Editor’s Note: Kate Andersen Brower is author of “The Residence,” “First Women,” “Team Of Five” and “First In Line,” and consultant on the CNN Original Series “First Ladies,” now on CNNgo. Kate Bennett is a White House correspondent for CNN. The views expressed here are their own. View more opinion on CNN.
In a 2007 interview, Hillary Clinton admitted that she is “probably the most famous person you don’t really know.”
She was right. Despite having one of the most recognizable names and faces in the world, in many ways Hillary Clinton remains a mystery.
Her work ethic we know. She is the first, first lady to run for political office, and her resumé is unlike any other FLOTUS: she’s been a New York Senator, the Secretary of State and the 2016 Democratic presidential candidate, when she was the first woman ever to be nominated for president on a major party’s ticket.
But when it comes to her true character, she is one of the least understood of all the first ladies we’ve profiled in this series. All too often, Hillary has been caricatured as humorless, despite friends sharing stories about her contagious laughter. She’s been criticized as coldly calculating and uncaring, while her chief of staff, Melanne Verveer, has described a woman who is incredibly concerned about others, especially children.
Her stoic veneer is not surprising when you consider how much personal criticism Hillary has faced throughout her political career. In 1992, Bill Clinton ran on a slogan of “buy one, get one free.” He and his brilliant lawyer wife came as a package deal, and he saw Hillary playing a far greater role as first lady than even her idol Eleanor Roosevelt. “If I get elected president, it will be an unprecedented partnership, far more than Franklin Roosevelt and Eleanor,” he said. “They were two great people, but on different tracks. If I get elected, we’ll do things together like we always have.”
But Hillary quickly became a deeply divisive figure. She was attacked during that same campaign when she seemed to dismiss stay-at home moms while defending her legal career. “I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas,” she said, “but what I decided to do was fulfill my profession.” Then her decision to have a West Wing office and lead a task force to overhaul healthcare made her even more polarizing.
Long before the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Hillary felt under siege in the White House. At a 1994 press conference, she was pelted with questions from reporters for more than an hour. She referred to herself as a “transition” figure who had worked her entire life, and who was surprised by how uncomfortable people were with her ambitious approach to being first lady. “I can’t really help it if some people get up every day wanting to destroy instead of build,” she said.
She wanted to play a major role in policy decisions, but after her healthcare plan failed to get approval from Congress and Democrats suffered a disastrous loss in the 1994 midterm elections, Hillary decided to leave town as often as she could. Between the Travelgate and Whitewater controversies, it isn’t difficult to see why she was happier when she left Washington.
She had a “two-hundred-mile limit,” according to veteran ABC reporter Ann Compton, who covered the Clintons. In Washington, Hillary was very unapproachable, but the farther out of town she got the more accessible she became. Then, “the minute we came home, the political walls went back up,” Compton recalled.
Her crowning achievement as first lady came in September 1995, when she went to Beijing for the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women. In a landmark speech, she gave the quote that’s since become a rallying cry: “If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference,” she said, “let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights, once and for all.”
But a couple years later, the Lewinsky story emerged – and a media firestorm out of Washington again overshadowed all else. “There is no way in the world to figure out what it’s like to live here,” Hillary Clinton said of life in the White House. And she struggled to find a balance as an ambitious woman and a first lady.
In this episode of “First Ladies,” we hear from members of “Hillaryland,” a nickname created by a Clinton campaign aide in 1992 and one that members of her close-knit inner circle seem eager to encourage. These insiders shed light on her struggles and triumphs as first lady, helping us all get to know her a little better.
Below, join us for a “First Ladies” watching party as we break down seven of our favorite moments and key takeaways from this episode.
1. ‘Buy one, get one free’
Kate Andersen Brower: Hillary Clinton is the only first lady to run for office. “Buy one, get one free” was a slogan from Clinton’s 1992 campaign and they were not kidding.
Kate Bennett: Yep. A very distinguished fact when you think about the company she’s in. It really did feel like a freshness was coming to Washington when the Clintons were campaigning.
Brower: I remember that Fleetwood Mac song they played on the campaign trail. It was “cool.” And his saxophone!
Bennett: It just felt like something totally new. And I loved her blue sequined gown at the inaugural ball.
Brower: Lissa Muscatine points out that some Americans were thrilled that she represented generational change and women’s empowerment … while others did not get it.
Muscatine owns Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington; you know it well Kate.
Bennett: Oh yes, very well. DC icon.
2. Welcome to ‘Hillaryland’
Bennett: Oof. Hillary had a tough father; Gail Sheehy says he “saw life as combat and taught her emotion is weakness; you can’t ever show emotion.”
Another FLOTUS with a complicated relationship with her dad. Eleanor, Jackie …
Brower: Indeed, it’s a definite theme. It’s also interesting to me how she changed from being a Republican to a Democrat, from adopting her parents’ views to finding her own, more progressive voice at Wellesley College.
Bennett: Wellesley had a huge impact on her. I think being with all women and discovering empowerment at a school like that was life-forming. When she went to Yale Law she was one of 27 women out of 235 students!
Brower: I agree; I also went to a Seven Sisters school – Barnard in NYC – and I think it’s empowering. When she became first lady she created a staff larger than any other FLOTUS; they called themselves Hillaryland.
Bennett: And they were almost all women.
Brower: It cannot be overstated how much her decision to have a West Wing office backfired though. People were not ready for a first lady, who is unelected, to have a real policy role.
3. No sleep til’ healthcare
Bennett: Look at young George Stephanopoulos at this press conference!
Brower: He looks the same today! You can almost see the tension in the room here as Bill Clinton announces he’s appointing her to lead universal health care reform. We know that some of Clinton’s advisers were not happy about it.
Bennett: The blowback she got from this task force appointment – I can see both sides.
Brower: I think she was totally qualified to do it, but she was overly optimistic about what the public was ready for.
Bennett: Absolutely. This flashback to when Bill and Hillary met at Yale … the ’70s were not a kind decade to fashion. That is all I will say. I wonder if she still has that white fur coat 🤔?
Brower: She is not a clotheshorse, that’s for sure. It is sad to watch how she had to change herself to fit in as the governor’s wife when Bill Clinton was elected in Arkansas in 1978. She was questioned about keeping her maiden name, not having kids right away after getting married …
Bennett: She had to feel a personal pressure. I wonder if becoming a political wife felt like a takedown? No one was ready for her. Clearly.
Brower: The fact that she didn’t take his last name hurt him very badly. Arkansas was such a socially conservative state for someone like her. Like many other first ladies, including Michelle Obama, she made more money than her husband.
Bennett: She didn’t back down, though; even with health care she’d say, “Think about what we can do.” It is sadly oftentimes not the slogan of Washington, DC.
Brower: Exactly. In some ways she was a hopeless optimist.
Bennett: When it was the weekend she’d say “It’s Friday. Two more workdays til Monday”! 😲
Brower: When she presented the task force findings to Congress, she became the only first lady to testify before the House as a lead witness. Eleanor Roosevelt and Rosalynn Carter also testified before Congress.
Bennett: Hillary altered the way first ladies were perceived. She essentially made it okay to come forward as an influencer, a confidante, a smart mind on policy. Everything first ladies had been behind the scenes for decades, she made it okay to start to be those things “in the open.”
Brower: Absolutely. Unfortunately, it was not in sync with our culture at the time. Or maybe even now. She was constantly being accused of being untrustworthy or being involved in something criminal. There was “Travelgate,” the travel office firings; Whitewater, their real estate investments; and then Lewinsky – the scandals were just so much baggage.
“There was misogyny underneath many of the attacks” – David Brock, you don’t say?!
Bennett: Haha – saying the quiet part out loud! She was truly plagued by constant criticism. Made her tough and determined, but I wonder what it has done to her emotionally? (Side note: The soundtrack to this episode is very dramatique!)
Brower: I think she put up walls and for good reason. I do wonder why she could never break through and show herself. Friends say she has a great sense of humor, a lot of empathy. But she could never be herself. (And you’re right, this music is giving me goosebumps.)
Bennett: Yep. I heard those stories all the time. Never transferred through to the public.
5. Women’s rights are human rights
Brower: Health care is seen as a failure, but it wasn’t entirely. She helped get legislation passed for children’s health care. She was resilient and got back up again and again.
And then we have the trip to China where she famously talked about the importance of women’s rights. I think you have to put her speech in context to realize how shocking it was; the First Lady of the United States was speaking up for women in a country where girl’s lives were devalued and degraded.
Bennett: She said she was just “going as Hillary Clinton,” a private citizen. Do you think she overestimated how people would get on board to let her go? Or was she just a person who wanted to say what she says because she wanted to speak her truth no matter the reaction?
Brower: I do think she was optimistic that there wouldn’t be any blowback. Here’s the famous part of her Beijing speech: “Women’s rights are human rights.”
Bennett: So good. And I love that she wore a pink suit to deliver that statement.
Brower: That’s interesting, I hadn’t thought of how ultrafeminine that suit was. It was as though she was making a point that she could be tough but also feminine at the same time. Then, just as things are going well, the Lewinsky story happens and derails everything.
Bennett: Oh boy. Just when she was finding her footing.
6. ‘Vast right-wing conspiracy’
Brower: Yeah, this was such a sad period for her. Butlers told me they could hear her crying in the residence.
Bennett: I started at “Hardball with Chris Matthews” one week before the Lewinsky story broke.
Brower: What timing!
Bennett: It was a crazy insane and pivotal time. My first job out of college. It was a whirlwind with that scandal.
Brower: Here she is on the “Today” show defending her husband, who had denied the affair repeatedly – including to her.
Bennett: She called it a “vast right-wing conspiracy.” Do you think deep down she knew the affair was true? As she was denying?
Brower: In my opinion, Bill really hung her out to dry.
Bennett: Oh, he totally did.
Brower: I think deep down she suspected it was true … but I think it was the shame of having the whole world know. And the circumstances, with an intern not much older than Chelsea. That must have stung the most.
Bennett: The constant defending of him, and then he admits it. Devastating.
Brower: What could she do? This story repeats itself over and over and over again.
Bennett: So true. Patti Solis Doyle, her senior adviser, says Hillary “was angrier than I’ve ever seen her ever be.”
Brower: In an oral history interview with the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, Hillary’s friend, Susan Thomases, said, “She would have hit him with a frying pan if one had been handed to her, but I don’t think she ever in her mind imagined leaving him or divorcing him.”
The famous scene of her walking across the South Lawn with Chelsea holding the family together, literally holding her parent’s hands and standing between them. I mean, how awful.
Bennett: Wrenching for Chelsea.
Brower: We think we live in times of high drama now, but this was stranger than fiction too.
7. Ahead of her time
Bennett: Listen, I’m all for her running for something. But when she announced her Senate campaign, even I was like, “Wait, but she doesn’t live in New York?”
Bennett: She really has enormous drive. A “get knocked down and get back up” personality we haven’t seen to such a degree from any FLOTUS.
Brower: Absolutely. Jill Biden will be the first working first lady, but HRC was a senator for several weeks as she ended her term as first lady.
It’s fascinating that women blamed her for staying with Bill. I’m not sure how she did it. But I know why. If she had left him it would have crushed his presidency, I think.
And then she must have reasoned how it might have hurt her own political future, which we know was very bright. When she ran for president, she was the most qualified candidate in American history.
Bennett: She later admitted the hardest decision she ever made was deciding to stay in her marriage.
Brower: Don’t you wonder how Bill felt in 2016? I mean her loss was tied up in all this scandal from the ’90s.
Bennett: Totally. And she still had to conquer the “likability” factor; Americans have a thing for needing charisma.
Brower: Question: Why do we need a charismatic president? We need a competent president.
Bennett: OMG I was just thinking the same thing!
Brower: You’re brilliant 😘
Bennett: Haha! As Gail Sheehy says, “she was just always 10 or 15 years ahead of her time.” That could be her biggest “fault,” which isn’t a fault at all.
Brower: Exactly. I think she even recognized that she was pushing the envelope. She told Laura Bush later that she always regretted having an office in the West Wing – not because she didn’t believe first ladies could do policy work, but that the criticism of it hindered her ability to get more accomplished.
And we can’t forget the baggage of those years. This episode does a great job of reminding us of that.
Bennett: Yes – the elephant in the room. That was a good episode. It really lays out the push forward and pull back nature of a woman in American politics.
Brower: Agreed ✔️ I learned a lot, too. One last episode to go, and it’s my favorite: Lady Bird!