Hillary, Whitewater, and our interview with Elle.

Elle’s interview about Hillary, Whitewater.

In early March, 1994, while most of the media fumed about their lack of access to First Lady Hillary Clinton, Elle magazine issued a stunning press release about their interview with the First Lady. The interview was the first indication of what Mrs. Clinton’s communications strategy was going to be regarding Whitewater.

I’ve reprinted below most of the news release, along with a transcript of a follow-up conversation I had about the interview with Elle’s managing editor, Elaina Richardson. The full interview will be published in the May issue of Elle.

Press Release from Elle magazine about their interview
with Hillary Clinton —

First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton lashed out at her Whitewater critics and the press. . .in an exclusive interview with Meryl Gordon, a contributing writer for Elle magazine.

“This is a well-organized and well-financed attempt to undermine my husband, and by extension, myself, by people who have a different political agenda or have another personal or financial reason for attacking us. Taking it for what it is, which is pretty blatant, you can’t take it seriously.” Mrs. Clinton said in the March 4 interview in the White House study, just hours before six White House staffers — including two members of the First Lady’s own staff — were subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury about any contacts on Whitewater.

In response to a question about the image problems caused by these continuing investigations into Whitewater, Mrs. Clinton said, “I know nothing bad happened — and that’s what everybody’s going to know, as they should know now — since they have yet to come forward with anything other than the wildest kind of paranoid conspiracies. You just don’t pay attention to it. You have to do the best you can, refute it and counter it. But I am just not interested in spending my days falling into the trap that the fomenters of all this want us to — which is to become isolated and on the defensive and diverted. I’m not going to let that happen.”

Mrs. Clinton said that Republican opponents have been relentless in their efforts to discredit her, from the current attack on her legal role in the Whitewater case to snide comments about her cookie-baking skills during the 1992 campaign. “It’s all of the same pot,” she said. “It’s designed to find a way of undermining me. If one thing doesn’t work, these folks shift gears and try something else. It’s so transparent to me.”

Asked about the controversial late 1993 American Spectator article alleging numerous infidelities by her husband, Mrs. Clinton responded, “They’ll try anything. What’s so sad is that the so-called legitimate press, because of commercial pressures as best I can figure out, gets sucked into it. The kind of things that get printed and allowed to be said without corroboration and substantiation and evidence. Even the logic is bad.”

A few minutes later in the interview, Mrs. Clinton summarized her feelings: “I am stunned at the level to which malevolent, malicious false gossip has been permitted to become newsworthy.”

After I had a chance to review Elle’s press release, I called managing editor Elaina Richardson to get a sense of how the interview was conducted.

HILLARY CLINTON QUARTERLY: Could you tell us how the interview was arranged with the White House?

ELLE:  Whitewater was mentioned as a topic but it wasn’t set up as an interview about Whitewater. The original genesis of the interview, we put in a request several months before the interview took place and at that time what we wanted was to have two journalists go speak to Mrs. Clinton specifically about health care. We were going to have them ask questions that came out of their personal experience and give it a lot of human interest. The White House refused, they rejected that idea, because they didn’t like the idea of a two-to-one set up. The next thing that happened to us, Meryl Gordon spoke to Mrs. Clinton on the phone, because she was profiling Maggie Williams for us. They had a nice conversation then, so the way things worked out, we were given permission for Meryl to interview the First Lady. As we got down to the specifics, what that would be about, it was agreed to have a pretty wide ranging talk, what life’s like, how are you holding up under these pressures, including Whitewater.

HILLARY CLINTON QUARTERLY: The negotiations, if you can call them that, were they with Lisa Caputo?

ELLE: It was primarily Lisa and the writer.

HILLARY CLINTON QUARTERLY: Hillary’s response, as reported in your press release, was fairly strong. Who initially brought up the issue of Whitewater?

ELLE: It emerged when Meryl Gordon was telling a story that she had overheard about Whitewater. That initiated the conversation, and they went “on the record” at that point. It came out of the opening remarks between the two of them.

HILLARY CLINTON QUARTERLY: From what your writer told you, was Mrs. Clinton feeling as indignant as she sounded?

ELLE: My understanding is that she was very self-possessed, very poised, it wasn’t in any sense an angry rant. She was very thoughtful and calm, but she was also very understandably angry. The First Lady felt very strongly that she had done nothing wrong. She was very irritated by the suggestion that she had done otherwise.

HILLARY CLINTON QUARTERLY: I had gotten the impression from someone else on your staff that perhaps the White House was not totally delighted that parts of the interview were released ahead of time. Was that your sense as well?

ELLE: It is. A lot of my sense of it, too, is that obviously they have a lot of things on their mind. Partly, to be fair to them, the piece was originally scheduled for June, and they were not pleased that we were going to pull it forward a month.

HILLARY CLINTON QUARTERLY: Did someone call to complain?

ELLE: We had some calls from the press office, yes, basically saying they wished we hadn’t released the information because their expectation had been that nothing would appear until the June issue came out.

HILLARY CLINTON QUARTERLY: Do you think Elle will suffer any consequences, or are they being understanding about it?

ELLE: I haven’t chatted with them since then, but my hope would be that everybody understands that as journalists, when we were the only source on a breaking news story, there really wasn’t any way we could not run with it. We really have gone out of our way to be responsible about this. We’re not trying to pretend we have anything more than we have.

HILLARY CLINTON QUARTERLY: Were there other Whitewater-related comments in the story that you didn’t put into your news release?

ELLE: There are some other nice insights in the story, but as far as Whitewater is concerned, we’re not holding anything back.

HILLARY CLINTON QUARTERLY: Thank you for your time!

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