracy, power is a gift. It is certainly not a birthright, nor a legacy to pass on.
“I have no problem with people who disagree with me. I think President Bush’s tax cuts are disastrous for the American economy. There are those who disagree. That’s fine.
“But I draw the line at using levers of power to personally destroy people for their political beliefs. What happened in the Nineties is what I call the politics of the personal, largely aimed at Bill and me.”
But the personal can be political, can it not? A man who cheats on his wife might be capable of betraying his country. She shakes her head.
“There is no historical evidence for that. A correlation between that kind of personal behaviour and public performance has never been proved.
“You know, Nigel, if you retroactively wired up every past American President and every past British Prime Minister to lie detectors you would have lots of lights flashing. But that doesn’t determine what kind of public official they were or what kind of leadership they provided.”
A pause. Half-closed eyes. “I have this unique perspective, having been on the Nixon impeachment staff in 1974. We had to see whether a President should be removed from office based on our Constitution, and my job, as a very young lawyer, was to research the legal and historical basis for impeachment.
“It was never intended to punish public officials for personal weakness and foibles, unless there was a direct relationship in terms of a betrayal of the public trust.
“In Nixon’s case it was the betrayal of his office. It was a public offence against public good. In 1998 [the year of the Clinton impeachment investigation] it was an effort to subvert our Constitution for political purposes.”
Clinton’s presidency, the journalist Christopher Hitchens has joked, will be remembered as a sexual moment between the Bushes. But is this verdict premature?
There is much speculation that Hillary Clinton, ennobled by humiliation, intends to add a final chapter to the Clinton White House story, a “legacy to pass on”, if you will. Many see her memoirs as a launch pad for a presidential bid.
She has in the past few days said that it is not her intention to stand as President either in 2004 or 2008. Are there any circumstances in which she would change her mind?
She smiles the serious smile. “I am not running in 2004, and I have no intention to run in the future.”
We will take that as a yes, then.