While much of the country was chilled by an early blast of winter, Friday, Dec. 11, found Little Rock, Ark., basking in 60° sunshine. The city bustled not only with the approach of Christmas but with transitions local and national, It was Bill Clinton’s last full day as Governor, and preparations were being made for the transfer to his successor, Lt. Gov. Jim Guy Tucker. Meanwhile the Governor’s Mansion—where Clinton will live until his move to Washington, D.C., in January—was buzzing with the excitement of Cabinet appointments. “Wasn’t it thrilling? Were you there? Did you see it?” asked Hillary Clinton, 45, as she returned from one ceremony and prepared for an interview with managing editor London Y. Jones Jr. and Washington bureau chief Garry Clifford. It was to be the Clintons’ first joint interview since the election.
Her husband, Bill, 46, had been busy with Vice President-elect Al Gore and had just gone upstairs to switch from his business suit into a blazer and blue sports shirt for the interview. Hillary waited for him in the conference room, wearing a red wool knit with a new beige sweater threaded with gold. (“Hillary, I love that sweater,” Bill repeated as the day progressed.) The room—the setting for the transition team’s Cabinet-selection meetings—is painted in her favorite color, a colonial blue that matches her eyes, and is filled with the Clintons’ collection of books by Arkansas authors, some of their porcelain collection and family mementos. On a table is a bronze razorback hog, the icon of the University of Arkansas, with a plaque reading “Commitment gives one the ability to become what lie has always dreamed of being.”
By all accounts, Hillary has had considerable influence on her husband’s Cabinet choices and other transition decisions. Now, though, she is talking about Christmas, “our favorite time of the year.” Chelsea, their daughter, played the Ghost of Christmas Past in her school’s production of A Christmas Carol and will dance in Little Rock’s production of The Nutcracker. As in previous years, Hillary explained, the Clintons will “adopt” a needy family “which we personally take responsibility for. We get things they need and deliver them, usually on Christmas Eve. We started doing that with Chelsea a long time ago. And we also try to go by some of the shelters in town and visit with the people there and try to give them some things that are real Christmassy—especially the children, but the adults as well. And we go to church on Christmas Eve as well as Christmas Day. Christmas is really important to us.”
Soon her husband returned, looking trim and refreshed but apparently not feeling it. “I must say that in some ways what I am doing now is more exhausting than the campaign, “he said. “It’s been 12 to 15 hours a day, every day. I’m just as tired as I ever was.” Though his overworked voice sounded gravelly when he talked about the economy or politics, it seemed to gain strength when the subject turned to his 12-year-old daughter’s well-being. (Bill to media: Hands off Chelsea.) He also spoke about family and home, and his voice became softer and broke once or twice when referring to the father he never knew.
Following are excerpts from the interview.
You talked during the campaign about how you wanted to come back to Arkansas every four or five days and plug into your friends and family. How are you going to maintain these links when you go to Washington?
BC: I’m very concerned about it. It is so important to me. To us. I expect to come back often. I expect to see my friends. I expect to have a phone number where they can call me and get through. The roots that I have here mean a lot to me. It was an important reason I was elected. People read that I come from a real place. That I have real friends. That I had a real life. I must say that I am excited about the future, but I am going to miss this place terribly.
Do you expect people to be coming the other way? Will there be a bedroom for Chelsea’s grandparents in the White House?
BC: Sure. I hope that my family and Hillary’s family will be up there a lot, and an awful lot of our friends will come from time to time just so they can be with us.
Will kids like Chelsea’s school friend Elizabeth Fleming come for sleepovers in the White House?
HRC: Yes, absolutely.
BC: We think that it is real important for Chelsea to stay in touch with her friends.
What about your ability to protect Chelsea from the press? What will she do when she realizes that instead of seeing just her parents’ names in the papers, hers will be there too?
BC: I hope she just won’t read it.
HRC: We have talked to her about it a lot. It’s always difficult to be a child growing up under any circumstances, no matter who your parents are. When I was growing up, my parents always told me that I had to do what I thought was right and not listen to other people. That was hard for me. And I didn’t have one-millionth of the attention that she’ll have. But both of us are going to try to tell her the same thing that our parents told us and to try to help her understand how she can become the person she is meant to be. I think that she’s got a pretty clear sense that if her cat becomes a world celebrity, there is a lot of interest that is not related to anything about her, or about what she stands for or what she believes and that she has to be able to see her way through that and make choices that are right for her.
What if Saturday Night Live makes jokes at the expense of the Gore girls and your daughter?
BC: You know, I really find it hilarious when they make fun of me. The Saturday Night Live skit where I was in McDonald’s talking about Somalia—I thought that was hilarious. But I think you gotta be pretty insensitive to make fun of an adolescent child. I think there is something pretty off-center with people who do that. But I’ve determined that I can’t control their behavior, so I’ll just have to control our response to it. We really work hard on making sure that Chelsea doesn’t let other people define her sense of her own self-worth. I think the world would be a lot better off if more people were to define themselves in terms of their own standards and values and not what other people said or thought about them. It’s tough when you are an adolescent because peer opinion and other people’s opinion become more important. But I think she’ll be OK.
Hillary, how are you going to define yourself in your new job as wife of the President?
HRC: That’s something that I’m just kind of growing into. And it is very important to me that I try to do the very best job that I can do. It is something that I’ve thought a lot about. But Bill and I haven’t had a real chance to talk very much about it because he’s been so busy. I love my husband, and I love my country, and I can’t imagine a better place to be than where I will be after Jan. 20. I want to make a difference.
Governor, one thing that impressed people during your campaign is the way you were knocked down and kept coming back…
BC: It was withering! But I just figured it was part of the deal. I guess in some ways I may have done better than I expected to in the campaign, but I didn’t expect it would be so painful. People ask me all the time: Did it ever occur to me to drop out of the presidential race? It never crossed my mind. I was comfortable with who I was and what I stood for, and the voters got to decide whether I was going to retire from the race. I never thought about quitting. A lot of people find that surprising. All these people started saying, “Well, he’s deader than a doornail, he ought to withdraw.” I thought to myself, “Have these people ever faced any real adversity? This is not real adversity. This is words. And pictures.”
My mother and my family gave me this sense of resilience and just enjoying life. Most of the people in my grandfather’s generation, whom I knew very well—my great aunts and my uncles and all that—they all had a kind of happy-go-lucky, upbeat outlook on life. Most of the family were living in quite modest circumstances, had grown up in the Depression or before. Never had much of anything. They had the idea that nobody owes you anything, you’re not entitled to anything good, you gotta take what comes, and you just can’t give up. Quitting is a form of cowardice and you just can’t do it.
Whenever I was tempted to feel sorry for myself, I remember something that my grandparents used to say to me all the time: “You don’t have to look around very far to see somebody that’s in worse shape than you are.” When I saw those veterans who lost their limbs in Vietnam standing up for me over that draft thing, or I would see older people who really didn’t have enough food to eat because they were spending their money buying medicine and were looking to me to help them, or I was talking to young people who couldn’t provide medical care for their children—it seemed to me to be an incredible indulgence to spend 10 minutes of a given day feeling bad about what was happening to me. I just figured that if I took a deep breath and went on and tried to conduct myself with dignity and honor that I would be able to go on.
Hillary, you are pretty dogged yourself. Where does that come from?
HRC: From the same kind of support as a child that Bill just described. From parents who told me that I could do what I set my mind to do and they would be there for me. From teachers and preachers and other people who really took time to value children. I give the credit to my family and to the religious faith that they fostered.
I guess that’s one of the things that I look back on now with such great fondness, because there were always adults around who would care about you and would pick you up when you fell. I mean they might not give you much sympathy, but they would be there for you. And they would tell you to keep going and not get deterred, and I just see so many kids today who don’t have that kind of support.
You know, everybody has setbacks in their life, and everybody falls short of whatever goals they might set for themselves. That’s part of living and coming to terms with who you are as a person. But [handling those problems] sure [would be] a lot more possible if along that journey you had people who validated you and told you that you were worth something, so that you know when you don’t hit a home run or get the best grade or get asked to the dance or whatever—that scene is something that you’ll live through.
BC: You’ve got to do a job of instilling in people when they are young a sense that their self-worth is tied to the fact that they are children of God—whether they are poor and in adverse families or sometimes not poor at all. A friend of mine, an African-American, was here the other night from just a little ol’ place in the South. He had a terrible misfortune when he was growing up, and he told me that he went home to his mother one night and he was overcome and said, “Why did this happen to me, to us?” And his mother looked at him and said, “God never gives us a bigger load than we can carry.” That’s the sort of wisdom that we were all raised with.
You never met your father. [William Blythe died in an automobile accident three months before his son’s birth.] Did you ever dream of him as you were growing up?
BC: Absolutely. Oh, I imagined it all the time. I imagined what it would be like to just see him come around the corner at Christmastime. Sure I did. What it would be like just to know what he had been. You know, when I was a kid, after I got my driver’s license and I’d go from Hot Springs to Hope, or when I came back from college and went down to Hope, I’d always go to the cemetery and see his grave. Always.
HRC: In the last year or two, maybe three years, we were at a meeting of mostly young men who had either been in trouble with the law or were about to be in trouble. Bill said to one of them, “Well, if you don’t want to do it for yourself, do it for your parents or for people who care about you.” And the young man said, “Well, I don’t know who my father is, and I haven’t seen my mother in a long time. Nobody cares about me.” And Bill said, “Well, I never knew my father either, but I always assumed that somebody cared about me and I had to try and live up to that.” And I remember the young man saying afterward, “I never knew people like him didn’t know their fathers. I never knew that there was somebody who could be a Governor and maybe was like me in some ways.”
BC: One of the things I have to face all the time is incredible: On the one hand, the President has great power—not only governmental power, but the power to speak and talk and, suddenly, everyone is interested in the things we have been advocating. That’s great! But the flip side of that is there are all these things that go on in America that I can’t touch unless people change from the inside out. Unless there are a whole set of values that are communicated. If I could do something for all these young kids who are right on the brink of getting in trouble and think that they have got to carry guns around and do all that crazy stuff—I am convinced that if they really thought of themselves as children of God and could value their lives in terms of what happens to themselves inside, rather than all these external forces, the world would be a better place. I don’t say that as an excuse for not helping…
HRC: Or being held accountable…
BC: But I don’t like the traditional sort of conservative-values argument that lets people like me off the hook—that you just preach to people and tell them to do right. Or the liberal argument: “Well, they are in a hell of a fix, so we’ve got to try to do everything, they are not really accountable.” I’m not trying to exonerate people of responsibility, but it is absolutely true that what is inside you really counts—and it counts for more than anything else.
And you’ve got to believe in something larger than yourself?
BC: If anybody asks me now what was the most important lesson if you wanted to run for President, I’d say you’ve got to decide what you believe in. It’s got to be bigger than you. And you have got to stick to it. You gotta have a coherent, passionate message, and you have got to stick to it. And if that is the core of your campaign, then you will be able to deal with whatever happens to you personally, including defeat, because you will always have integrity in your effort.
If, in the end, I had been defeated by someone who had an alternative message, then I would have had integrity in my effort and it would have been OK. Although I like this better!
Have you started working on your Inaugural Address?
BC: I’m working on it a little bit. I’m gonna go back and read a number of the other speeches. I want to read Andrew Jackson’s inaugural speech, the first one. I think Lincoln’s second inaugural was one of his greatest speeches. He did the best job of capturing huge ideas and transient events in a few words and crystallizing what was going to happen.
Could you tell us about some of the themes you are trying to touch during inaugural week?
BC: I really wanted to open it up and make it different and inclusive. Not just by race and also by region but by income. So we are going to do a lot of free events, and we cut the ticket prices on some events over previous inaugurations. I feel good about the balance we’ve got between the past and the future. I’m trying to draw up the best of our heritage and throw it into the future. I want people to think about tomorrow, like our campaign song. I feel good about that.