Her husband was preparing for his nationally televised press conference, she had just returned from a congressional lunch on Capitol Hill, and outside the White House questions about Whitewater were cresting at flood stage. But it was a relaxed and smiling Hillary Rodham Clinton who greeted managing editor Landon Y. Jones downstairs in the Red Room on March 24. On this sunny spring day—the warmest to date in Washington—she talked freely and at times passionately about the Whitewater controversy and her multiple roles as wife, mother and policymaker. Other, lighter topics included the recent video spoof that she and the President made of the “Harry and Louise” anti-Clinton-health-care-reform commercials (see related story, page 105) and her lifelong love of baseball and the underachieving Chicago Cubs. (“If you’re a Cubs’ fan, you have to believe in life after death,” she says. “It’s almost a religious conviction.”) Some excerpts:
Are you enjoying your job these days?
Yes, I am. I’m having a great time working on health care and traveling around the country and visiting with people. That’s what makes it worthwhile.
You look wonderful, but everyone says you must be stressed out and working too hard.
Well, I am working hard. I just came from the Hill, where I met with Democratic House members. Then the President and the Vice President and I met with all the Democratic senators about health care. It was great. We’re making lots of progress. Every day we’re getting closer and closer to the ultimate goal, I think.
Washington is so consumed with Whitewater. Do you feel the national press is out of touch with what you experience around the country?
Well, it is certainly not in sync with my personal experience. I can’t comment beyond that. But as I travel around the country, there’s a sense of concern by people that the Congress and the President work together to solve the country’s problems—and that cuts across party lines. People stand up in meetings frequently and say lo me, “I’m a Republican, but I want health care.” Or, “I’m an independent, but I think dealing with crime is the most important issue.” So I do think there is something of a disconnect between what is of concern inside the Washington political process, including the press, and what the people are waiting for: action on these problems.
You are often visibly moved by stories you haw from people about the need for health-care reform. Don’t you feel some frustration as you watch the plan grind through Congress?
No. No. I think the Congress is doing exactly what it should do and what we had hoped it would do. From the very beginning we knew that we would make our best efforts to put a proposal on the table. That would start the debate. It wasn’t any kind of end point; it was a beginning. And as long as the President made clear that he would not sign a bill that did not guarantee health insurance for everybody, [we recognize that] there are different ways of getting there, and that’s what the Congress is struggling with right now. But if you look at the work that is being done in the committees in both the House and the Senate, it is going faster than most legislation—a lot faster than you could expect the most major piece of legislation in 30 years to be proceeding. So I’m very pleased.
Do you feel various smaller issues have bubbled up and become larger because you were so focused on health-care reform?
Well, I think that, for me, it is certainly the case that last year I was preoccupied with health care and, for a number of months—really for the entire year—with the deaths of people close to us: my father and my mother-in-law and our friend Vince Foster. We had a death every three months. My sister-in-law’s brother also died. So between the work I believe in and was trying to do for health-care reform, and the personal challenge of dealing with the deaths of people that were members of our family or close friends, it was a pretty tough year. And it never crossed my mind that anybody would make such a production out of a failed land transaction in which we paid back every loan, never did business with an S&L and tried to do the right thing all the way through those years. So if I missed anything because of my prior commitment to health care and my personal and family responsibilities, it was that I missed the fact that something insignificant can be blown out of proportion. I think that was one of my mistakes: not recognizing that.
Deputy White House counsel Vincent Foster committed suicide. And so many of your other Arkansas friends have left Washington or have been battered by the political process. What do you tell them?
Well, there have been some, but the vast majority are doing very well and are really making a contribution here in the White House and out in the government. Anybody who had their house flooded in the Midwest or was shaken by the earthquakes in Los Angeles is probably pleased that James Lee Witt is on the job at FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency]. There are many people who are really performing admirably. Of course, it’s sad that anybody would have to leave or not be here anymore. But that’s part of life. That’s going to happen no matter where you live.
You’ve always said criticism is the price for trying to gel things done in politics, but Whitewater accusations must be particularly painful because of your religious background and because you are being accused of doing something wrong.
It breaks my heart that anybody would accuse me or my husband of doing anything wrong, and it is something that I regret deeply. But trying to understand the reasons and the motivations behind such activities has just reinforced for me that things like this happen to people all the time. You go back and everything that’s ever happened—and probably ever could happen to human beings—happened in the Bible. You go back and read those stories, and it’s all there just as plain as it could be. Nobody gets a stress-free or problem-free life. We all just deal with the challenges that we’re given. I now understand that at this particular moment in history and with the kind of agenda for change that my husband believes in, these are our particular challenges, and we’re just going to have to deal with them.
How do you find energy to push on?
I spend the time that I can with my daughter, my husband, doing nothing related to politics or policy. That’s very reinvigorating: just spending a couple of hours playing cards or watching a movie or having our meals together and talking about school instead of Congress. I also read a lot. I am obviously very reliant upon my religious and my personal experience in filling myself back up, which I think everybody needs to do. I do that through spending lime alone and prayer and contemplation. And then I try to get exercise, not as often as I should. And I talk with people who are my friends and whose opinions I value and trust so there can be an honest give-and-take.
How do you answer people who argue that a First Lady is unaccountable under the Constitution?
Well, I feel accountable. And I think I have been held accountable. I don’t know how many press interviews and press conferences I have held around the country, but if we were to add them up, there would be probably hundreds in the last year. So I feel very accountable. I think everyone who works in the White House is here because the President chose us. He is the only person that is here on his own merits; everybody else has been chosen by him and works for him. I think we are all accountable, and I don’t mind that at all. And I have certainly tried to be available. Sometimes it’s a little funny to me that I can travel all over the country and speak to thousands of people and answer hundreds of press questions and do dozens of live TV interviews, but because I haven’t done it in Washington, it doesn’t count. I don’t understand that attitude. I feel I am being held accountable by the entire country. So that’s what I’m trying lo respond to.
Do you see parallels between your experience and that of other First Ladies, such as Eleanor Roosevelt?
I do. But I think it’s not just with Mrs. Roosevelt, whom I admire greatly, but with all of the women who’ve been in this position. Apparently there is no way to escape criticism. You can be very involved and on the front lines like Mrs. Roosevelt and be criticized. Or you can be totally concerned with your family and not venture forth and be criticized. It is a no-win situation. I don’t mind criticism that will come to me from people who honestly disagree about the President’s health-care plan. I think that is what we should be arguing about in our country. But like every other woman who has been in this position, it hurls when people make up stories or say things that aren’t true in order lo get at you. Often they are trying to do that to undermine your husband and your husband’s agenda. So when people try to attack me personally, they’re really trying to attack the President and undermine his authority to do the job he was elected to do. That seems to be the history of these situations going back to the beginning.
Do you think attacks on you have been particularly tough because you have been breaking new ground in your expanded role as First Lady?
I understand that, and I think that the viciousness of some of the attacks—going all the way back to the campaign and the Republican Convention—is because people don’t know what to make of women, not just me. There are still so many stereotypes around. What I have said for years and years is that I just want to live my life the way that I believe is right for me. I want every woman to have the same opportunity. I do not prejudge any other woman’s choices. I have dear friends who have made every choice available to modern women, from being full-time home-makers to being full-time unmarried career women. What I wish for them is what I wish for every young girl: that their life choices give them the satisfaction and the happiness that comes from leading an integrated life.
So I am who I am, and I know that is a red flag for some who are in the right wing who have different views about a woman’s appropriate role in life or who disagree with the particular political views that my husband and I share about providing health care for everybody. They don’t believe that, and so rather than attacking the underlying issue and the message, they attack the messenger and try to throw every thing including the kitchen sink at me. That is, I think, inevitable when you’re trying very hard to create a changed environment in which people are put first and they are given a chance to live up to their own God-given potential, whether they be a boy or a girl or a man or a woman.
What goes through your mind when people refer lo Vincent Foster’s death as an “alleged” suicide?
Well, I think many of the allegations that have been made in the last year are pure fantasy, and I can only think they are either made by people who are misguided but sincere, or by people who are making such allegations lo try to undermine the authority and standing of the President. I don’t think there-are any other explanations for it because there are absolutely no facts to support such allegations.
If your daughter Chelsea were to tell you that she wanted to go into public service, what advice would you give her?
The same advice I would give any young person who asked, and that is: Be prepared so that you know what you believe and what you’re willing lo fight for. And understand clearly that you will run afoul of established interests who will try to undermine you. Just have the courage of your convictions and believe in what you’re doing, and everything will turn out all right.