DATE June 12, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton discusses her new
memoir, "Living History"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton has a new memoir that was published this week
and became an immediate best-seller. It's called "Living History." And as
you probably know by now, she writes about her childhood, her marriage to Bill
Clinton and her life as first lady and senator from New York. The book also
covers some of the territory she had previously kept off-limits surrounding
the Monica Lewinsky scandal. I recorded an interview with Senator Clinton
Senator Clinton, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Senator HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (New York): Thank you very much.
GROSS: When your husband was the president, he was attacked by what you
described as the vast right-wing conspiracy. He was impeached by the House.
He was investigated by the special prosecutor. Many spectators emerged from
all of that disgusted with politics, but you entered politics after this,
running for Senate. Why did you want to get deeper into politics after
everything that you saw happen to your husband?
Sen. CLINTON: I think that's obviously a really good question, and I thought
about it a lot because many of my friends and close colleagues urged me, you
know, not to run for office, not to even put my foot into this environment
which was so toxic, and the politics of personal destruction were the
unfortunate consequence of the very partisan battles that were being waged.
But I took a very hard look at what I thought was happening below the surface
that these very difficult conflicts over the direction of the country were
ones that bothered me greatly because I knew that despite the mistakes I made
and certainly acknowledge in this book and the problems that my husband and I
had, which are part of history, unfortunately, there was something else at
work, and what was at work were two competing visions of where our country
should go. And I believe that it's worth fighting for those values that I
grew up with, that I thought America represented, and that I thought that my
husband and I at least tried to further and stand for.
So it was not an easy decision, but after I had been through the gauntlet and
been accused of everything you can imagine and really come out of it still
standing, I thought, you know, if I walk away, if I say, `You know, I don't
want to be involved in politics,' then I'm really actually conceding a victory
to those whom I oppose so strongly.
Sen. CLINTON: And I guess finally, I would say that, you know, one thing that
always bothered me during the time in the White House and still to this day is
that it really does matter what the political decisions are in terms of how
the rules of the game are set and whether everybody in this country feels that
he or she has a fair shot and a chance to, you know, live out that American
Dream, and I see the odds increasingly stacked against the average American.
You know, we hear about huge tax cuts, we hear about environmental regulations
rolled back, we heard about all of the issues that families and people talk to
me about, but what is not covered as well, what is not understood is that
there's a very concerted effort with a right-wing agenda to turn the clock
back on America, and the administration in Washington today is one of the most
radical and reactionary, albeit with, you know, a lot of nice rhetoric that
we've ever had in American history.
GROSS: Senator Clinton, you were a kind of symbol of evil for the right when
you were the first lady. But I think that you are being less demonized now
that you're actually in office as a senator from New York. Do you agree that
you were more demonized as first lady than as senator and, if so, why do you
think that that's true?
Sen. CLINTON: Well, I think that it really is rooted in--I'm sure some people
symbolically being bothered or worried about what I represent and apart from
who I am as a person, and I also concede that, you know, obviously, I'm not
everyone's cup of tea. You know, I'm very outspoken. I work for what I
believe in. I stand up to people in ways that I think helps to make a point.
GROSS: But you're trying to do that as a senator, not just as a first lady.
Sen. CLINTON: Well...
GROSS: What's the difference in how you're perceived?
Sen. CLINTON: Well, but I think--you know, the first lady role is such a
unique symbolic role, and it stands for so many things that the woman herself
has, you know, only passing reference to. It is a generational symbol, a
historic symbol, a concept of womanhood, of all of that rolled up into one
person, which is why it's always been a rather challenging role for me and my
predecessors, and we've each tried to do the best we can in our own ways. But
now I've got a real job. It's a job that comes with responsibilities and
obligations to the people I represent. I get up every day and try to figure
out how I'm going to improve life for New Yorkers. I work with my colleagues
on both sides of the aisle, because there are coalitions that I can help to
form around issues that I think matter to New York and America. So it's me
acting on my own, less symbolically than substantively. People can agree or
disagree with the votes I cast or the speeches I make on the Senate floor, but
I'm not carrying this enormous weight of expectations that you never can meet
and that certainly become even more of a flash point when you have a president
who is breaking down barriers and trying to move the country in a progressive
direction. You know...
GROSS: Do you think it's also that your job as senator doesn't depend on your
marriage to Bill Clinton? It's not about the marriage. It's not about him.
It's about you.
Sen. CLINTON: Oh, I think that's a big part of it. You know, first ladies
are kept at a distance, and they are part of this enormous apparatus around a
president. After all, the only reason I or anybody was in the White House
during Bill Clinton's administration is because he, in some way, selected us;
us to get married but everyone else invited to work in the White House. So
the president is the overwhelming figure of importance. There isn't any staff
person or first lady or anyone else who can claim anything but derivative
authority from the president.
Well, senators get to speak for themselves and their constituents, and that
was one of the transitions that I had to make from a political helpmate, a
first lady, to a senator speaking on my own, speaking on behalf of my
constituents. But the final point about that, Terry, which I know it's
difficult to really articulate, at least for me because it's kind of in the
realm of history and symbolism and myth almost, is that when you're in one of
these roles that are really, as I say in the book, a kind of Rorschach test
for other people's marriages, for their aspirations, for their views on
politics, for their economic hopes and dreams--I mean, it's all rolled up into
quite a complex jumble, and there is no way, at least from my perspective, to
totally unpack it.
I think we can't separate out that what Bill and I stood for politically was
at the root of the extreme partisanship and opposition. You know, they could
have just said, `Look, you know, she's a baby boomer generation first lady, we
don't like her,' but that wasn't the nature of the attacks. It was, `Look
what they're trying to do to health care. Look, they're trying to take your
guns away. Look what they're trying to do to the environment. Look at this.
Look at that.' And so the personal became the political, and it's very hard
when I even to this day see fund-raising letters sent out about `Stop me, stop
me,' you know, it's not just me as a person, it's the political point of view,
it's the values, it's the vision of America I have that they consider so
GROSS: Now your opponents on the right were very skilled at attacking your
husband's presidency, attacking your health-care campaign, attacking your
marriage and your private life. The Democrats now are having a very hard time
in forcefully opposing President Bush and his policies, particularly the tax
cut, this unprecedentedly large tax cut at a time of war with Iraq, facing,
you know, the expenses of war, facing the expenses of the occupation.
Democrats who are critical of how the Democrats are handling President Bush
now say that the Democrats aren't being forceful enough in their opposition.
I mean, critics are saying the Democrats are just afraid to really stand up.
They want to be perceived as centrist in the hope that that will help them win
the next round of elections. What do you say to those critics who think that
the Democrats just aren't doing a good enough job right now?
Sen. CLINTON: Well, I understand a lot of the frustration and I would say
several things, as I do to friends and constituents who raise this issue with
me. There's a very big bully pulpit in the White House. I know that probably
as well as anyone because I was there for eight years watching it in action.
So we close ranks. We support our president. Elections are times to, you
know, really decide whether we want someone to continue or not. And certainly
in the atmosphere in which we find ourselves after September 11th, that is
even more true, and I understand that and accept it.
Secondly, I think there is a fundamental difference which I came to perceive
during the eight years in the White House, which I do talk about in the book,
and that is that, you know, Democrats really traditionally are more into the
business of governing for the betterment of people that they believe we
represent, so that it really matters to us, you know, what the details are
when you argue about the Medicare prescription drug benefit or when you worry
about whether the clock's going to be rolled back on environmental
regulations. And I have really come to see how the Republicans are so much
more adept at and understanding of power, and, therefore, their take on most
political conflict is `What do we have to do to win?' Now you can say from a
perspective at some distance, `Well, gee, you know, that's a gross
generalization'--no pun on your name, Terry, but, you know, that's a very
broad, sweeping statement. And, of course, it is, and it's not true in every
case. But in general, I think there is some real truth to it.
And, therefore, it is harder often for Democrats to explain where they stand.
Are you for or against a tax cut? Well, you know, we're against unreasonable,
unaffordable, irresponsible tax cuts, but we would like tax cuts that help the
middle class, that target investment that create jobs, etc.; whereas, you
know, that message takes a lot longer to say than, `We're for tax cuts,' end
of sentence. `Whatever they are, as big as they are, we're for them.'
There's another element to this, though, and I think that I, again, have
firsthand experience with it. The Republican Party, the conservative wing of
the Republican Party has literally been on a mission for probably 40 years to
turn the clock back on things that they disapprove of, whether it was, you
know, going back to the Great Depression and the creation of Social Security,
or in the '40s, the expansion of unions and worker rights, or in the '50s and
'60s, you know, the government intervening in civic rights--you just pick a
subject where there's been sweeping change. I believe on balance for the
better for America, there has been a hard core of right-wing conservative
Republicans that have built their influence day after day, and I give them
credit for this. I mean, I think it is a tremendous accomplishment that they
have taken what used to be in the extremes in our political philosophy and
moved it into acceptable territory. And they, of course, were disappointed,
which now has been written about widely when Barry Goldwater was so badly
beaten, but it didn't stop them. They came together. They endowed
professorships. They started think tanks. They began to really work to make
their world view the American mainstream world view.
So when Bill Clinton was elected, that was an abrupt interruption in their
entitlement to power. For the last 24 years, there had only been one
Democratic president term, and that was Jimmy Carter for four years. And from
talking with people who are quite proud of their accomplishments in changing
the political landscape in America, they viewed my husband as a tremendous
threat, not just because he won the presidency, but that he did actually speak
for the majority of Americans who wanted fiscal responsibility combined with
safety nets and combined with investments and combined with opportunities for
people to be more responsible for themselves, and also for our country, to
have a different face in the world, more leading from our views and our
leadership qualities as opposed to just our military strength, which is
GROSS: My guest is Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. She's written a new
memoir called "Living History." We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Senator Hillary Clinton. She has a new memoir, as I'm
sure you know, called "Living History."
Where do you see the Bush administration, and President Bush in particular, in
terms of what you described during your husband's presidency as the vast
right-wing conspiracy? Do you see anyone in the Bush administration,
including the president himself, as fitting into that group or as furthering
that style of politics?
Sen. CLINTON: Absolutely. And, of course, in the book, I say that the word
`conspiracy' was probably not a very accurate description because there's
nothing secret any longer about this. You know, they're not meeting, you
know, behind closed doors. You know, they do things in secret, like the
so-called Arkansas Project and the like, but by and large, this is a very open
agenda that is well-financed and well-organized. And I think this
administration, with the people who are in it, whose views on both foreign
policy issues and domestic issues are so extreme and radical, are very much
the ultimate victory, in some respects, for those who have been speaking out
against school desegregation and public education and a woman's right to
choose and protecting the environment against the ravages of unchecked
development and pollution, and you go down the line, and I think that the
great untold story of this administration, which the media is certainly not
paying attention to, is how what used to be considered so radical has been put
into a new suit of clothes with a very nice smile and nice words, like
compassion. But I don't think that this administration in reality is either
compassionate or conservative. I think it is hard-edged, radical, right wing,
with a very specific view of where they want to take America.
GROSS: Do you ever look at some of the people who are or have been your
political opponents and who criticized you or your husband for personal
reasons, for your way of life, for your stand on women's issues, for his
affairs or whatever, and look at them and think, `You're a hypocrite; I know
something about your personal life that isn't public'? Do you ever think
thoughts like that and would you ever want to see somebody's personal life
exposed if you thought they were being a hypocrite?
Sen. CLINTON: Well, no, I really don't. I think we should draw a line there,
but in the book, I write about a few of these people. And, you know, I say
that I certainly can sympathize with their outrage at having their public
problems aired in the light of day, but it was stunning to me the double
standard they were operating under. But, you see, from their perspective,
they are on the side of all that is right and good and important and
significant, and that's a political judgment they make, that, you know, the
ends do justify the means if you are taking away a woman's right to choose.
The ends are OK if the ultimate objective is to eventually, over time,
dismantle the Medicaid program because you're going to block grant it and cut
the resources that are going to guarantee health care for children and people
in nursing homes, and those kinds of issues are really their primary focus.
So they excuse an enormous amount of personal issues on their side of the
ledger, which they do on a daily basis; I'm very well aware of that, because
they're all part of this overall mission to take back America. You know,
there's this group called the Federalist Society, which has been around for
a while and which vets every single judicial nominee for the Bush
administration. If you're not OK'd by the Federalist Society with their very
conservative, non-mainstream judicial philosophy, you don't get nominated by
this White House. And so the result is we have people being nominated who are
incredible in the values and the attitudes that they bring to the bench. But
this Federalist Society has for years now talked about bringing the
Constitution back from exile.
Now when did the Constitution, in their view, go into exile? It went into
exile when the Supreme Court, under Earl Warren, rendered the decision in
Brown v. Board of Education. Now I happen to think that was one of the most
significant points in American history, not just judicial history, but every
bit of our history, because it moved us one step closer toward tearing down
the walls of segregation and trying to create a truly integrated society, as
difficult as that is. But these are people who really do want to turn the
clock back. I used to think that they were interested only in turning the
clock back on the Clinton administration, but honest to goodness, they're on
their way to trying to undo Franklin Roosevelt and I think they're going to,
you know, be closing in on Teddy Roosevelt pretty soon.
GROSS: Senator Hillary Clinton. Her new memoir is called "Living History."
She'll be back on the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, we continue our conversation with Senator Hillary Clinton,
and we listen back to an interview with David Brinkley. The former NBC News
anchor died last night at the age of 82.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Senator Hillary
Clinton. Her new memoir, "Living History," was published this week. In the
book she reveals some of her reactions to learning that her husband had lied
to her and the American public about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky.
Senator, I know that you think that your husband's affair with Monica Lewinsky
was very personally damaging to your marriage and not a good thing to do, but
you didn't think it was an impeachable offense. Do you think that presidents
should be judged at all on that aspect of their private lives?
Sen. CLINTON: Well, Terry, you know, I had this rather unique experience of
working on the impeachment staff in 1974 when Richard Nixon was impeached. I
was just fresh out of law school, a young lawyer. I worked with Republican
and Democratic lawyers, members of the committee, who were so careful and
literally non-partisan. It wasn't just bipartisan. They knew that this was
an awesome undertaking. And one of my tasks was to research the legal and
historical precedent behind the phrase `high crimes and misdemeanors,' which
appears in the Constitution when it talks about impeachment. And I have no
doubt that it was not personal matters that our Founders and those who were
making the decisions about our Constitution had in mind. They were focused on
those kinds of actions and behaviors that would affect the public performance.
In fact, you know, there was a big debate.
GROSS: But should it be judged at all by individuals? How do you think it
Sen. CLINTON: Oh, of course. Anything is going to affect how individuals
feel about another individual, whether that person's, you know, in the White
House or in any other walk of life. But when you see the political process
being perverted and the Constitution subverted for partisan purposes in what
was an unprecedented attempt to grab power away from a lawfully elected
president, using his personal failings, which he's admitted, which were
horrible for my family and which just caused me incredible pain and distress,
but to use that for a partisan political purpose was very dangerous to our
system of government and to our Constitution.
Now, luckily, the American people got it right, as they often do. They saw
through it, they understood what this was about, and in huge numbers stood
behind the president. And despite the fact that the House Republicans had the
votes to go ahead and impeach him, you know, that didn't in any way affect the
senators, who didn't even give a majority vote to any of these charges.
Sen. CLINTON: So, thankfully, it worked out, but look what it put the country
through. I find that just, even now reflecting back, hard to understand.
GROSS: Because the president risked so much personally and politically by
having the affair with Monica Lewinsky and because there's been speculation
about other affairs, there's been a lot of people who have thought that he
must have some kind of sexual addiction or compulsion. Do you think that he
Sen. CLINTON: Oh, Terry, I think I've gone as far as I would go in my book,
which is a whole lot farther than I ever thought I would in terms of talking
about, you know, very private, personal matters. And I have to say that many
people in interviews over the last several days have said, `Well, you're
supposed to be such a private person. Why did you even write about this?'
And, of course, I wished it hadn't been made public. I wished our situation
could have stayed within our family, in the counseling that we did have, but
it wasn't. It was forced into the public by people who could have cared less
about me or my daughter or my mother or Bill's family or anything else. It
was for a malicious purpose. And I am just going to let my book speak for
GROSS: What crossed your mind when you heard from the new Robert Dallek
biography of JFK that JFK actually had an affair with an intern?
Sen. CLINTON: You know, I guess maybe I read enough history growing up and
have been involved in politics for long enough to know that we don't have any
saints in public office; we don't have any perfect human beings. The
performance of a president and his leadership on behalf of our country is
really for Americans themselves to judge and for history to judge.
I think my husband will be judged very favorably by history, because I think
he did a good job for our country. I think when he left office we were well
prepared for the future. And as to other presidents, I think the same
standard should apply.
There are, you know, many people who--it's human nature; I understand
that--want to know what happened behind closed doors--who did what to whom. I
don't think there's any direct correlation between a president's private
behavior and his public leadership. So I think we'll just leave that for the
historians to sort out.
GROSS: I know you're on a very tight schedule, so I'll just ask you one more
question. You've worked with Tom DeLay and Lindsey Graham on legislation,
and, I mean, these are people who really opposed your husband during the
impeachment era. Is working with them an exercise for you in swallowing
poison or an exercise in just like finding the common ground?
Sen. CLINTON: It's an exercise in doing my job. It's an exercise in building
coalitions and consensus around issues that I think are important and that
matter to the people I represent. And I also really do believe that there is
more than ample ground on which we can disagree and be absolutely adamant in
what we think is right for the country politically, but I don't think that we
want to continue the politics of personal destruction.
I'm, frankly, more concerned right now with what I see as the politics of
economic destruction being propagated by the administration and the Republican
Party. I'm going to take them on on that issue. I don't have any need to try
to undermine them personally, try to demonize them. I'm going to take Tom
DeLay on over the child-care tax credit, which he is adamantly opposed, which
we passed to remedy a grave injustice in the Senate last week. And I'll take
any of my other colleagues on when it comes to important issues.
But when we can find common ground--you know, maybe I can try to demonstrate
that that's the more appropriate way for us to engage in our political
differences, by working together whenever we can and by standing strongly but
not personally, destructively against one another when we have serious
GROSS: Senator Clinton, thank you so much for talking with us.
Sen. CLINTON: Terry, I enjoyed it. I hope we'll get a chance to talk again
GROSS: Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. Her new memoir is called "Living
Coming up, we listen back to an interview with former TV news anchor David
Brinkley. He died last night at the age of 82.
This is FRESH AIR.
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