In a moving and surprisingly candid interview, Hillary Clinton talks to Nick Bryant about the nightmare of defeat, the pain afterwards and how her mother’s legacy and wonderful family have made her smile again.
the aftermath of defeat
The night began with Hillary Clinton chasing her granddaughter Charlotte around a hotel suite in Manhattan, the perfect distraction as polling stations across America closed and votes started being tallied in an election widely expected to make her the first female President in US history. Across town, expectant supporters had gathered in the atrium of a convention centre under a giant glass ceiling, which, figuratively at least, she would shatter.
For her victory rally, she planned to wear a white pantsuit, the colour of the suffragettes. Her speech would be more personal than usual and recount the harrowing story of her late mother, Dorothy, who as an eightyear-old had been abandoned by her parents and put on a train with her younger sister for the cross-country journey to California, an arduous trip even for adults. Hillary Clinton would imagine going back in time to be with young Dorothy in that carriage. “Look at me. Listen to me,” she would have said to that vulnerable young girl. “You will survive. You will have a good family of your own and three children. And as hard as it might be to imagine, your daughter will grow up and become the President of the United States.”
The night before, at a concert outside Philadelphia’s Independence Hall with the Obamas and Bruce Springsteen, America’s first black President told her she was on the verge of a victory which, historically speaking, rivalled his own. “You’ve got this,” Barack Obama whispered in her ear, as he hugged her. “I’m so proud of you.” Her chief pollster assured her, “You’re going to bring this home.”
Yet that evening, in her hotel suite just down Fifth Avenue from Trump Tower, the early signs were not good. She was underperforming in key states, such as Florida. Aides were making panicked phone calls. Bill Clinton was getting increasingly nervous, gnawing incessantly on an unlit cigar. Somehow, in the midst of this tension, Hillary grabbed some much needed sleep.
Yet by the time she woke up,
Donald Trump was on the verge of the biggest upset in US political history.
“It was like all the air in the room had been sucked away,” she writes in her new book. “I could barely breathe.”
Rather than electing the country’s first female Commander in Chief, Americans had voted into the White House a man she saw as a vile misogynist, “someone who objectified women and bragged about sexual assault”. It was small consolation that she amassed nearly three million more votes than Donald Trump nationwide.
Under the US voting system, the Electoral College, he won the states that mattered and with them the presidency. “I had been rejected – but also affirmed,” Hillary reflects.
“It was surreal.” Above all, however, it was traumatising. “In my head, I heard the vicious ‘Lock her up!’ chants that had echoed at Trump rallies,” she remembers. “Trump had said that if he won, he’d send me to prison. Now he had won. I had no idea what to expect.”
What went wrong
When we met up recently near her country home in Chappaqua, New York, Hillary was in good spirits with her trademark bright-eyed smile as she told me she had, “come back into the light”. Her post-election recuperation, though, has been painful. Through it, she has drawn comfort from the love of friends and family, her unshakeable faith in God, the Neapolitan novels of Elena Ferrante, the poetry of Maya Angelou, some binge-watching on the sofa (The Good Wife, Madam Secretary and, Bill’s pick, NCIS: Los Angeles), a form of yogic “breath work” (inhaling through one nostril and exhaling out the other) and the therapeutic effects of “my share of chardonnay”.
There are upsides to losing. “On the personal front, it’s a sheer joy to spend time with my grandchildren in a very relaxed, informal way,” she says. “They came to our house last weekend and they raced around, and we pushed them on swings.”
Yet it’s oppressive dark clouds that Hillary lives in the shadow of, rather than the faint glow of silver linings. “I’m not going to sit here and pretend otherwise,” she reflects. “I wish I were making the decisions in the
Oval Office, in part because I think I would have done a really good job. And also because I disagree with what’s going on there.” Noticeably, she rarely utters the words “Donald Trump” and never “President Donald Trump”.
Hillary has conducted her own post-mortem, published in her new book, What Happened, which is out now. As the absence of a question mark shows, she has reached firm conclusions and is no longer casting around for answers. Following her defeat, Hillary’s initial response was to blame herself. “I’m sorry for letting you down,” she said to Barack Obama, shortly after telephoning Donald Trump to concede. “My worst fears about my limitations as a candidate had come true.” She also admits to mistakes of her own making. “I regret handing Trump a political gift with my ‘deplorables’ comments,” she writes, speaking of the time she openly maligned some of his red-capped supporters.
As for using a private server for her emails while US Secretary of State, rather than a government account, it was “one bone-headed mistake”. Yet Hillary is angry the media elevated this into a cardinal sin, especially given the transgressions of her opponent. “It was a dumb mistake,” she says. “But an even dumber ‘scandal’.”
Even though there are more female voters in America than male, her gender was a vote-loser. “Sexism and misogyny played a role in the 2016 presidential election,” she writes. “Exhibit A is that a flagrantly sexist candidate won.” Harder to explain is why so many women voted for Donald Trump. Even after the notorious Access Hollywood tape came to light, in which the billionaire boasted grotesquely about molesting women, Trump received more votes from white women than Hillary. “I was told before the campaign got started that no woman would have empathy for me,” she tells me. “I got it. I got it. I thought I’d overcome it and I believed I had. I wasn’t perfect, but I didn’t know any man that was. I was held to this impossible double standard.”
Women were tough on her. “The more successful a man is, the more people like him,” she writes. “With women, it’s the exact opposite.”
It frustrates her that an American sisterhood took to the streets in a massive pink pussy-hatted protest the day after Trump was inaugurated as President rather than before polling day. “What has emerged since the election is exactly the audience, the energy and activism that wasn’t there before,” she says, wistfully.
“I didn’t fully own the revolution I came of age in and not only participated in, but helped to lead,” says Hillary, who rose to prominence in 1969 as a student leader at Wellesley College. “Maybe I didn’t do it because I didn’t believe there was a receptive audience. But maybe I should have done more of it and forced a more receptive audience to emerge.”
The forces against her
Her strongest criticisms are directed at four men. First, of course, there’s Donald Trump, who was “running a reality TV show that expertly and relentlessly stoked Americans’ anger and resentment.” Trump she found personally repellent (she claims she and Bill attended the tycoon’s wedding to Melania in 2005 because they thought it would be a laugh), especially during the debates, where they shared the same stage. “He was literally breathing down
my neck. My skin crawled.” Hillary kept her cool, but she regrets not confronting him with the words, “Back up, you creep, get away from me. I know you love to intimidate women, but you can’t intimidate me.”
Trump was assisted, Hillary adamantly believes, by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who ordered Russian intelligence to hack into her campaign’s computer systems and flood Facebook and Twitter with fake and negative stories about her.
“I knew he had a personal vendetta against me and deep resentment toward the United States,” she writes. “Yet I never imagined he would have the audacity to launch a massive covert attack against our democracy, right under our noses.”
Julian Assange, the “odious” founder of WikiLeaks, was also complicit, she believes. Assange published thousands of damaging emails hacked from the Clinton campaign, again as part of a personal vendetta.
Much of the book reads like a criminal indictment, the one-time attorney charging members of the Trump campaign, the Kremlin and Assange with working in tandem to prevent her from becoming President. “It’s like something out of one of the spy novels my husband stays up all night reading,” she writes.
In the year since the election, Hillary has spent a lot of time piecing together clues and incriminating evidence.
“At times, I felt like CIA agent Carrie Mathison on the TV show Homeland, desperately trying to get her arms around a sinister conspiracy and appearing more than a little frantic in the process.”
It enrages Hillary that former FBI Director James Comey fiercely criticised her use of a private email server, though she hadn’t breached any laws, and then dramatically announced he was reopening the criminal probe into the scandal just days before the election. “I was winning until October 28, when Jim Comey injected emails back into the election,” she reckons, a claim backed up by polling evidence.
Director Comey’s late intervention, Hillary claims, particularly hurt her among female voters. “Women who want to be for you are holding their breath because they have been inculcated with the idea we’re not as good, we’re not as smart, and so I have to be perfect,” she says. “What if that person went to jail or didn’t do well? It would be an identity crisis.”
In her retelling, the re-emergence of the email scandal gave wavering women an excuse not to vote for her.
What Happened is an honest reckoning, but in it, she inadvertently leaves clues that explain her failure to connect with voters in the US’ old industrial heartland, the famed Rust Belt that propelled Donald Trump into the White House.
In parts, the book embellishes the narrative that the Clintons have become super-rich limousine liberals – even Learjet liberals – and grown out of touch with ordinary Americans. Her decision to run for President followed a holiday in the Caribbean home of the fashion designer Oscar de la Renta. The “glam squad” that helps with hair and make-up – remarkably, this consumed 600 hours during the campaign, or 25 days – includes a make-up artist recommended, she tells us, by American Vogue Editor-in-Chief
Lessons from Mum
Now aged 70, Hillary will never run for office again, but she intends to remain politically active. She has founded a group called Onward Together, which encourages people to resist, insist, persist, enlist. “I’m not somebody who spends a lot of time looking back,” she tells me. “So I’m very focused on the future, personal, public and political.”
The rest of her life will not be spent, “like Miss Havisham from Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, rattling around my house obsessing over what might have been.”
Plainly, though, the torment of defeat still weighs heavy. When I bring up the speech about young Dorothy she never got to deliver, the anguish is on her face. “Yeeeeeaaaaaah,” she says, agonisingly, as if grimacing with pain. “Putting myself in there,” she says, nodding slowly and imagining that scene in the railway carriage.
Yet the memory of her beloved mother has helped get her through the greatest disappointment of her life. “More than anybody else, she has given me the gift of resilience, endurance and the willingness to go up against a lot of tough odds, which I have done.”
As well as resilience, one suspects she inherited a responsibility gene from her mother, especially the urge to look after vulnerable children, Hillary Clinton’s life work.
As our conversation comes to an end, I mention how her candidacy had a politicising effect on my young daughter, who wanted to see a girl in the White House. Her face lights up again – she knows she’s put more cracks in that glass ceiling.
“I plan to live long enough,” Hillary writes, “to see a woman win.”
RIGHT: Hillary with her mother, Dorothy (centre), and daughter Chelsea on her wedding day in 2010.
FROM FAR LEFT: Hillary with husband Bill the day after her defeat; at a campaign rally in 2015. BELOW: With Donald Trump at a debate.
ABOVE: First Lady Hillary listens to a speech on women’s equal pay in June 1998. LEFT: With Chelsea and baby Aidan, her second grandchild, in June 2016.