Hillary Clinton - Running For President
By Caroline Overington
Australian Women's Weekly, August 2015
WHAT IS GOING on with the United States? It claims to be the capital of freedom, and of equal opportunity,
and yet there it stands, pretty much alone among the mature democracies in never having had a female leader.
Australia has had one, as has Britain. Germany has got one right now. India, Israel, Iceland, Ireland, even Indonesia have been there, but not the Land of the Free.
One woman once got close: Hillary Rodham Clinton ran for the White House in 2008, but then her own party put Barack Obama up instead. Still, you can’t sit around whinging and whining. You’ve got to get up, dust yourself off and get back on the horse.
Hillary took the job as Secretary of State, which is like being Foreign Minister, except
it’s for the most powerful nation on earth. During her term, the US shot and killed its most wanted man, Osama bin Laden.
Now there is talk that Hillary again wants to be President. As a
former First Lady, former US Senator, former Secretary of State,
she’s probably the most qualified candidate ever. Will she run?
She is choosing her words carefully, but here is what Hillary
said during her exclusive interview with The Australian
Women’s Weekly in New York, “Forty-nine countries, at my
last count, have had a female head of state [and is it not
interesting that she’s keeping count?] We – the US – are not
among that group. Many other distinguished countries, including
your own, happen to be. I was thrilled when we elected the first
African-American President. Now I think we need to do the
same for women.”
Then, a little later in the conversation, Hillary – who at the
time of writing was about to become a grandmother – said,
“You know, there have been plenty of grandfathers in the
Together, those two statements are about as close as Hillary has ever come to confirming the rumours that she will run. As such, the next question surely must be: can she win? And if she wins, what kind of President – what kind of person, what kind of leader – is Hillary Clinton? Let’s find out.
HILLARY CLINTON CANNOT become President of the United States because she is too old. That is the line that Hillary’s opponents like to put around. So, let’s cut to the chase, shall we: Hillary Clinton is not young. She’s about to turn 67, but how old is that in the context of the US Presidency? Well, if Hillary were to run (and to win) in 2016, she’d be 69 before she was able to move into the White House. That’s 20 years older than Barack Obama was, but it is younger than the current Vice-President Joseph Biden is now and younger, by some months, than Ronald Reagan was when he got elected.
Mr Reagan deflected questions about his age with tremendous wit, saying he refused to use the youth and inexperience of his opponents against them. Hillary tells The Weekly that she intends to make an asset of her experience, too.
“Age is a factor that voters have a right to take into account,” she says, settling back into a lovely old armchair in her room at an historic New York hotel, where she’s surrounded by books and flowers, and security guards. “But
I think people should be judged on who they are and not how old they are.
“My mother lived a very vital, fully intelligent life until the age of 92. Plus, I still feel pretty much the same on so many fronts like when I was 21. At the same time, I feel really grateful for all the experiences I’ve had.”
Ah yes, the experiences. Where even to begin? Hillary’s back story is well known in the States, perhaps less so in Australia. She’s rich now, but doesn’t come from
a wealthy background. Hillary’s father, Hugh Rodham, was a draper. Her mother, Dorothy Howell Rodham, was a stay-at-home mother whose own background was terrible (abandoned by her own mother at the age of eight, Dorothy was sent by train with her three-year-old sister across America to live with her harsh grandmother).
As a child, Hillary was bright and, after blitzing through her local public high school, ended up at Wellesley College and then Yale, where she met Bill Clinton. He hadn’t had it easy, either, having been raised by his grandparents and a single mum in the Southern state of Arkansas. The Clintons were still in their early 20s when they hooked up. Hillary had already been featured in Life magazine for being an outstanding young student, but she had never been overseas. Bill took her to England, where he had studied at Oxford, and opened her world.
The couple married in 1975 and their daughter, Chelsea, was born in 1980. Hillary was by then 33, ancient for the times. She has never spoken all that much about why she had only one child and she’s had to put up with people saying it’s because she was ruthless in her political ambitions, but in his book, My Life, published in 2004, Bill Clinton said they “badly wanted to have a child and had been trying for some time without success”. In the summer of 1979, by which time he was already Governor of Arkansas, they made an appointment with a fertility specialist in San Francisco, but before they could get there, Hillary got pregnant. Her waters broke, three weeks early, at the Governor’s mansion. State troopers got her to hospital as she sucked on cubes of ice to help manage the pain. Chelsea was breech and Hillary needed a caesarean section. They were never able to have another baby.
Hillary tells The Weekly that her daughter’s arrival was joyous, but the early weeks were as difficult for her as they can be for anyone.
“I remember when Chelsea was just a little baby and she was having one of those baby times when she was crying inconsolably,” she says. “I was rocking her and I finally said, ‘You know, Chelsea, you’ve never been a baby before and I’ve never been a mom before, and we are going to have to work this out together.’”
Now, Chelsea has grown up and, with husband Marc Mezvinsky, is expecting a baby of her own. Given that Hillary knows first-hand how difficult those early years of motherhood can be – here comes a bombshell – if Chelsea at any point reached out and said, “Mom, I’m not coping. I just need you”, Hillary is adamant that she would immediately withdraw from the Presidential race.
“I would do anything for my daughter,” she says and, for a moment, she’s fierce. “I will be there. I mean that. In any way that she wants.” Then Hillary laughs and adds, “But she will probably be saying the opposite, ‘Enough, Mom! You can move out now!’ I’m hoping that she wants me there as often as I want to be there, so that I can help her, as my mother helped me.”
Hillary’s own mother died a little over three years ago. In her new book, Hard Choices (Simon & Schuster), Hillary writes, “Mom was a fighter her entire life, but it was finally time to let go ... I spent the next few days going through her things at home, paging through a book, staring at an old photograph, caressing a piece of beloved jewellery.
I found myself sitting next to her empty chair in the breakfast nook and wishing more than anything that I could have one more conversation, one more hug.”
She tells The Weekly that “everything is profoundly different” now that her mother – her chief supporter – is gone. “I’m so well aware of how lucky I was. I had my mother for so long. I have friends who lost their mothers as children, or young adults, and I can hardly imagine the pain and anguish they have lived with, trying to imagine what it would have been like to have their mother at their wedding or their graduation,” she says.
“So I was very fortunate. My mother lived to 92. She was vibrant, intelligent, good company until the very end. I miss her every day, I think about her all the time.” And Hillary still hears her, in her own voice, just as she’s done her whole life.
“I remember when Chelsea was about four and she was running outside to play, and I said, ‘Chelsea, don’t forget, put on a sweater’, and she goes, ‘But I’m not cold’, and I go, ‘But, please put it on’, and she goes, ‘Mom, if you’re cold, you put on a sweater’. [That’s when] you start to hear your own mother in your voice,” she says.
Hillary took four months’ maternity leave in the Governor’s mansion after Chelsea was born. As Governor, Bill was able to work from home. The delicious privilege of such an arrangement caused pangs of guilt. One of the first things Bill Clinton did as President was sign a bill to extend (unpaid) maternity leave to more Americans. Unfortunately for Hillary, it was also in the White House that Bill left what has proved to be an inerasable blot on his copybook: he had a fling with an intern, Monica Lewinsky, and in the process, tore both his legacy and almost his marriage apart.
Hillary’s distress and dismay at those events was laid bare in an earlier book, Living History, published in 2003. She could “hardly breathe”, she said then, when Bill told her that rumours of an affair were true. “I started crying and yelling at him, ‘What do you mean? Why did you lie to me?’ ’’ she wrote. “I was furious and getting more so by the second. He just stood there saying over and over again, ‘I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I was trying to protect you and Chelsea’.”
Hillary says she felt “nothing but profound sadness, disappointment and unresolved anger” in those days after the affair was revealed, but a decade has now gone by and her new book, which runs to 600 pages, makes plain that she’s put it behind her. Bill encouraged Hillary to run for the Senate in New York and he offered immense support when she became Secretary of State (after which, she stopped telling him her secrets, including the fact that the US was about to try to kill bin Laden.) Probably they thought the affair was behind them, but then Monica popped up again earlier this year, in a glamorous photo shoot for Vanity Fair, going over all the old ground again.
It feels awkward to bring up the affair in the interview with Hillary, but she makes it easy, coolly acknowledging the distress it caused and the fact that she has moved on – on Bill’s last day in office, she waltzed down the halls of
the White House in his arms. For this couple, facing the trauma head on paid enormous dividends. While Hillary wouldn’t presume to lecture anyone else about their partnerships, she does have some advice for those people who are facing personal challenges.
“I don’t think it’s possible to speak for every person,” she says. “It’s so unique. There may be common experiences [in long marriages], but everyone feels them differently. My view has always been that I support my friends – I support women – to make responsible choices. And sometimes, the responsible choice is to stay.”
She pauses, then adds, “Not always. Sometimes, the responsible decision will be to go. It’s hard to make broad, generalised statements about when that might be appropriate because it’s so personal. But that’s what friends are for. You need somebody who will listen and support you, to offer ideas, but not substitute their judgement.”
There were people who thought Hillary should leave Bill, but she still loved him. And when she saw how horribly humiliated he was, she wanted not only to throttle but to comfort him, and so the marriage survived.
By many if not all accounts, they now live amiably together, walking the dogs and watching political drama House Of Cards, which makes it sound like they’re retired. They’re not. She’s definitely not. Hillary has just finished her Hard Choices book tour (during which she was much criticised by the media for the use of Gulfstream jets and Presidential suites, but members of the public queued for hours to see her.)
Earlier this month, she launched a new initiative, No Ceilings, designed to break down those barriers that prevent half the population – women – from achieving their potential. It’s an issue about which she’s passionate. As Secretary of State, Hillary encountered leaders who would not shake her hand because she was a woman. Still, of all the countries she might have criticised for entrenched sexism, it was Australia that got a special mention in her book.
“It’s an unfortunate reality that women in public life still face an unfair double standard,” Hillary wrote. “The former Prime Minister Julia Gillard of Australia has faced outrageous sexism, which shouldn’t be tolerated in any country.”
Hillary tells The Weekly that she was acutely aware of the attacks on Ms Gillard because the two women met several times while Ms Gillard was in office, and Hillary was dismayed to see her friend being described as a witch on placards, as “deliberately barren” by political opponents and as having “small breasts, huge thighs and a big red box” on a stunt menu, distributed as some kind of nasty joke at a fundraising dinner for a conservative politician. ➤
For Hillary, it was akin to watching an old movie. She has copped criticism for her hair (while Secretary of State, she took to wearing scrunchies because who can really be bothered with hot tongs and blow-dryers when you’ve got 112 countries to visit?); her clothes (pantsuits are so much easier when you’re on the move); and her weight (it fluctuates, which apparently matters to somebody). Hillary used to get upset, but now, like Germany’s steely Angela Merkel, she tends to let it slide, for the drivel that it is.
Was Ms Gillard’s mistake to let the criticism get to her?
“It’s a very hard question to answer,” Hillary says. “You have to stand up to it. You have to try to make it unacceptable, beyond the pale, in political discourse. But how you do it and the impressions that your efforts leave are often unpredictable.
“Humour is always a good tool, but not always sufficient. Much of the attack, as I saw it from afar, on Prime
Minister Gillard, was really beyond that, beyond the bounds of appropriate political discourse. It’s one thing
if a shock jock on the radio – we have a lot of those – says something that’s sexist, but when people in governmental positions or elected positions join in, then it’s not just disrespecting one woman, it’s disrespecting all women.”
Hillary says she encouraged the former PM to get on the front foot and was impressed when Ms Gillard launched into the so-called “misogyny speech” on the floor of Parliament, attacking then Opposition Leader Tony Abbott. “I thought it was very brave,” she says. “I thought that it was a well-argued rebuttal of the sexism that had been deployed against her, but also putting it into a larger context, by pointing out that it should not be acceptable to engage in that kind of discriminatory speech and behaviour.”
Of course, Hillary is keenly aware of the fact that Mr Abbott has said many things over the years that have made women cringe, such as the time he told The Weekly that a woman’s virginity was the greatest gift she could give her husband and when he prefaced some remarks about the cost of electricity by saying, “What the housewives of Australia need to understand as they do the ironing ...”
Asked directly what Australian women should do about a bloke who says things like that, Hillary looks firm.
“Laugh,” she says.
Laugh at the Prime Minister?
“I think that may be the best response,” she says, nodding grimly.
To be clear, Hillary is not saying that Mr Abbott is a joke of a man, or a joke of a Prime Minister, but clearly she thinks he’s living in the dark ages when it comes to women. Yet she holds out some hope for him personally, saying, “He has a woman Foreign Minister, a high-ranking, accomplished woman. I’ve met her, Minister [Julie] Bishop. I’m sure she’s making contributions.”
Ever the statesman, Hillary is also quick to point out that she has “no opinion about the outcome of the election in Australia because there are many issues. Voters make up their minds based on a whole range of concerns. But I did
think it would have been a good step for people on both sides of the political aisle to say, ‘We have plenty of reasons to support or to oppose the Prime Minister, but we stand against the injection of sexism into our politics’. We need to get beyond that.”
Lest anyone think this adds up to future difficulties between a President Clinton and a Prime Minister Abbott, well, that’s obviously not true.
“Our two nations are great friends,” Hillary says. “Our values, our democratic traditions, our cultures are so similar.” Indeed, she speaks warmly throughout the interview of Australia – she visits fairly often and has a close friend from college now living in Adelaide – and more generally of Australians, with perhaps one exception, Julian Assange.
Hillary was Secretary of State when Assange leaked tens of thousands of top-secret diplomatic cables, in which US diplomats spoke in sometimes withering tones about politicians in their host countries. There was talk that he’d be extradited, but Hillary insists that, as far as she’s aware, the US did not want to arrest him.
“It’s the intention of the Swedish government to arrest him on rape charges,” Hillary says. “But as far as
I know, there are no charges against him here [in the US]. My understanding is he’s hiding out in the Ecuadorian embassy because he doesn’t want to be returned to Sweden to face the charges brought against him by two women.”
True, but he humiliated her country. What punishment does he deserve?
“Oh, I don’t know that I would use that phrase,” Hillary says. “He caused us a lot of bother. People’s names were mentioned in sensitive cables that could have resulted in quite dire consequences.
“We had to move people. We had to bring home ambassadors because of their honest reporting about [former Libyan leader Muammar] Gaddafi and others. So he [Assange] caused a lot of annoyance and we certainly reacted to that. But as far as I know there is no court in the US looking for him, only courts in Sweden that are looking for him.’
Were Assange to leave the embassy and be arrested, well, that would be an issue for many Australians, but in a global sense, it’s relations between China, the US and Australia in the Pacific region that are more likely to create diplomatic tension (in this context, Australia has been described as the most desirable girl at the ball: both of the big powers wants to dance with us.) What does Hillary think – does Australia have to choose?
“No,” she says, but then immediately adds a rider: “But I think you also have to keep a clear head about how dependent your economy becomes on China, and to keep looking for ways to diversify and protect your resources and economic sovereignty. And to keep a close friendship between Australia and the United States sends a very strong signal that you are not choosing,” she adds. “You are going to do what’s best for Australia, which is to maintain your independence, and protect your resources and be smart about how you grow your economy.”
HILLARY CLINTON WILL not announce her decision to run for the White House before January. She is a walk-up start, but there are other contenders, among them a fellow Democrat, Elizabeth Warren, who would neutralise Hillary’s gender card; and, on the Republican side, Jeb Bush, who would seem to have it all going for him – he’s got money, and he’s a former governor of Florida, which has lots of electoral college votes, plus he’s Spanish speaking – but then again, he’s a Bush.
Both are very much younger, and their stories are fresher than Hillary’s, which is why it didn’t help when her opponents leapt so gleefully upon the news that Hillary was soon to be a grandma.
For her part, Hillary can’t wait. “I am anxious to become a grandmother,” she says. “I really am excited to support my daughter in her mothering, as my mother supported me.”
She has some advice ready for Chelsea, should she need it – “unconditional love, attention, and guidance” – and, while this may surprise those people who saw the pain that Ms Gillard went through when she announced plans to knit a kangaroo for little Prince George, Hillary has also decided to ignore the haters, and take up the needles.
“I haven’t knitted in a long time,” she says. “My mother was a great knitter and I’m thinking there is a drawer, when she lived with us in Washington, where I stored her needles and her yarn, so I’m thinking of going to take that out.”
As to what she’ll be called, post- baby, Hillary hasn’t decided: Nana, grandma, President, they all sound pretty good. Then, too, there’s the matter of what to call Bill, not only after he’s become a Pop, but if Hillary gets elected. Told that Ms Gillard’s partner, Tim Mathieson, used to be known as the “first bloke”, Hillary nods and says, “not bad” but personally, she likes “first mate”. ■