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It’s a joke. We’ve had so many grandfathers in the White House that to say, ‘You’re disqualified because you are a grandmother,’ is ridiculous, Hillary Rodham Clinton tells Janice Turner
Is America ready for grandmotherto-be Hillary Rodham Clinton to move into the White House?
On the 19th floor of the Peninsula Hotel in New York, Secret Service agents, stocky and unsmiling, stand sentry by the lift, speaking into their cuffs. Even the urbane Manhattan Publishing PR is nervy and micromanaging. “You will have a couch,” he tells me firmly. “Secretary Clinton will be on a chair.”
The vibe is more G8 summit than book launch. It has taken high levels of security clearance just for me to acquire Hillary Clinton’s new 600-page memoir,
Hard Choices. Eventually, just days before my interview, it was biked to my house on condition I remove the dust jacket if I read it on the plane.
What is at stake here – although no one says it – is more than press spoilers or dented sales. It is the most powerful elected office in the world.
The night before we meet, I watch Hillary Clinton being interviewed by Diane Sawyer on CNN. She looks tired, defensive, already embattled in a campaign that has officially not yet begun. Her remark that she and Bill were so “broke” on leaving the White House they had to take lucrative speaking engagements just to pay Chelsea’s college fees was grabbed gleefully by her enemies as a sign she is out of touch with voters. The pitiless attack dog of 24/7 US TV news, which she evaded for four years as President Obama’s foreign firefighter, is once again snapping in her face. Who, at the age of 66, could stomach two more years of this?
But the woman who firmly shakes my hand looks relaxed and recharged. She is slighter and softer in person, wears navy trousers with a cerise jacket the precise shade of the roses positioned by her seat. She is warm, lightening-witted, with an unexpectedly ready laugh and that consummate politician’s art of forming a ready connection. She just loves my red Fendi bag. “Isn’t it fantastic?” she says to her press secretary and chief of staff who sit pertly on chairs to my left. “I have one in hot orange. It’s a great accent colour.”
Her day, which began with an hour-long drive from her home in upstate New York for Good Morning
America, has already seen her give three interviews. This afternoon she will launch her book in Chicago, then return to New York for more press. It seems relentless, but she has an appetite above all for the crowd.
“I’m going to do my first book signing, which I’m very excited about,” she says. I’d heard that the first person in line outside Barnes & Noble was a man. “We got a report from a friend of mine who was walking by. That guy was there at like 10 o’clock at night.” That’s keen, I say. “Keen or weird!” says Clinton and lets rip a loud guffaw.
That crowd awaiting her isn’t interested in Hillary Clinton, author: they want to meet the probable first female president of the United States. But will she run? She won’t say until after the midterm elections in November. But she’d be 69 when she takes office, as old as Reagan, in an era when leadership is ever more associated with youthful vitality. All that sprinting up the steps of planes or conference platforms, I say. “Wear flat shoes, that’s my advice,” says Clinton and laughs. “I think you can have individuals of all ages, all backgrounds, all attributes, who exhibit energy, and those that don’t. And, of course, people want to see energy in their leaders. But I don’t think it’s so much age as how you conduct yourself.”
And Chelsea will have her first child in the autumn. Isn’t it hard enough for America to elect a woman, let alone a granny? “You know it’s almost a joke that we’ve had so many grandfathers in the White House that I think for someone to say, ‘Well, in my mind you’re disqualified because you might be a grandmother,’ is just so ridiculous.” H er new book is a careful, committee-written account of her four years as secretary of state: an international relations textbook with scant personal insights. Yet what shines through is Clinton’s joy in at last doing a job worthy of her intelligence and experience. No longer a cypher at her husband’s side, nor even a senator stuck in the stifling, stymied Washington machine, she has her own government Boeing 757, flying a million miles as diplomatic superhero.
Working for Barack Obama, who’d beaten her in such a close, bitter Democratic primary race, showed
magnanimity, her international profile gave her gravitas, and a photo of Clinton in dark shades on a military plane to Libya, scowling imperiously into her BlackBerry, gave rise to the internet meme “Texts from Hillary”, which even made her cool. In her Twitter biography, along with “FLOTUS [First Lady of the US]”, “US Senator”, “SecState” and “glass ceiling cracker”, she lists “hair icon”. And to Clinton-watchers, her disavowal of the helmet blow-dry, her long hair in a scrunchie as she emerged on to hot war-zone tarmac, signified her freedom at last from trivial and sexist judgements: Hillary Unbound. Moreover, the secretary of state is constitutionally above domestic politics: she could not even attend the Democratic convention. Did she enjoy this break from the shrilly partisan? “Having gone through the crucible of the 2008 campaign, it was liberating,” she says. “It really was. And I felt that I was doing an important job. It wasn’t about me; it was about my country. I don’t know whether that’s a personal trait or a gender-linked trait, but it’s easier for me to go out and say ‘we’ and ‘us’ than it is to say ‘I’. So for me, being out there representing the United States was a joy.”
The highlight, she tells me, was meeting Aung San Suu Kyi, “whom I’d admired from afar for so many years, and to sit down at that first dinner – where I show up wearing a white jacket and she shows up wearing a white jacket, my hair is pulled back and her hair is classically pulled back – and we just start talking like we’re old friends. Seeing this woman who had been through so much, so determined and gracious and smart.”
The Burmese dissident, for decades a figurehead, expressed her wish to become a “flesh and blood politician”. Clinton cautioned that this is not for the faint-hearted, and she’d certainly know. “Anybody who gets into the public arena… in any kind of political setting,” she says, “has to know full well that it’s a brutal, unforgiving environment.”
Isn’t she daunted herself at returning to the media onslaught? “It doesn’t bother me any more,” she says flatly. “Because my view is, I’m going to say what I believe and people will either agree or they won’t.”
As for the idea she is too rich to understand ordinary concerns: “Of course, I know how hard life is. Bill and I had student loans. Neither of us was born with any kind of... social standing and wealth. We were very fortunate because he was in public life for a long time, but the flip side is that we really had to hustle to put together the resources that we needed once we got outside the White House – we couldn’t go to some family estate or some beautiful home. We had to get out there and do it for ourselves.”
The word “hustle” to describe the grubby business of fundraising is quintessential Clinton. She is not one for euphemisms or bottled-up feelings: State Department officials were often startled by her off-piste bluntness, chiding North Koreans leaders for not pushing forward human rights, for instance.
And maybe it is useful for Clinton to have a reason to remind voters that,
for all her insider connections, she is no Bush or Kennedy. In her first, far more revealing memoir, Living History, she describes a childhood in suburban Park Ridge, Illinois. Her Methodist father, Hugh, a draper, was so thrifty, if she or her brothers left the top off the toothpaste he’d throw it out the window so that they would have to go search for it – even in the snow – as a reminder not to waste. Her mother, Dorothy, had survived a cruel Depression-era childhood, abandoned by her own mother and sent by train across America aged eight, in sole charge of her three-year-old sister, to live with harsh, unloving grandparents. It was Dorothy’s plight, she says, that inspired her first career, as a legal advocate for neglected children.
Clinton was a diligent student, with her bottle-bottom glasses and limitless drive. Arriving at Wellesley College in 1965, she recalls, “All the girls seemed not only richer but more worldly than I.” They smoked coloured cigarettes and talked about summers in Europe, while she spent every August in a lakeside cabin with no indoor plumbing. B ill, whom she met at Yale Law School, was of the same bright, ordinary stock: raised by a single mother who, by Hillary Clinton’s account, wore false eyelashes and full make-up every day of her life and was aghast at her daughter-in-law’s blue-stocking style.
Yet Bill – large, charismatic, expansive – opened up her world. “My husband,” she says, “has been a great encourager and guide for me to try things that were frankly outside my comfort zone. I mean, I’d never travelled outside the US until I met Bill Clinton! So off we’d go to England, back to Oxford to see his old stomping grounds.
“It sounds silly now, because I’ve been to 112 countries as secretary of state, but that was a big step for me. My family didn’t do things like that. Or making up my mind whether to run for Senate: he said, ‘It’s totally your decision, but let me tell you why I think that would be a great idea...’ He has always been the person who has said, ‘You can do this, even though you don’t think you can’.”
I ask how their relationship has changed since she stopped being Bill’s political helpmeet and he became hers. “It’s funny,” she says, “because from the moment we began dating, we were helping each other. I’d take notes for him when he had to miss a class; he would take a look at a paper I was writing and make suggestions… Even when he was governor [of Arkansas] and I was practising law full time, I’d discuss cases and he would do the same with me.
“When I was First Lady, I did everything I could to help him with healthcare; when I was in the Senate he was very supportive, and then certainly as secretary of state. It’s a mutually supportive relationship.”
In the 16 months since she left the State Department she’s written her memoir, but also enjoyed normal life: clearing out her closets and watching
House of Cards. Does she think that drama portrays Washington more accurately than The West Wing?
No, she says. “I’m not saying there’s no skulduggery and all kinds of bad behaviour that goes on, but it’s totally unbelievable that it could go on as long as it has and not be discovered, particularly in the age of cellphones and so much else.
“The West Wing might have been too politically tilted towards the Democratic party, towards a more liberal agenda, but the relationships within the White House really had the ring of credibility.”
It has also been the longest period neither she nor Bill have been in public office. “We really like to hang out with each other,” she says. “We do a lot of hill-walking, walking our dogs, watching television,” she says. “Bill [records] everything so we binge-watch all these programmes. Going out for dinner. Taking the time to just be with each other. Both of us are reading constantly, engaged in a never-ending conversation, ‘Did you see this? Have you read this yet?’ I’m so grateful that I have such a broad base of experiences with my husband that we never... you know, never quit.”
At this point, the spirit of Monica Lewinsky, of all those women – Paula Jones, Gennifer Flowers – hangs in the room. Clinton will only say she covered his infidelities in her first book – “Gulping for air, I started crying and yelling at him” – and that, although she has not read Lewinsky’s recent Vanity
Fair essay, she wishes Monica well. Now, Bill is 67, has lost a ton of weight on a vegan diet after his quadruple heart bypass (leaving him somehow shrunken), the appetites of the flesh have receded and it seems that Clinton has what she valued all along: a marriage of minds.
Critics of her time as secretary of state have scorned her tangible achievements: she could not stop the war in Syria, her famous ‘reset’ of relations with Russia did not prevent later incursions into Ukraine. But Clinton advocates what she calls “smart power”, befriending civil society in nations emerging from dictatorship, trying to aid democratic progress.
Clinton’s voice in Hard Choices rings most true when talking about women, about how foreign presidents and even her own staff glazed over when she argued the security case for backing global women’s rights: the more
Since she left office, she’s written hermemoir, done out her closets and watched House of Cards
educated and economically active a nation’s women, the fewer its extremists.
She was incensed when an unnamed Obama official described support for girls’ education in Afghanistan as her “pet rock”. Her feminism has been unswerving, even as First Lady, when it would have been easier to smile and issue cookie recipes or champion an uncontroversial campaign such as Michelle Obama’s drive against child obesity. Clinton has stood firm on contentious issues such as women’s reproductive rights.
She refused to take her husband’s name until he stood for a second term as Arkansas governor, and then insisted on Hillary Rodham Clinton. During his first presidential bid, a batch of her stationery came back minus her middle name; she made them print it again.
Clinton says in our lifetimes so much has improved for women, except that women, especially in public life, are judged ever more on their looks.
She says, “When I was a young woman, there wasn’t the emphasis on appearance. My friends and I weren’t fashion icons; we just wanted to look presentable. There wasn’t the constant holding up of a certain model of what a woman’s body is supposed to look like, and the veiled message that you don’t measure up, that you’re not good enough. Maybe it’s the media selling products or we always look for ways to distinguish ourselves, and they are often shallow and trivial and cruel.”
Recently Clinton accepted an honorary degree from the University of St Andrews, alongside the Cambridge classicist Mary Beard.
“She and I got talking and she’d had such a horrible year because she’d made a TV programme and had been constantly attacked for her looks.
“Now she was a woman more interested in her mind than the latest make-up trends, but even she, someone of such distinction, an acknowledged
‘Many young women are editing themselves – they are not perfect enough. As if anybody is’
expert who is certainly mature... I am telling you, a man of her age would never have been treated that way. And so, what are we doing to ourselves?”
Do the attacks on her – the hair and pantsuit gags, the 2008 Facebook group “Hillary, make me a sandwich” – bother her?
“I’m pretty used to it,” she says. “I have endured a lot over many years. But so many young women coming up behind with the very messages you’re talking about, they get paralysed. They’re constantly editing themselves – they’re not perfect enough. As if anybody is.”
Later, down at Barnes & Noble, I find a stall selling unofficial Clinton merchandise: T-shirts with the logo, “It’s a man’s world, but a woman should run it”. A bunch of Clinton supporters have camped out all night. “We want to give her a message,” one tells me. And what’s that? “Run! Just run!”
But her opponents are readying themselves, too. Republicans have questioned her health after a fall in which she banged her head; a blood clot was discovered and treated. Brain damage has even been rumoured, but with her punchy, agile answers, I see no sign. And she has promised, if she stands, to make public her medical files.
In the book-signing queue is a cable TV shock-jock trying to make fun of her fans. “Vote Hillary Clinton, if you hate your mom,” he says. The men who despise her, who have likened Clinton to “everyone’s angry first wife”, can’t fathom her appeal. But to many American women she represents timeless female stoicism: she followed her man to Arkansas, leaving behind a stellar legal career in Washington DC; she endured his affairs, the tears and shame; she fought valiantly to be president but was ultimately beaten by a younger, slicker man.
So, six years since her failed bid, is America more ready for a woman president? Her supporters at the book signing are adamant: Clinton is proven, experienced, knows how to operate Congress better than Obama. Several tell me her election would be even more significant than that of the first African-American president. So does Clinton agree? “There will always be the hardcore discriminators and doubters about women and women’s abilities,” she says. “I have no illusions that it will still be an issue for whoever puts her hat into the ring, whether it’s president, governor or anything else, but I think we’re further along than we were in that discussion.”
And then Clinton signs my book, the very first of many thousands, before the Secret Service sweep her away onwards towards an American public asking just one question. But this morning it does not seem a very hard choice at all.
‘From the moment we began dating we were helping each other, Clinton says of husband Bill
Daughter Chelsea (left) is due to make Clinton a grandmother later this year
Clinton discusses reactions to her stance on women’s rights in her book
THE BIG STORY Mother, wife, lawyer, politician… Clinton wears many hats, and even jokingly includes ‘hair icon’ in her Twitter biography