Clinton says he told his wife: "I have no defense. This is inexcusable, what I did"

By Sean Neumann
March 05, 2020 11:07 PM
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A new documentary about Hillary Clinton includes candid discussion of the most scandalous part of her husband’s presidency: his affair with Monica Lewinsky, who was then a much younger White House intern.

The one who is being so frank?

President Bill Clinton himself.

In the four-part Hillary, which premieres on Hulu on Friday, the former commander-in-chief opens up about how the impeachable chapter unfolded — including the moment he came clean to the former first lady and their daughter, Chelsea, who was a teenager.

“I went and sat on the bed and talked to [Hillary],” President Clinton, 73, explains in Hillary. “I told her exactly what happened, when it happened. I said, ‘I feel terrible about it.’ I said, ‘We’ve been through quite a bit in the last few years. I have no defense. This is inexcusable, what I did.’ ”

Inexcusable, he says, but explainable.

Nobody, he says, “sits down and thinks, ‘I think I’ll take a really irresponsible risk. It’s bad for my family, bad for my country, bad for the people who work with me.’ ”

“That’s not what happens,” he says. “It’s … you feel like you’re staggering around. You’ve been in a 15-round prize fight that’s been extended to 30 rounds and here’s something that will take your mind off it for a while. Everybody’s life has pressures and disappointments, terrors and fears of whatever. Things I did to manage my anxieties for years — I’m a totally different person than I was.”

“What I did, it was bad, but it wasn’t like I thought, ‘Let’s see, how can I think about the most stupid thing I could possibly do and do it.’ It’s just not a defense,” he adds.

Former President Bill Clinton
| Credit: Dirck Halstead/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty

The president’s affair with Lewinsky, which began in 1995 when she was 22 and which led to his impeachment, dominates the second half of Hillary‘s third episode, which features remarkably open conversations with the Clintons and their closest confidants throughout their lives and careers.

Director Nanette Burstein tells PEOPLE that she spent about 40 days interviewing the Clintons and other political allies for the documentary to share a “fly-on-the-wall, unvarnished” new perspective on the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee.

“It was hard for her to talk about some of the more personal things, particularly when it came to her marriage and family,” Burstein says. “Although, she agreed to do it and she did fully go there and share a lot of her emotional journey in that way and some of the tougher moments of her life. But it didn’t come naturally to her.”

Mrs. Clinton — very reserved by her own admission — credits much of her guardedness to the intense media coverage she and her husband received during his time in the White House. Once the affair became public knowledge, no part of its effects could be kept hidden.

“Every time they appeared publicly, it was, ‘Are they wearing their wedding rings? Are they holding hands? What’s the body language?’ That’s all analyzed,” Lisa Caputo, then Mrs. Clinton’s press secretary, says in Hillary.

At first, the first lady defended the president and denied he had an affair or “caused pain” in their marriage during an already scheduled interview on the Today show soon after rumors began to swirl about Lewinsky.

But after more than half a year of denying the allegations publicly in the media and privately among family, friends and White House staff, President Clinton came clean.

“I was just devastated,” his wife, now 72, says in the documentary. “I just could not believe it. I was just so personally hurt and, ‘I can’t believe this. I can’t believe you lied.’ It was — anyways, horrible. And I said, ‘If this is going to be public, you’ve got to go tell Chelsea.’ ”

President Clinton remembers the former first lady telling him: “You have to go tell your daughter. That’s worse than me.”

“And so I did that, which was,” he recalls, pausing, ” … awful.”

“Justifiably, because what I did was wrong,” he says. “I just hated to hurt her.”

From left: Hillary, Chelsea and Bill Clinton
| Credit: LUKE FRAZZA/Getty Images

The Clintons say in Hillary that their daughter played a pivotal role in helping them get through the scandal, both privately and in public. In an iconic moment soon after he told the truth about his affair in a nationally televised address, the three were photographed leaving the White House on a trip to Martha’s Vineyard and Chelsea stood between her parents, holding their hands in what became a symbolic image of their enduring marriage.

“That was not anything other than her just trying to keep us together,” Mrs. Clinton says in the documentary. “When she did that, ‘Oh my gosh,’ I thought, That’s just so incredible — so strong and so wise.”

President Clinton says Chelsea was “filling in our empty space” between him and his wife.

During the roughly 40 days of interviews, director Burstein tells PEOPLE she spent more than 35 hours speaking with the first lady-turned-senator and secretary of state about everything from her childhood upbringing in the Chicago area to the contentious 2016 presidential election between her and Donald Trump.

“She doesn’t always unload to people with the personal struggles that she deals with, but she was very candid with me and I think she was comfortable talking about the various experiences she had politically,” Burstein says. “I certainly challenged her a lot and she had to talk about a lot of tough issues. I think it was pretty exhausting for her, but I think you see a very unique side that she’s never shared before so that was worth it.”

Lewinsky — who in the decades since the scandal has re-emerged as an anti-bullying and women’s advocate — is just one portion of the four-part documentary, which goes into detail about how Mrs. Clinton grew to become simultaneously one of the most admired and divisive figures in American history.

“I don’t think people understand how hurt she has been personally by him in the Monica Lewinsky case,” Mandy Grunwald, a media advisor for the Clintons for more than two decades, says in Hillary.

After the affair became public, Mrs. Clinton worked to defend her husband against impeachment and even convinced some White House staff not to quit the administration.

“Once he admitted that he had lied, I was beyond furious,” says Paul Begala, who was one of President Clinton’s White House counselors. “I was crushed. I loved this man, so believed in him and really thought about quitting. Not long thereafter I decided I would. And within minutes, I got a call from the first lady and she said, ‘If I’m not quitting, you’re not quitting.’ That really meant a lot and I thought, I’ve got to get out of my own head and realize there’s a lot at stake here.”

President Clinton was impeached in December 1998, though he was acquitted by the Senate.

“I defended and stood by him because I thought the impeachment process was wrong, but that wasn’t the necessary answer to what I would do with my marriage,” Mrs. Clinton says in the documentary. “It was not — to me — the same. I still had to decide whether I wanted to stay in the marriage, whether I thought it was worth saving.”

She says they saw a marriage counselor and had “painful, painful discussions” about what to do with their family.

From left: Hillary and Bill Clinton
| Credit: Kevin Mazur/Getty

President Clinton says counseling was “one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do,” but it was a necessary step to repairing his relationship with his family.

“[My wife] deserved it, Chelsea deserved it and I needed it,” he says. “I feel terrible about the fact that Monica Lewinsky’s life was defined by it, unfairly I think. Over the years, I’ve watched her trying to get a normal life back again, but you’ve got to decide how to define ‘normal.’ ”

It’s an evolving tone from how he discussed the affair in 2018, when he said on Today that he didn’t think he “owed” Lewinsky a direct apology. But he noted then that he had publicly apologized “to everybody in the world.”

For her part, Lewinsky wrote in a 2018 essay for Vanity Fair, in part: “Now, at 44, I’m beginning (just beginning) to consider the implications of the power differentials that were so vast between a president and a White House intern. I’m beginning to entertain the notion that in such a circumstance the idea of consent might well be rendered moot. (Although power imbalances—and the ability to abuse them—do exist even when the sex has been consensual.)”

Nearly two decades later, the scandal would become a central part of President Trump’s attack on the Clintons during the 2016 presidential campaign — notably when Trump held a pre-debate press conference in October 2016 with three women who previously accused President Clinton of sexual assault or harassment.

The tactic was used to take attention away from Trump’s own offensive comments that had come to light that week in an Access Hollywood tape where the future president bragged about being able to touch women’s genitals without permission, given his celebrity status.

Mrs. Clinton remains the only woman to ever be a major party’s presidential nominee, which Burstein says helped pave the way for women in politics in America.

“I don’t know if she even did it with the idea that, ‘I’m trying to change this for women,’ I think she just felt like, ‘I’m qualified and I happen to be a woman and who cares, I’m going to go for it,’ ” Burstein tells PEOPLE. “But that is a brave thing to do, and there’s a lot of backlash that happens and it doesn’t always work out. But it makes it easier for the next generation for women to come.”