Donnie Radcliffe’s new book, Hillary Clinton: A First Lady for Our Time, was released in September. Biographer Donnie Radcliffe has covered every First Lady since Pat Nixon, and wrote a biography about Barbara Bush. A reporter for the Washington Post, Ms. Radcliffe spoke to us from her office.
HCQ: One gets the impression that Hillary Clinton is a very private person. Did you find her to be a difficult person to get to know?
DR: Most people are not going to enfold you into their personal life if they haven’t met you before. My sense of Hillary was that she bared her soul as much as she cared to during the campaign, and that she thought that she gave a lot of herself and told a lot about herself. I think we came away learning a lot about her from that period. In many respects, we know more about her at this stage of her husband’s presidency than we did about other first ladies at the same point. She’s been far more public.
HCQ: You mention in your book that she came to realize that she needed to control herself and her comments better than she had during the campaign. Do you have the sense that she’s guarded, controlled?
DR: I think she’s learned like Barbara Bush to be guarded, that you have to be cautious. You can say things that have such wide reaction potential. Hillary probably is the kind of person who is inclined to say what she thinks at the instant that she thinks it, or did. She’s learned that it’s dangerous to do that all the time.
HCQ: You talked to many of her friends and colleagues. How forthright do you think they were? Do you think they’re protective of her?
DR: Friends are going to be protective of friends. They were anxious to show her as they know her – if she comes across in a very favorable way, that’s their perception of her. You can go looking for all the negatives that you hear in the form of rumor and gossip. Once you try to get that nailed down, to get the source to go on the record, to be identified, they don’t do that. All the rumors and stories that have gone around for a year — they’re all titillating and fascinating to read and hear about — but you can’t find anything to substantiate them.
HCQ: How was writing about Hillary different from writing about Barbara Bush in terms of the access you had and the kinds of interviews you were getting?
DR: I had a great deal of access to Barbara Bush. There wasn’t a heck of a lot known about her at first. She was extremely cooperative after a while. Once I was able to see her, I saw her on a number of occasions and she was always very cooperative, and tried to give me as much information as possible, because there wasn’t a lot of information out there about her. Hillary, on the other hand, had so many interviews during the campaign, that by the time they got to the White House, she’s such a different person, she had such a different goal, that it was really difficult to nail her down. That’s why these other reporters never got interviews. She managed how she was going to talk to people, in an orderly fashion. She was going to talk to the daily press. Then she was going to talk to the news magazines. Authors were not high on her list. I had very little cooperation, in any at all, at the very beginning, and I just went out on my own and called everybody I could think of. Eventually, I got an interview with her toward the end of the book. As it turned out, the timing was very effective because it was the end chapter and I could write about a sense of her evolution up to that point.
HCQ: Mrs. Clinton has had a relatively privileged life. What do you think motivates her to get involved in the kinds of issues she’s championed with such intensity?
DR: I think she has a genuine sense of wanting to make a difference in the lives of others who have not been as fortunate. There is a definite tie in spirituality and her devotion to making a difference. She really believes in the idea of service and the Wellesley idea of doing good for others at all times. It’s linked together. It helps explain her lifelong habit of questioning ideas and opinions and trying to work them in to what is needed in society.
HCQ: In light of her “Politics of Meaning” speech, does she have an evangelical streak in her?
DR: My take on the speech is that if you look at her definition of politics, that it’s not just elective politics, but how people define and agree on their goals. If you think of her definition and that It’s really a politics of connection rather than meaning, you can understand better what she’s about.
HCQ: The New Republic claims that she’s anti-individual. Agree?
DR: I don’t believe that. I don’t believe she’s anti-individual at all. She’s told me and she’s said in numerous interviews that she believes there are different points in an individual’s life when they have different needs, and how they fulfill those needs is up to them.
HCQ: Clearly, the First Lady is having some type of cultural influence. Is it as pronounced as people in the media think it is?
DR: Absolutely, she’s an influence. Women come up to me that are younger than Hillary who say it’s OK for women to be smart again. It’s alright for women now to have a brain and be taken seriously. Obviously, women on a professional track certainly identify with her. What’s interesting about Hillary is that she can also appeal to those who haven’t had those advantages.
HCQ: Actually, thus far she seems to have ignored the poor, the homeless, and other disadvantaged groups.
DR: She’s been there for eight months, totally focused on health care reform. In that package is some evidence that she’s reaching out to those who are less advantaged, who are single parents, and don’t have health insurance. There is definitely a concern for them.
HCQ: Was she embarrassed by all the deference and praise she got at the hearings?
DR: She’s used to the praise and doubtless pleased by it. The interesting thing here is that Bill was probably pleased, too.
HCQ: She was so good at the hearings there’s more talk about Hillary running for president someday.
DR: She’s certainly building a constituency, just like she did in college. She certainly could run for president some day, but she has to earn her way. She couldn’t just coast into it. She’d have to go out and run for some office herself.
HCQ: What about the year 2000?
DR: That’s too soon. She’ll be about 53 then. I honestly think that even at 60, an age that a lot of men get into the presidency, she certainly could. It’s whether or not by that time she feels it’s what she wants to do. You know she says she does what she wants, what she feels is best for her, no matter what someone else thinks is best.
HCQ: Have you had a chance to speak to Hillary since you finished the book?
DR: Just in passing. “Hi,” or something like that. I’ve seen her but I haven’t talked to her. She really stayed out of sight throughout the summer after they returned from Tokyo. She was working on health care, so the access to her wasn’t all that great. There was some criticism about that. But you know she’s really put her future on the line in many ways. I don’t think there have been many first ladies, if any, that have done that. This is not just Bill Clinton’s future, but it’s her political future, too.
HCQ: In that respect, do you see the ’96 campaign being different from ’92 as far as Hillary is concerned? Will she be a campaign issue?
DR: She’ll be an issue in the ’96 campaign if health care reform flops. If it succeeds, maybe they’ll name her vice president. As they say around here these days, she’s reinvented the role of First Lady. There aren’t going to be wives of presidents who have to follow the traditional path anymore. They can make out of it what they wish, and I think the public will accept that. That by itself is a major shift.
HCQ: Bill Clinton come across as a very empathic individual — the way he expresses himself and relates to others. Hillary, on the other hand, doesn’t seem as empathetic a person as he does, and that might impact her future politically.
DR: I think you’re right — if there’s an area she has to work on, it would be that. I don’t know what it is. It’s a reserve, isn’t it? I’ve heard people say to her, “loosen up,” “lighten up.” This is one of the things that I say about her in speeches — she has a sense of fun, but it doesn’t come across a lot. People don’t realize that she can be a lot of fun. Bill is a very warm, embracing person, but she is a very warm to talk to in person, too. She is very, very cooperative in the sense that she answers her questions as fully as she cares to. You get the impression that she really wants to connect with you and make sure that you understand what she’s saying. There are a lot of people in political life who don’t care that much. They want to get you in and out and are always looking over your shoulder while their talking to you.
They’ve had a lot of hard knocks. They been in, what, 16 to 18 campaigns? So certainly she’s built up a reserve about her. But, you know, I was over at the White House the other day. It was one of those health care public relations events in the Rose Garden where they brought 125 people from around the country to talk about their health care problems. There were the Gores and the Clintons — they sat on a little platform with about 10 of these people, who have their stories. Hillary and Bill and the Gores spoke. After it was over, they broke up and went individually to talk with people. Hillary seemed extremely anxious to connect with these people and the children in the crowd. Obviously there’s a political aspect to it. I’ve seen Barbara Bush, Nancy Reagan, Rosalynn Carter all do this sort of thing. It’s something first ladies are expected to do, but I think there’s a genuineness to it, I think Hillary really likes kids and wants to see that they have the best possible life that society can give them.
HCQ: If that’s the case, her genuineness doesn’t come across in the media.
DR: The media focuses on a particular aspect of her and that’s the story they go after. I wasn’t surprised at all by her performance at the health care hearings. What amazed me was how many people were surprised by it. Which goes to show you that those people — they may think they know her, but they haven’t really paid that much attention.